Tyre testing with Continental’s Cruising Chauffeur driverless car…
Continental has been messing about with driverless cars for more than 50 years and last week Practical Motoring got behind the wheel of its Crusing Chauffeur self-driving tyre test vehicle at the Uvalde Proving Ground in Texas (and wasn’t allowed to touch a thing).
Autonomous cars are no longer science fiction. They’re here now and just about every single car maker on the planet either has its boffins busy with on-road testing of self-driving cars, or they’re about to begin such testing. Look at Volvo and Uber…they’ve just announced a production-ready robo-taxi. But it’s not just car makers fiddling around with autonomous vehicles.
Nope. Continental. Yes, the tyre company, well, if you ask it, it’s a technology company, has its own autonomous vehicle tech platform which it calls Cruising Chauffeur (we’ll explain exactly what it is later in the article). Indeed, Continental claims it has more software engineers working for it than Google, around 20,000 at locations around the world. And while it’s begun on-road testing of the system (Cruising Chauffeur) in Germany (back in 2017) with the expectation that from 2020 it will be available on production vehicles, Continental is already using an autonomous vehicle for its tyre testing.
And it has been for more than 50 years. Sort of. What? It’s true, back in 1968, Continental tweaked a Mercedes-Benz 250 Automatic so that it would, without the need for a driver, follow a wire glued onto a test track at the Contidrom (Continental’s proving ground) in Germany. Think of it as a giant Scalextric car. Engineers sat off to the side of the test track and controlled the steering and throttle remotely. At the time this was proper science fiction (more on this later in the article).
Fast forward to the end of last year (2018) and Continental rolled out its latest autonomous tyre testing vehicle, a Volkswagen Passat using the company’s Cruising Chauffeur tech for testing tyres on road and dirt (up to 20-inch wheels). It uses the company’s autonomous driving Cruising Chauffeur technology. This sounds a lot like the rise of the machines, I hear you say. Well, yes, and, no. Actually, just, yes.
According to Continental, its Cruising Chauffeur autonomous vehicle isn’t taking work away from humans, rather its improving the tyre testing process and allowing an engineer to do something more important. It’s all about test consistency and removing any form of human error (such as lapse in concentration) from affecting the results of the tyre test. While Continental’s original driverless car was limited to use on a bitumen road, its brand-new self-driving tyre testing vehicle can happily drive on gravel with a driver nowhere in sight.
“Driving the test vehicles places huge demands on the drivers, as even the smallest deviations on the test track can have a huge impact on the quality and comparability of the test results,” Continental said. Indeed, most engineers are behind the wheel for eight hours a day with a break every two hours. But even then, the drivers can’t pilot the vehicle as precisely as the autonomous vehicle.
Since 2016, a team led by Thomas Sych, head of tyre testing at Continental, has been working on the ‘tyre test of the future’ at its Uvalde Proving Ground in Texas. “We want to automate and thus standardise tyre tests to such an extent that we can identify even the smallest differences in the tires,” explains Sych.
“The automated vehicle enables us to reproduce processes precisely, meaning that every tire in the test experiences exactly the same conditions. This way, we can be sure that differences in the test are actually caused by the tires and not by the test procedure.”
And the benefits are two-fold, according to Continental, because not only is it getting a better quality tyre test via the autonomous vehicle, but the path the vehicle takes can be tweaked by a centimetre or so every few laps to ensure even wear across the test track. The track thus requires less maintenance and less down time for repairs.
What is Cruising Chauffeur?
Cruising Chauffeur is Continental’s name for its Level 3 autonomous vehicle technology which is a collection of bits and bobs, including sensors, cameras, lidars, radars and more. The aim is to have a production-ready version of Cruising Chauffeur up and running from 2020 and Continental has been testing its system on the autobahn in Germany since 2017.
