Self-driving cars may be the future, but relinquishing control of the wheel certainly takes some getting used to. It's one thing to (slowly) go with the flow on well-marked city streets, for which many self-driving cars were initially developed and tested, but what happens when you throw icy winter-road conditions into the mix?
The minds at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland seek to collectively reassure us with Martti, which they claim is the first fully autonomous car to safely handle a snow-covered public road without spinning out on a patch of black ice and death-spiralling over a cliff. (Okay, no autonomous vehicle ever has death-spiralled to our knowledge, but such are our fears.) According to a news release, Martti, a retrofitted Volkswagen Touareg, hit 40 kilometres an hour on snowy roads without lane markings in Finland's famously frigid Lapland region and likely could go faster without issue.
Most other self-driving cars rely on LIDAR – that's Light Detection and Ranging, which uses light from a pulsed laser to measure distances between objects – but it doesn't work well in whiteout conditions. Martti is different, uniquely outfitted to function properly even "when turbulent snow degrades 3D-sensor performance," said project manager Matti Kutila in an e-mail to Bloomberg. "The trick is to adapt filters," he continued; "filter" is another way of saying "algorithm." Martti relies on radar, three forward-facing lasers, and a mix of cameras, antennas and sensors, plus a rear-mounted LIDAR for good measure.
Kutila told Bloomberg that he doesn't anticipate that Martti will hit the streets for real anytime soon – current street maps aren't accurate enough to ensure a completely seamless ride. But he anticipates that the company will sell the underlying software that processes Martti's sensor data and gives it driving commands, technology that could one day power buses and cars conveying skiers up and down a mountain, much as how Royal Caribbean is developing driverless vans to ferry passengers around a cruise terminal.
"This is exactly the point," Kutila said. "Cars and vehicles can use this technology to do something which brings skiers from hotel to the slope."
VTT isn't the only autonomous car outfit to test in the snow, but since Martii is specifically designed for the purpose, it has a head start, with real-world months beginning earlier this autumn. By comparison, Russian software giant Yandex's model has only hit private roads, and Google's Waymo saw snow for the first time just last month.
There's still a lot more tinkering to do, VTT says. It plans to increase the resolution of Martti's radar system, rejigger the wavelengths of its optical components and strengthen the software that monitors its sensors.
By mid-January, it'll be able to communicate with digital transport infrastructure – that's traffic and weather-related information already provided by governments and institutions – and by next spring, it'll be tested in forest environments.
It's unclear at this point what all this means for consumers. By Kutila's own admission, Martti doesn't offer the smoothest ride in the world. "It's a prototype and not as comfortable as driving manually," he said. "However, when the car starts doing decisions himself, it feels a bit like a human – and you even start talking to the car, 'What are you doing?'" (A familiar question to anybody who is a parent or has ever driven in inclimate weather with one.)
Kutila believes it'll still be years until consumer-facing driverless cars are on the road. We'll see automated functions in vehicles – think valet parking – before that happens. College and professional campuses might also adapt their shuttles to support automated driving; Kutila predicts "they will be fully automated by 2020."
As for a complete overhaul of everyday transportation?
"Changing all traffic to automated mode takes lot of time, and we are talking transition period like 20 to 30 years," he said.
Luckily, there's plenty of luxurious, winter-ready rides to consider while you wait.