The next few years will witness an intensive development programme of advanced driver assistance, all pointing inexorably to that foregone future, the self-driving car. We’ve been given a peek behind usually dead-bolted doors, and the good news is JLR’s own take on tomorrow’s automotive autonomy does still involve you, the driver. For a while at least.
Dotted about across miles of top-secret testing facility at Gaydon in Warwickshire, various development cars are primed with the latest advances in driving technology. These devices are very close to production reality, designed to keep you in the driver’s seat while making that seat a little more comfortable.
Some of it seems almost trivial, but there’s a reason. ‘Safe Pullaway’ is a device to stop you rear-ending a stationary car ahead. The forward-facing camera detects an obstacle in close proximity to your front end and immediately deploys the brakes. It’s a system that JLR suspects will prove invaluable in stop-start traffic, while also reducing auto ’box mishaps when a car is in ‘D’ and its driver is planning a bit of ‘R’. A small thing, for small bumps, but time and money saved. And it’s a crucial insight into the intended automation that will increasingly dial out human error.
As is the height sensor JLR is calling ‘Overhead Clearance Assist’. Demonstrated in a Jaguar XE with a roof load, it uses existing camera technology reprogrammed to map the area above the car and warns the driver when they are about to get wedged in an entrance. A simple idea again, but one that spies the future necessity for vehicles to have this sort of physical self-awareness, ultimately through 360 degrees.
This is also being exploited by a lane positioning system that senses roadworks, such as cones and barriers, enabling the car to stay centred in narrower, less predictable road conditions with small amounts of automatic steering input.
Tomorrow’s automotive autonomy does still involve you, the driver. For a while at least.
It’s all very logical and impressive, but doesn’t feel exactly far reaching. In truth, these trial technologies are nascent building blocks for a much bigger, more ambitious creation, all hinged upon the zeitgeist that is ‘connectivity’. And this is where it starts to feel a lot more futuristic.
There is already a fleet of some 100 JLR vehicles beginning a series of trials on the public highway where each convoy is in constant communication, not just with itself, but with fixed road infrastructure. So a car that has stopped suddenly round a sharp bend can warn unsighted drivers down the road, or relay this information to an overhead gantry from where it can do the same.
Through a WiFi system the JLR convoys can automatically, and instantly, brake and accelerate in response to the behaviour of a lead vehicle. The cars are effectively synchronised in their road behaviour, so fast is the information relayed from one vehicle to the next. This immediacy maintains the distance between cars travelling even at high speeds, ensuring greater safety and significantly reducing congestion. A further benefit is that cars are able to travel at smaller safe distances, exploiting aerodynamic efficiency to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.
It’s part of a grand vision of our connected future, where all new cars within a given sphere of road network will be constantly in conversation, giving and receiving information in milliseconds that is passed on not just to the driver, but to the car itself. Self-drive advances, meanwhile, will mean that a car can receive a warning from over the horizon about a tailback or accident and take the necessary avoiding action to slow the car or quickly find an alternative route.
On board communication, constantly chatting to fixed and moving receivers, will also enable outside agencies to monitor and improve traffic flow, and warn drivers of emergency service vehicles approaching at speed.
This collective mission sounds very worthy and sensible, and it undeniably is, but there are still critical benefits to Jaguar Land Rover’s particular DNA. The vehicular self-awareness is a massive boon for off-road driving, with a series of development Range Rovers currently trialling advanced terrain recognition systems that adapt the cars’ speed pre-emptively to the road surface ahead. This can be deployed for comfort, but equally for attacking an obstacle at optimum entry speed.
Another piece of early-stage tech is ‘Surface ID’, a radar-based recognition programme that reads the ground in front of the car and adjusts the Terrain Response accordingly. JLR is currently compiling a database of surface conditions that will encompass the myriad variations in the types of sand, gravel or snow that you might encounter from one country to the next. Being able to pre-emptively adapt to these changing conditions maximises the car’s efficiency but also maintains critical off-road momentum. Add connectivity to the mix and you have an off-road convoy, relaying information about surface conditions, speed and obstacles, instantly adjusting both speed and terrain settings without any need for driver input.
Whether it’s on fast and congested public highways, or in the most challenging extremes of off-road driving, the defining principle in Jaguar Land Rover’s future-facing venture is improved awareness. What you react to today, your car will pre-empt on your behalf tomorrow. Super-connected, to each other and to the world around them, the next generation of JLR vehicles may not fully assume the reins, but they’ll be getting us used to the idea.