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Nordic region provides autonomous vehicle test bed

Nordic region has the suppliers, environment and appetite for pioneering the development of autonomous vehicles

Finnish startups’ move into the self-driving vehicle (SDV) market has taken a giant leap through a partnership with international partners Toyota Motor Europe, public transport authority Ruter and autonomous vehicle company Holo.

Espoo-headquartered Sensible4 will provide full stack autonomous driving software (ADS) for the vehicles used in a pilot-project in Oslo. This will enable the Toyota vehicles supplied to the project to be retrofitted with Sensible 4’s all-weather ADS as part of the next-phase of Ruter’s SDV pilot trials.

Ruter is using the pilot-project to both explore ways to integrate SDVs into its public transport service offerings in Oslo while delivering new mobility options. To this end, a new test service is being launched in the Norwegian town of Ski in Nordre Follo, a municipal district of the greater Oslo region.

“In our estimation, we see the future of transportation as being autonomous and shared,” said Harri Santamala, CEO at Sensible4. “The future is a network of vehicles that are connected, that are electric and autonomous. Our collaboration with Ruter, Holo and Toyota Motor Europe supports the ambition for self-driving cars to become part of public transportation and provide a smarter and more sustainable mode of transportation for people in their everyday lives.”

Sensible4’s ADS offering utilises algorithms for effective 3D LiDAR data processing in combination with an intelligent sensor fusion system, artificial intelligence and software that controls the vehicle platform to ensure vehicles stay on the road even in the most challenging of conditions.

The Nordic region’s geographic location provides SDV-type projects a challenging testbed to appraise hardware and software in Arctic and sub-Arctic environments.

Sensible4’s technology is being tested in the GACHA on-road shuttle bus pilot project that was rolled-out in Helsinki in 2020. The pilot trials are being run by a cooperation group that includes Sensible4 together with Spanish and Japanese partners Shotl and the Tokyo design house Ryohin Keikaku Ltd (Muji). The test project comprises a fleet of three shuttle bus autonomous vehicles. For passengers, on-demand rides are available via a mobile app.

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The GACHA, which operates on a three stop mixed traffic circular test route in Helsinki city centre, has a maximum speed of 40kmph. It can carry a total of 16 passengers, ten seated and six standing. The design renders GACHA fully accessible for people with physical disabilities.

The present autonomous vehicle collaboration took shape in 2019 when Ruter, which is the public transportation authority for Oslo, partnered with the Danish mobility company Holo to start initial trials within the self-driving public transport domain in Oslo. The initial phase involved trials of shuttle buses supplied by the French company NAVYA. The NAVYA vehicles were tested on several routes, covering the Akershusstranda, Ormøya, and Kongens Gate districts in Oslo.  

Under the two-year partnership Holo is managing all project approvals and operating autonomous vehicle services. Copenhagen-based Holo is the largest operator in the Nordic and the Baltic region and has transported over 50.000 passengers in its autonomous vehicles, on pilot routes it operates in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Denmark.

As is the case in Oslo, the autonomous bus trialed in Ski will form part of the integrated local transport network. The testing period is scheduled to last 12 months.

“Our partnership with Ruter, Sensible4 and Toyota gives us critical experience and the opportunity to move mobility forward,” said Jakob Münter, Holo’s director of finance. “We actively look to gain as much operational experience as possible with different types of autonomous vessels. Consumers are increasingly choosing to pay for the trip rather than the vehicle. This is where we see huge potential in the future.”

The deployment of different Toyota-supplied vehicles to the new Ski route will create optimum test conditions to build a mobility cloud where individuals subscribe to mobility.

“Using the vehicles provided by Toyota we can respond to a more diverse mobility need,” said Münter.

Toyota Proace

The project in Ski will use the Toyota Proace retrofitted with Sensible4’s ADS suite. The Proace, which is equipped with a wheelchair ramp, can carry up to six passengers.

“We look at autonomous vehicles as complementing already existing public transportation networks by providing new last-mile transportation services,” said Santamala. “These vehicles can be classified in to two groups, private and commercial. At the private end taking an autonomous vehicle from Finland to Spain in the middle of winter without interacting with the vehicle remains a utopia. Things are somewhat different on the commercial side.”

The commercial end of AV, involving the movement of people and goods, doesn’t require a need to reach the holy grail of Level 5. In the case of autonomous vehicles, Level 5 is the highest grade of vehicle autonomy as defined by US-based SAE International (previously the Society of Automotive Engineers). A Level 5 classification refers to vehicles that can pilot themselves in all driving environments and at all times with zero input or oversight from a human.

“Robo taxis are possible to automate, and achievable with scalable solutions. Commercial applications are about 18 months off Level 4 operations, but the scaling will really kick off around 2025,” said Santamala.

The principal differences between Level 5 and Level 4 is that autonomous cars found at Level 4 can pilot themselves but still need a human driver on board. Level 4 software technology is able to control the car’s ignition, steering, braking, spatial awareness, parking and acceleration functions. By contrast, a Level 5 AV has the capability to drive itself under all conditions and environments.

Finnish Lapland has become a popular location for automotive companies to trial new car engines, auto electronics and tyres. Sensible4 runs most of its AVS tests in Kittilä, Finland’s most northerly municipality, which is located north of the Arctic Circle in the region of Lapland.

“For self-driving vehicles to become mainstream, they must be able to operate in everyday conditions, such as in rain or snow. Trialing them in Norway is a great opportunity to test our software performance. Like in Finland, Norway has low temperatures, snow and darkness. Perfect conditions to test our driving and sensor technologies in extreme conditions. If it works here, it works everywhere,” said Santamala.

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