Continental is developing Cruising Chauffeur for, in the first instance Level 3 autonomous driving which covers highway driving only with a driver needed to take back control once leaving the highway. Secondly, the system will be developed to cover Level 4 and 5 autonomous driving which is on- and off-ramps, parking and navigating around town without requiring a driver’s input.
“As a technology company, we want to increase acceptance of automated driving. This means that, on the road to production readiness, we constantly put our systems to the acid test, investigating everything from the bit to the byte, from the lens to the chip,” declares Ralph Lauxmann, head of Systems & Technology in the Chassis & Safety division. “Automated driving will not only help car drivers save time. It will also lead to greater safety in road traffic and will reduce emissions. This is why we are working on all forms of automated and autonomous driving – on the autobahn, in the city, and when parking.”
And Continental’s work on its autonomous tyre test vehicle which uses the Cruising Chauffeur system and the data it’s generated while testing tyres will feed back into the work being conducted on German autobahns. The next step, according to Continental, is “on further developing the necessary camera and radar systems for this special case of off-road routes, so that the vehicle can react appropriately when people, animals, or other vehicles unexpectedly appear on the route,” explains Sych.
The Ghost Car…
When Continental revealed its driverless Mercedes-Benz 250 Automatic in 1968 the world’s media went mental for it. More than 400 newspapers, magazines, and TV programs covered the launch, with headlines claiming: “The future is here” and “Around the banked turn with a ghost at the wheel”. But the Ghost Car, as it became known, was nothing like the Cruising Chauffeur car that Continental uses now at Uvalde.
The development of the original car was a collaboration between Continental, Siemens, Westinghouse and researchers at the technical universities of Munich and Darmstadt. The vehicle was guided by a wire glued onto the road surface. The electronics system in the car used sensors to detect whether it was still on track and automatically adjusted the steering accordingly. If it lost connection with the wire it was programmed to come to a complete stop.
Engineers installed a range of equipment including electro-mechanical steering, an electro-mechanical throttle regulator and a radio system for reporting measurements – cutting-edge technology at the time. The bumpers featured an array of antennas, with the control electronics and an electro-pneumatic braking system housed in the boot. Via the wire to the car, the control station next to the test track sent commands telling it to brake, accelerate or sound the horn. The benefit of the completely new test system, said Continental, was that it ruled out the possibility of human influence resulted in a considerable increase in the accuracy of the measurements. And that’s the same claim for its latest driverless car.
So, what’s it like to drive, or, not drive a driverless car?
Practical Motoring got the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of Continental’s Cruising Chauffeur tyre test vehicle at its Uvalde Proving Ground. Using a variety of sensors, including radar, cameras, lidar and satellite navigation for when its driving on the dirt track and thus can’t pick up lane markings, the route for the Cruising Chauffeur tyre test vehicle is predetermined by the engineers. The vehicle simply follows the path that’s been set.
Laid out before us, on a square stretch of smooth tarmac, was a test course intended to resemble an inner-city layout where speeds would be limited to around 60km/h or less. But we’re getting ahead… Looking pretty much like a stock standard Volkswagen Passat, the non-driver’s job (my job for a couple of laps) was to do nothing more than climb in, buckle up, start the engine, select D for Drive and then touch the accelerator. Normal stuff.
Within a moment of touching the throttle my job was done and I was a passenger; foot off the pedal. Once up and running the Continental Cruising Chauffeur took charge of braking, accelerating, and steering. I literally did nothing but look on as the car drove through cones, around bends, made sharp turns, long straights and long, wide turns.
Sure, this was an empty test track with nothing to hit but some plastic cones but never once did I feel like I needed to grab the steering wheel or go for the brakes. The thing drove with clinical precision…and it’s easy to see how using an autonomous vehicle for tyre testing is going to be a lot more precise than a human being that will never be able to turn in millimetre perfect laps all day every day.
Witnessing the Continental Cruising Chauffeur on a simple demonstration course was enough to tell me that, just as it was in 1968, driverless cars really are the future of tyre testing.