It’s one thing for an autonomous car to ride through a smooth, warm California tarmac, and absolutely another to do so on the frozen winter mix of northern Finland. Martti, a self-driving vehicle system homegrown in Finland, flaunted just this in a record-setting drive along a treacherous Laplandish road.
Martti is one of two cars designed by VTT Technical Research Center; it’s designed to ace through rough and icy conditions, while its “spouse” Marilyn is made for more typical urban drives. Different situations call for different sensors and strategies — for instance, plain optical cameras perform poorly on snowy roads, and lidar is less effective, so Martti will rely more on radar. But Marilyn has a rear-mounted lidar for better situational performance in traffic.
Recently Martti achieved what the researchers claim is the world first: driving totally on its own on a real snow-covered road (and hitting 40 KMPH, at that). Others from Yandex to Waymo have tested cars in snow, but from their reports these seem to have been in more controlled conditions. Martti’s drive took place in Muonio on a public road almost totally covered in snow.
“It probably also made a new world record in fully automated driving, making 40 km/h in a snowfall on snow-covered terrain without lane markings,” said project manager Matti Kutila in a VTT news release. “It could have had even more speed, but in test driving it is programmed not to exceed the limit of 40 km/h.”
“I’m not sure going any faster would be wise even on straightaways. But winter driving isn’t my specialty.”
The point isn’t to make a perfect consumer car for snowy weather, but to tackle the particular technical problems pertaining to it. For instance, can Martti’s optical instruments tweak the wavelength they use depending on conditions in order to gain a small but significant escalation in accuracy? What about sensing icy conditions and traction problems beforehand — how should the car collect this data, and how should it act until it’s completely sure what to do?
Inter-car networks may be critical for this, the researchers suggested, including both other autonomous cars on the road and specialty vehicles that can test for and broadcast information like snow pack, traction, road temperature and so on.
Ultimately this intelligence could prove highly practical for applications like self-driving tractors, logging trucks or emergency vehicles.
Soon the team will be going even deeper into the Nordic environment: “Next spring one of our vehicles can also be spotted in forest environments, when Marilyn and Martti get a new friend capable of tackling all terrains.”
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