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sts.components.contact.mr.placeholder Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel

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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

Urban Mobility

Radar’s Key Role on Smart Roads

A record-breaking 568,000 traffic jams were recorded in Germany in 2015. Collectively, they stretched over a total of 1.1 million kilometers. Some 20 percent occurred on Bavaria’s roads, which include the A9 autobahn. New technologies aim to help traffic flow more smoothly.

Radar technology developed by Siemens and Infineon is set to enhance safety and improve the flow of traffic on one of Germany’s most traveled highways – and do so with the help of autonomous vehicles as well.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon and traffic is moving slowly in the southbound lanes of the A9 highway between Munich and Nuremberg. The summer vacation period has just begun and it seems like everyone in Germany is headed to the beaches of the Mediterranean. However, when one looks again it becomes clear how orderly the colorful lines of cars rolling down the highway are. All of the vehicles are maintaining a safe distance from the cars in front and traveling at a constant speed, and none of the trucks are attempting any dangerous passing maneuvers.

This is actually a vision of the future, one that might become a reality by 2025, when nearly all vehicles may well be equipped with laser scanners, and cameras, as well as radar and ultrasound sensors – essentially making them autonomous. Indeed, in this scenario, drivers have turned over control of their vehicles to autopilots because of the heavy traffic. The vehicles are now coordinating their movements with other cars and networked traffic guidance centers via WiFi signal towers along the road.

On the A9 autobahn near Pfaffenhofen in Bavaria, a test driver maneuvers a car networked by wireless communication with a second test vehicle. A tablet on the windshield instructs the driver to not change lanes.

Radar sensors placed at regular intervals on the highway have determined that the shoulder is free over a distance of more than 100 kilometers. There have been no breakdowns or accidents, and no ambulances, tow trucks, or police cars are present. The traffic guidance center therefore allows vehicles to use the breakdown lane. More than one-third of the cars are now smoothly guided into that lane by their onboard computers and the flow of traffic speeds up as a result.

Autopilot on the Autobahn

Experts agree that the automotive industry is about to undergo a radical transformation. The harbingers of the changes soon to come are the assistance systems already in use – for example ABS anti-lock brakes, proximity cruise control, automated parking assistants, and collision protection systems. Automobile manufacturers around the world are now working to merge these assistance systems to create vehicles that drive themselves. At the same time, traffic planners are looking to develop an intelligent road infrastructure that will not only passively point the way ahead for vehicles but also actively communicate with them. This interaction is likely to be so intensely interconnected that vehicles and the associated infrastructure must be developed in such a way as to operate interactively in real time from the word go.

The world’s first “digital highway test field” was established in 2015 on the A9 autobahn in Bavaria.
Germany’s Federal Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt (left) and the President of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), Matthias Wissmann, at the signing of the Innovation Charter of the digital highway test field.

With this in mind, Germany’s Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) established the world’s first “digital highway test field” in 2015 on the A9 autobahn in Bavaria. The highway segment serves as a laboratory for networked traffic on autopilot under real conditions. There are good reasons why the ministry chose a highway rather than a city for the tests. First of all, highways are more contained and orderly. Cars on highways move in the same direction and highways have no intersections. In addition, potentially dangerous situations with cyclists and pedestrians generally cannot occur on highways. In cooperation with automakers and other industrial companies, the Ministry is outfitting the test route with an array of digital systems. The idea is to leave the door open for introducing and testing additional vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication features.  

Some 50 companies have expressed interest in testing new technologies on the route, and several projects are already under way. One such project involves driving by autopilot. Here, test vehicles from Audi, Mercedes and BMW are already using their onboard computers to regularly make their way through heavy traffic on the A9. The highway’s communication network is also being tested. Here, a system developed by Nokia Networks for the LTE wireless network operated by Deutsche Telekom enables vehicles to exchange information. Companies are now testing the system’s ability to warn vehicles on the A9 in good time before they attempt risky passing maneuvers. In addition, technology from the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Communication Systems and Continental, an automotive parts supplier, is now making it possible for a vehicle to warn the cars behind it that it is about to brake – even before the brake lights go on. All of this networking is designed to help ease bottlenecks and minimize danger by providing vehicle occupants with alternate routes and by warning them of impending dangers. In this sense, the digital highway test field is contributing to the development of a new dimension of mobility in which vehicles will become the third physical focal point for people after their homes and offices.

Guiding Vehicles to Safety

According to the German Automobile Association (ADAC), if all the traffic jams reported in Germany in 2015 were combined, they would theoretically stretch around the globe 28 times.

Siemens is deeply involved in helping to build this new level of mobility. Together with Infineon, a leader in vehicle radar systems, Siemens Mobility has developed a radar technology that works with sensors controlled by 77-gigahertz microchips from Infineon. Since September 2015, Siemens has also been successfully testing a precursor to this type of Car-to-infrastructure communication system in Berlin. The system’s radar sensors can identify empty parking spaces and then send the information to an app for drivers.

The technology is now being further developed for use on highways, where radar sensors will be mounted on dividers, reflector posts, poles and road sign gantries. The sensors are designed to monitor traffic, improve flow and prevent accidents. Such systems may soon be enhancing safety by issuing warnings about sudden traffic jams ahead, erratic drivers, drivers travelling in the wrong direction, and animals on the road. They may also improve safety by simply monitoring traffic density. However, the project will begin with determining whether or not the shoulder is free and then transmitting this information to the traffic guidance center and networked vehicles. If a vehicle or any other object is found on a shoulder, the traffic guidance center will be informed immediately and can then take appropriate action. In addition, the technology can be used to provide an extra lane in extremely heavy traffic, something that is already being done on the A9 with the help of electronic road signs.

Radar systems may soon be enhancing safety by issuing warnings about sudden traffic jams, erratic drivers, and animals on the road.
Marcus Zwick is responsible for Siemens Mobility's technology incubator.

Radar sensors will also make it possible to immediately guide vehicles to an emergency stop bay on the shoulder if necessary. For example, if a vehicle’s sensor system fails, radar sensors could guide the vehicle to safety without having to initiate an emergency braking maneuver. A second signal could simultaneously be sent out to warn other vehicles to keep a safe distance away. Obviously, this would avoid any interruption to the flow of traffic.

Of course, vehicles are already equipped with multiple sensor technologies. “But in the future, the intelligence will be located in the system as a whole,” explains Marcus Zwick, who is responsible for a technology incubator at Siemens Mobility. The fusion of data from vehicles and their associated infrastructure will make it possible to predict situations and take the most appropriate action, thus helping to avoid traffic jams and a host of potentially dangerous situations. Radar sensors arranged along highways like pearls on a chain offer other benefits as well. For one thing, they can be easily installed on existing dividers, poles or road sign masts. In addition, since they don’t record images, they obviate potential privacy issues. Another big plus is that radar sensors are not affected by weather conditions such as rain, snow, or fog. Once their project has been completed, Siemens and Infineon will release all test data in an open source format. “The idea is that creative minds from the automotive industry, the digital sector, and the scientific community will be able to use the data generated from this project to develop additional innovative mobility solutions,” says Zwick.

Hubertus Breuer
Picture credits: 1.-4. Picture picture alliance / dpa