Europe’s latest AV testing facilities key for swift autonomy adoption

The need for data sharing and commonality in burgeoning AV technologies is bringing new meaning to the words ‘proving grounds.'
Trust, safety, security. Those words form a mantra that needs to be in the forefront of the mind of every engineer, researcher and designer responsible for creating the brave new world of autonomous vehicles (AV). They are the standout “musts” of a lexicon that describes the dangers and challenges in making AVs a credible, and publicly accepted technology.
But there is one more “must”: testing. To engender public confidence, it has to be taken to a breadth and depth that the auto industry has never before experienced, involving every component and aspect of integrated autonomy. Playing a major part in this by supporting OEMs, suppliers and government legislators are dedicated testing facilities that will enable SAE Level 5 autonomy to become a high-volume reality.
These facilities are developing virtual tools in conjunction with the physical testing environment to speed the acceptance of every aspect of AVs. In Europe, a member of this select group is the recently unveiled AstaZero 5G facility in Borås, Sweden (others include Millbrook and HORIBA MIRA). It includes a high-speed multi-highway track and 5G capability and is a partnership between the Swedish state-owned Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE), and Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg.

AstaZero was established in 2014 (although early self-driving work was carried out by RISE in 2008). It describes itself as the first test facility in the world dedicated to automated driving and active safety of ground vehicles that is “able to simulate almost any traffic situation in any city on Earth.” It does this by blending virtual and real-world traffic complexity and pedestrians on its track, using 5G connectivity and distributed cloud services.
Peter Janevik, CEO of AstaZero said at the unveiling: “The automotive industry clearly needs better, faster and much more complex test facilities before new self-driving products can be safely tested on public roads.” He described the facility (which has the capability of replicating scenarios for almost any vehicle, including off-highway) as having the world’s most advanced test environment, the use of 5G providing the speed and accuracy that can replicate real-world traffic complexity “unlike anything that’s been seen before”.
Mixing and matching
It does so by mixing test vehicles with virtual vehicles; runs real-world applications in the test loop; and creates theoretical traffic environments in which autonomous vehicles share roads taking into consideration the effect of populated sidewalks (pavements) and even the presence of drones. Test areas at Borås include bicycle, city (significant in view of global population drift towards urbanization), rural road and the high-speed multi-lane.
Use of the 5G network (developed in partnership with WARA-CAT, Ericsson and PTS) includes the ability to work with telecom operators, plus end-user equipment and third-party developers. International data sharing is very much on Janevik’s agenda for AstaZero, which has collaborative partners in Europe, the US and the Far East, and wants to see an ISO standardized testing system to facilitate worldwide comparable results, vital to make the “massive amounts of testing for automated vehicles feasible."
The disruptors
In the UK, Peter Stoker, chief AV engineer at Millbrook Proving Ground, is well aware of this but also of the need to be cognizant of business disruptors. “Yes, there is now international discussion about co-operative systems, but we have to consider disruptors,” he explained. “These are not vehicle makers. Many are start-ups trying to push technological boundaries. How co-operative their technologies will be we really do not know.”
With its range of real-world driving facilities, Stoker sees Millbrook’s overarching AV task as achieving safe systems. “Ensuring that everything is developed in a safe and reliable way – and properly tested,” he said. “Some members of the car-buying public may already feel that ADAS is doing more than it should; others are expecting more of their vehicles than they can deliver. The auto industry needs to ensure that absolute trust is engendered.
“There is a lot of hype around. We need to put out a clear message that full [automated driving] will not come for cars in large numbers any time in the next few years,” he stressed, “and when it does there will be a selective roll-out in defined areas. Firstly, freight and ‘last mile’ use such as vehicle delivery on the same route every day. It will help society become used to self-driving vehicles.”
Nuclear partnership
Millbrook is expanding its AV test capability (it has 70km of test tracks) with more testbeds and is working with what may seem an unlikely partner, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). UKAEA has a division called RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) which has experience in automatically guided vehicles (AGV) – wheeled robots – tackling a variety of tasks.
UKAEA also has some 200 acres of land and 10km of roads at its Culham Science Center. The difference between Millbrook and Culham is that the former is a confidential environment with few pedestrians, while the latter is like a very secure university campus with many pedestrians. It has T-junctions, 2-storey buildings and common road scenes. “We have introduced extensive communications, linked with a telecoms equipment supplier to establish a connected environment and installed lots of masts,” Stoker said. The sites interlink via seamless information transfer.
All 5G development at Millbrook, though, comes under the aegis of a UK government-sponsored consortium to provide the transport element of the “5G Testbed”. The consortium, called AutoAir, includes McLaren Applied Technologies. Led by LTE vendor Airspan Networks, it is developing 5G New Radio (NR) for AVs.
The project will aim to make 5G NR technologies available for the validation and development of AVs. “We host the test bed but the consortium does the development,” added Stoker. There are 23 base units linked via a fiber backbone, providing a low latency, wide area 5G structure around the tracks, delivering the real-time Gbps connectivity regarded as crucial for SAE Level 3-5 validations.
Also new and a direct Millbrook project is a simulation suite that holds digital models (created by software specialist rFpro) of all the hard surface tracks at the facility to very high degrees of accuracy that can be used by OEMs and suppliers. “When project work is completed, a vehicle can be brought to Millbrook to correlate the virtual program and establish subsets,” Stoker said. “The key thing is demonstration of the technology and doing so in real environments. We are seeing insurance companies now becoming increasingly interested in our work at Millbrook.”
Stoker says he believes there will continue to be a need for physical testing of AVs to achieve verification although 80% to 90% of the development of a AV could be achieved virtually.
Limit of controllability
At HORIBA MIRA in the English Midlands, head of AV testing Chris Reeves agreed with the physical test-vehicle element, with simulation and modelling informing design and engineering stages and ultimately test and validation. “HORIBA MIRA developed the first urban driving environment for the testing of AV and associated infrastructure technologies,” Reeves said. “We are also creating a new facility that enables us to take systems to the limit of controllability.”
Reeves said that an important part of testing AV is to understand the “edge cases” – where simulation and modeling will play a major role because many of these tests will be impractical to reproduce within physical test environments. “For example,” he explained, “when a vehicle is being tested up to and beyond the limits of its controllability where it will be unsafe to do so in a physical environment.” Reeves says he believes the societal and environmental benefits of AVs are well understood: “Assuming we can create the level of trust required, we can help deliver an inclusive mobility solution.”
On the level
Working with OEMs, Reeves is experiencing two approaches to AV development by the auto industry. Firstly, the revolutionary – how to reach very high levels of automation (SAE Levels 4 and 5); secondly evolutionary, incremental progress to achieve more convenience and safety features using current and soon to emerge automated technology. Like Millbrook’s Stoker, he sees freight vehicles and particularly last mile applications as sensible steps on the incremental ladder to the high SAE Levels. “Not using it on a fully public road would enable control of the safety case and its requirements,” he said.
The Kyoto-headquartered measurement and testing systems producer HORIBA bought MIRA in 2015, a decade after the UK facility first became involved in autonomous vehicle testing, an early anticipator of a change that will totally reshape the global auto industry. Now it is expanding to incorporate a new facility 1070m in length and 300m maximum width to create flexible driving environments. HORIBA MIRA already has “multiple” test circuits embracing off-road and city driving areas.
When will we realistically see the mass appearance of AVs in Europe and the U.S.? There is no simple answer, Reeves said. “SAE Levels 4-5 on public roads are over a decade away. We will have mixed fleets on our roads for a very long time. For the foreseeable future people will enjoy taking part in the driving task.” Continue reading »