Straight ahead for driverless cars


The race to be a leader in autonomous or ‘driverless’ cars is hotting up – and designers will need to ensure that the next generation of cameras, sensors, drives and automation systems fits together seamlessly as Neil Beaumont of Lenze explains:

Many futuristic sci-fi ideas of the past have ‘made it’ to fruition – including video phones and space flight. Now, the next one is on the verge of adoption: self-driving cars.

Such vehicles are no longer a far-off dream and have been prototyped and tested worldwide. The UK government has stated its aim to become a world leader in the technology while the EU is drawing up rules to govern such vehicles – in an attempt to compete with China and the USA.

Self-driving cars have two potential models to follow – and may end up adopting both: one is to use the technology as ‘back up’ for a human driver; the second is to move straight to a ‘driverless’ model – in which the human passenger has no way of controlling the vehicle.

The latter is more radical, in that it will dispense with familiar components – such as steering wheels – that will now be unnecessary. It is also likely that these cars will be electrically driven.

Five ways to success

A huge leap will be required in cameras and sensing systems, to ensure that self-driving cars do not cause mayhem on the roads. This will need to be married with a system brain, meaning that the design of automation systems will be crucial. Gathering data from multiple sensors is one thing; taking that data – and making appropriate decisions, for instance – takes things to a new level.

The route from product concept to a working machine is fraught with uncertainty, so whenever attempting such a challenge – especially in an emerging field like autonomous cars – it makes sense to come up with a clear, workable roadmap.

Lenze has a five-point plan to help original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) take each step as it comes, ensuring a smooth journey towards the final product. It relies on the OEM using Lenze’s automation expertise in everything from idea generation through to finished product.

The five steps are:

  • Developing ideas;
  • Drafting concepts;
  • Implementing solutions;
  • Manufacturing machines; and,
  • Ensuring productivity.

The method could is particularly useful when developing new designs of automation systems. These have no precedent, so will need to be designed from the ground up. For instance, designing the interface between the sensors and automation system will be no easy task, requiring a seamless marriage of advanced sensor technology and electric drive systems – and ensuring that they work under fail-safe conditions.

Automation assistance

While major car manufacturers are competing in this field, there is some more fundamental research happening too. For instance, Formula Student has now introduced a ‘driverless’ category.

In the German version of the scheme, which pits undergraduate design engineers against one another, cars have raced over 10 laps of the track at Hockenheimring – with not a driver in sight.

The contest was won by Academic Motorsports Zurich (AMZ), with a car using Lenze inverters to power the AC drive motors from DC batteries. Cars were converted to autonomous control using actuators for steering, vision systems and intelligent control. The track was marked with coloured cones, which the autonomous car used for guidance.

Although the start and stop functions were manually controlled – and speeds were much slower than traditional Formula Student events – the organisers were confident that this may change in future, as the control systems become more advanced.

Applying the five-step process to autonomous cars should help designers and manufacturers come up with workable concepts that perform at maximum efficiency – helping to ensure success in this emerging field of engineering.


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