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Swedish state and industry back autonomous vehicle testing facility

AstaZero facility will “road-test” next-generation 5G and digital innovations to support the development of self-driving cars and other vehicles

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The Swedish government, in partnership with the private sector, is backing a test facility for autonomous vehicle technologies – with its eyes on the global prize of creating an international standard for testing driverless vehicles.

Backed by the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and Chalmers University of Technology, the collaborative project will build the capacity and global status of AstaZero 5G, the self-driving auto testing specialist jointly controlled by state-owned RISE and Chalmers. 

Located in Borås, western Sweden, AstaZero’s 5G facility will “road-test” next-generation 5G and digital innovations that support the development of self-driving cars and heavier vehicles.

The collaboration is timely, taking place against a backdrop of growing international interest in driverless vehicles. The public debate around self-driving cars has been elevated both by new safety innovations and by negative incidents, such as injury to humans and damage to vehicles suffered during pilot schemes. 

The ambition in Sweden is to set a new international benchmark for automated vehicle testing. AstaZero will target Nordic and global car manufacturers in a market that is projected to be worth about $US7tn by 2050.  

Although industry experts have different views on when self-driving cars are likely to become a common sight on public roads, what is not in dispute is the rapid development of digital and 5G technologies to help such vehicles overcome their challenges.

At the Borås facility, raw data is collected or harnessed during each test performed by AstaZero, said Monica Ringvik, the company’s CTO.

“The nature of the data varies depending on the purpose of the test, but could include anything from road and weather conditions to sensor data flows, decision-making logs and positioning data,” she said. “Data is collected in huge volumes and there is ongoing research using AI [artificial intelligence] in the analysis.

“The data collected can be used for many different purposes, such as training algorithms for machine learning, simulations or AI solutions.”

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The spread and depth of research into the fields of driver assistance technologies and fully autonomous self-driving cars has accelerated in the past decade. The difference between the two is considerable, not just from a technical perspective, but also in public perception. Confusion between the technologies has resulted in injuries and fatalities on public roads.

Auto-makers such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo already produce cars offering so-called “autopilot” technologies and devices, such as steering, braking and parking assistance. Meanwhile, Tesla continues to conduct advanced tests on an autopilot system that allows a car to steer, brake and accelerate. This is a level 2 driver-assisted car, not a pure-bred top level 5 self-driving car.

Much of the on-road testing of self-driving cars and connected technologies across the world is being conducted in relatively compact geo-fenced suburban areas. The fundamental challenge for auto-makers is to produce self-driving vehicles that can safely negotiate suburban and densely populated urban environments in all weathers.

AstaZero 5G marks a first step towards a completely new type of test environment for self-driving cars, said the company’s CEO, Peter Janvik. The facility will provide the data necessary to predict vehicle behaviour in real-life situations without the need for on-road testing, he said.

The AstaZero facility was opened in Borås in 2014, becoming the first test facility in the world to focus on automated driving and the active safety of ground vehicles.

Blending virtual and real worlds

The IT and data analysis methods employed by AstaZero, within its mixed reality test environment, can simulate virtually any traffic situation in any city worldwide. The technology is capable of blending the virtual world, including traffic systems in iconic locations such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or Times Square in New York, with real vehicles and real people stationed around a test track.

Using the latest 5G connectivity and distributed cloud services, AstaZero is able to combine test vehicles with virtual vehicles to deliver a realistic and new level of traffic complexity and real-world applications.

The 5G network it is using was developed in partnership with Ericsson, Wallenberg Autonomous Research Arenas – Collaborative Autonomous Transport (WARA-CAT) and Swedish telecom authority PTS. The network gives the mixed reality system an unlimited data capacity to test both self-driving cars and construction vehicles.

WARA-CAT is part of Wallenberg Autonomous Systems and Software Programme (WASP), a Wallenberg family-linked organisation that funds the testing and development of systems used in accident prevention. WASP operates as a national research programme in Sweden backed by universities and industrial partners.  

“As a test-bed, AstaZero must strive to ensure we examine opportunities arising from new technologies,” said Ringvik. “This also goes for 5G. To do so, we collaborate closely with industry, including the mobility and the telecom sectors.”

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