Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving
Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving. Click image to enlarge

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Mercedes-Benz’ Automated Driving system

Sindelfingen, Germany – Once upon a time, crash testing was carried out using actual people. When the folly of that finally became obvious, mannequins, and eventually proper dummies, took over.

Today, we’d look at the decision to subject real people to potentially hazardous situations as simply ludicrous, yet real live people, i.e. test drivers, are still put into danger in the name of vehicle testing to this day.

For some, it’s as innocuous as having to repeatedly drive over sections of broken pavement, with the potential for spinal or stress injuries, for others, it’s testing airbag systems by running vehicles over ramps and obstacles to verify that they won’t inadvertently deploy. It’s a potentially risky but ultimately necessary verification – you wouldn’t want your airbags to deploy when you run over the curb, only to have them already deflating as you hit the wall beyond.

Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving
Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving. Click image to enlarge

Now vehicles are beginning to incorporate active safety systems, systems which can apply brakes or even nudge the steering in an effort to avoid collisions, rather than simply mitigate the injuries caused by them.

Testing systems like these outside of the confines of a lab would be riskier still – for a perfect example of this, witness Volvo’s recent PR demonstration gone wrong, where the test vehicle slams happily into the back of a parked truck, the automatic braking system having failed to apply as expected (thankfully, no injuries resulted).

While Mercedes has designed a fabric and foam covered “soft” car stand-in that looks like a real vehicle to the sensors and cameras used in active safety systems, the company has also developed a solution that eliminates the risks of testing entirely by taking the humans out of the car.

It sounds simple enough, but unlike barrier or car-into-car crash tests, many such scenarios require that the car be driven and often even manoeuvred around obstacles.

Theoretically, you could do it by remote control, but remotely driving a real car is challenging at best. Even a talented driver seated in the car would be hard pressed to try and accurately repeat a test within the required time and space tolerances, and involving multiple vehicles in the scenario would make it more difficult still.

Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving
Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving. Click image to enlarge

What Mercedes has done is create what it calls “Automated Driving”, a system of computer-controlled actuators for the steering, accelerator, and brakes that can be fitted into virtually any vehicle with relatively little modification. Installation requires removal of the driver’s seat, and averages about four hours.

The company’s AD system is capable of repeating any programmed route within two cm of the intended path, all while maintaining a 20 millisecond timing accuracy that would be impossible for a human driver, and it can do it with up to five cars simultaneously, synchronizing them to facilitate tests such as near-misses at intersections, or one driver cutting off another and then braking.

To demonstrate the AD system’s precision, Mercedes set up a near-miss scenario where an E and an S class would drive towards one another from crossing streets at a simulated intersection on the surface of its large paved test area. After taking off from assigned resting points and making a turn to align themselves, the two cars passed by each other within approximately a metre, all while travelling at 70 km/h – a display which was precisely duplicated two additional times to illustrate the level of repeatability AD allows.

Tire marks on the pavement backed up the company’s claims of route-following accuracy; both vehicles precisely tracked in the same set of tracks during several simulated lane change and braking manoeuvres.

Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving
Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving
Mercedes-Benz Automated Driving. Click image to enlarge

Automated Driving doesn’t use imbedded sensors in the ground or some kind of optical tracking device for guidance. Instead, it relies on an extremely accurate combination of high-resolution GPS and inertial sensors to determine position and velocity. This allows for much greater route flexibility and virtually limitless operating conditions.

It must be noted that there is no “situational awareness” built into the system, which while automated, lacks any sensors to detect obstacles, and therefore is incapable of autonomous operation. Each car’s planned “route” is thoroughly verified on an individual basis before additional vehicles are introduced for this reason.

AD is able to make speed and steering corrections as needed though, provided they fall within preset limits. If those limits are exceeded, or a fault occurs, the car will automatically brake to a stop.

Route instructions can be sent wirelessly from the pair of operators in the test centre’s control tower that monitor all activity (as can an emergency “kill” command), so multiple simulations can be run without having to physically access the cars to reconfigure them.

I found great humour in that should the need arise, the system also allows remote control of the test cars via the same Logitech steering wheel and pedal set that I want for my Playstation 3. Gran Turismo sure can’t match that level of realism!

Mercedes considers Automated Driving to have the same significance as passive crash testing in the development of future active safety systems. Given the hazardous nature of the situations these systems are designed to avoid, AD seems the best way to safely verify and refine their operation. In time, it may be able to remove some of the tedium from vehicle durability testing too.

At the very least, there’s certain to be some Mercedes test drivers relieved that airbag roulette is no longer part of their job description.

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