Carmakers Take to the (Self-Driving) Test Track

Engineers use track days to test self-driving cars and scout talent

2 min read
Engineers look at self-driving test vehicles at a track day
Engineers look at self-driving test vehicles at a track day
Photo: Self Driving Track Days

Researchers from academia and industry took rides in experimental cars at a public test-track event in Teesdorf, Austria, last week, but the main draw may have been the other attendees.

The event gave smaller companies a chance to try out driverless technology on a shared large-scale test track. Formal vehicle testing on closed tracks can cost up to £1000 (US $1320) a day. “We thought we could do something that was a bit different: combine the opportunity for small companies and university teams,” says event organizer Alex Lawrence-Berkeley, of Sense Media Group in London, England.

The workshop component of the event focused on software aspects of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), positioning technology, and open standards for allowing different types of driver assistance systems to interact. On the hardware side, electrical engineer Daniel Watzenig of the Virtual Vehicle Research Center in Graz, Austria, demonstrated the center's so-called Virtual Vehicle, which is actually a real car licensed for testing autonomous driving technology. Watzenig had earlier told the event organizers that part of the value of the event is improving public visibility of autonomous vehicle research.

The track day was one of an ongoing series of meet-ups, track days, and other events that Sense Media has been organizing around Europe to create a community of university researchers, students, and the enormous ecosystem of smaller companies that supply components and smarts to larger car manufacturers. The nearest comparison in the United States might be Self Racing Cars, a series launched in 2016 at an Autonomous Track Day in Willows, California. It includes both full-size and scale-model vehicles.

While cars with the most self-driving functionalities get the most media attention, right now vehicle manufacturers of all kinds are desperate to recruit people who can help them with ADAS, Lawrence-Berkeley says. He calls recruiting in that sector “unsustainable” and one of the reasons why industry partners are supporting the events he is organizing: They are on the lookout for car engineering talent with software chops.

Steffen Hemer, a robotics graduate student at Technical University Kaiserslautern in Germany and a volunteer organizer of Formula Student Germany, says that engineering students with computer science or robotics experience are indeed finding the greatest number of opportunities in the automotive job market. As for the self-driving track day, he says the most valuable part for students may not be testing the cars so much as meeting the experts with whom they will one day work.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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