Inside Saab – Robot cars

I know what you’re thinking when you read that title….

You’re thinking this might be some sort of apocalyptic horror story where we aren’t allowed to drive anymore and robots from Sweden take over the driving, plugged into some evil worldwide network that monitors traffic, your speed, where you’ve been and so on and so forth. It sounds like Big Brother moving right into your garage.

Not so.

The story does involve robotics and driving, though, and it’s both fun to watch and incredible to experience first hand.

Klas Olsson and Carl Sandberg are engineering students from Chalmers University and what they’ve developed is a system whereby a car can be driven by a robotic steering unit according to pre-programmed parameters (circuit, speeds, etc). They were offered a chance to develop this closed-loop circuit system as part of their Masters Thesis project and in partnership with Saab. They did their work at the Chassis department, headed by Martin Öman, and were supervised by Dr. Matthijs Klomp, who is a development engineer in the vehicle dynamics simulation group at Saab.

Why and how?

This is the simple version. The details are something I can’t go into (even if I understood them fully) as they involve software and technical IP that belong to Klas, Carl and Saab. But here goes….

A lot of vehicle testing takes place where the car is driven around a circuit by real people. There are times when this is absolutely necessary. People with experience in such things need to ‘feel’ the car as it develops. In some instances, however, the testing process can be hampered by human error because humans are ‘variable’. That is, they won’t necessarily repeat the exact same action time after time after time.

If we can develop a machine to do some of these tests, you get the same circuit driven the same way every time and the vehicle data retrieved from such a test should be based on consistent inputs in every respect. More than that, steering robots are actually able to give more precise and more dramatic (i.e. faster) steering inputs that humans can, and they don’t get tired either.

The simple version of “How” involves a track modelled on GPS data and some sophisticated hardware being installed into the car to steer it according to this pre-programmed course. The hardware used to control the steering is a steering robot from Vehico and the work is done in cooperation with them. The steering robot is currently only able to perform so-called ‘open loop’ tests (steering as function of time) such as step-steer, sine-sweep steer, and sine-with-dwell steering, which are used for vehicle dynamics characterisation. The task for Klas and Carl, which even the experts say is very challenging one, was to create the control software necessary to control the steering such that the vehicle follows a pre-defined path using advanced GPS and motion sensors as input data.

I’ll let Klas and Carl explain more….. with a demonstration as well.

So, aside from the challenge and the associated fun of building a robotic vehicle, why are Klas and Carl doing this and why are Saab happy to provide the tools?

There are four main benefits with this thesis work from Saab’s point of view:

  • Evaluation of the Vehico steering robot
  • ‘Closed-loop’ path control (autonomous driving) enables Saab to perform more vehicle dynamics testing in Sweden, saving travel and transportation costs and test-track rental.
  • Since the closed-loop control is co-developed with Saab we will have full access to the work and will be able to use the developed algorithms for future research into autonomous driving for lane-keeping tasks, platooning an other future functions.
  • This is a very advanced vehicle dynamics control task attracting top students, which will enhance our mutual relationship with Chalmers.

The immediate benefit of autonomous driving is to enable vehicle dynamics characterisation testing as well as legal compliance testing that is not normally possible on relatively narrow surfaces such those that Saab have access to locally in Sweden.

One example of a vehicle dynamics surface normally used by Saab is the one at IDIADA in Spain, a facility that costs significant money to use and is in constant demand. If Saab can do the same work at lower cost and in their own time, all the better.

Dr. Matthijs Klomp summarizes:

“As mentioned, the problem of closed-loop path control is a very challenging one. This in particular since the control must be accurate and robust in a wide range of conditions, including and up to the handling limits of the vehicle. Additionally the controller must be easy to adapt to changes in the vehicle and the road surface (i.e. snow, gravel, asphalt).

Klas and Carl started to implement their control strategy in our simulation environment using IPG CarMaker, who also sponsored this project. Subsequently they moved to implement their controller in the real-time computer of the steering robot and to get it all working in the real-world.

The end-result is truly amazing, the vehicle both follows the path very well in both the linear and non-linear handling range without the steering becoming nervous or erratic, a common problem otherwise, yet is very simple to operate for the test driver. I congratulate Klas and Carl to a job well done!”

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10 Comments

    1. Are you kidding?  My mind was running in circles just trying to read the background material on this one, and that was AFTER I’d been in the car in person.  Amazing stuff these young guys did.  Can’t say enough about it.

      1. Absolutely amazing! The test track – is it an airfield? – looks like it’d be a great place to drive a Saab. It’s wonderful that Saab has an affiliation with these smart young men. One way or another, it’s going to pay off.

        1. It is indeed an airfield, about an hour or so away from Trollhattan.  At one point during our session there, there was another guy in a 9-5 doing stability control tests at the other end and the tyre noise was quite entertaining 🙂

          We also had a couple of fly-overs by the Swedish Airforce, which was nice.  Those Gripens are noisy, though not more than any other jet, I imagine.

          The track these guys programmed into the system was a combination of the main runway and various taxiways.

          1. By the way… not many people could have explained a subject as complicated as this one as well as you did. It’s an art. Congratulations!

  1. Most awesome Inside Saab story ever. Totally in awe, loved every second. How you didn’t cough up your lunch in that last turn is beyond me, well done Steven. This had better get onto Jalopnik and Autoblog today, it’s that good.

  2. I can’t help but think of Google’s autonomous vehicles that have clocked over 140,000mls so far on actual roads and SAAB’s affiliation via android’s software. I’m not trying to scare anybody here but seeing that so many people are still holding mobile phones to their ears whilst driving (knowing full well it is illegal) or reading maps and in one case reading a paper whilst driving it seems that vehicle automation maybe be something that could well be adopted to protect other road users from these idiots who have been given a driving license. I can see the importance of automation in vehicle testing, but it isn’t too difficult to imaging automation being used for motorway driving where vehicles of the future could well be wirelessly linked not all that dissimilar to a row of train carriages, which would ultimately reduce fatigue which is one of the main causes of motorway accidents.

  3. You’re thinking this might be some sort of apocalyptic horror story
    where we aren’t allowed to drive anymore and robots from Sweden take
    over the driving…

    You mean we won’t get an Otto the autopilot to drive our Saabs if we ever have an attack of food poisoning?  🙂

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