The entire global automotive industry knows how to get to Helmond, a town in the South-eastern part of the Netherlands. Right here, on the Automotive Campus, the Dutch research organisation TNO helps to make vehicles safer and cleaner. For instance, by allowing cars to communicate with each other, by preventing collisions between cars and cyclists and by optimising fuel combustion while limiting tailpipe emissions.
The Dutch town of Helmond may only be a small city in the Netherlands, but it is part of the Brainport Eindhoven region, which is, according to Forbes magazine, the world’s most innovative region. Universities like Eindhoven, Aachen and Leuven are within easy reach, as well as the German automotive industry and the European Commission in Brussels that funds vast research programmes related to mobility.
‘The majority of automotive activities in the Netherlands take place here’, says Daan de Cloe from TNO. Car manufacturers from around the globe travel to Helmond to have their latest innovations developed and tested in one of the labs of TNO, or on the public road between Helmond and Eindhoven, which is regularly used as a test site for cooperative and automated driving.
It is up to the researchers of TNO to demonstrate new concepts and validate simulation models under world conditions. For this purpose, TNO houses the brightest minds in the field of algorithms, modelling, simulation and control, as well as state-of-the-art test facilities used for verification and/or validation. ‘Our unique facilities accommodate entire trucks in order to test them under different climate conditions’, says colleague Caspar Lageweg. ‘To simulate a car driving in the mountains, we lower the pressure in the lab and change the temperature, so it looks as if the vehicle were in northern Sweden in the winter. And a few hours later it could be driving through the Sahara, for example.’
This gives the campus a dynamic atmosphere where every day is different, says Lageweg. ‘We are a young and international team of which around 30 percent is non-Dutch. We hardly spend our entire days at the office due to project activities related to our own lab facility, but also due to face-2-face interaction with our customers in Europe, Japan, USA and China. Or you might be presenting a scientific paper at a congress elsewhere around the world.’
TNO inside BMW
Daan de Cloe and Caspar Lageweg are both research managers at TNO in Helmond. De Cloe’s line of work is all about integrated vehicle safety. For instance: systems for autonomous emergency braking, lane change assist, automated driving, communication between vehicles and between vehicles and infrastructure. Cars filled with these smart technologies will improve traffic flow and prevent accidents. Lageweg focuses on lowering the CO2 emissions by optimising the power train, for instance by making the combustion process more fuel efficient.
TNO does not develop these technologies into new products itself. Vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers will be provided with software solutions and tools for modelling, simulation and control. This allows the manufacturers to create safer and cleaner products. ‘We sell software that ends up in, for instance, the BMW 5 and 7 series. No one knows this, but there is a bit of TNO inside a lot of cars’, says Lageweg proudly.
TNO makes computer models of passengers or components such as steering systems, sensors and engines. The actual behaviour of a passenger in a car or the combustion process of an engine can be turned into an algorithm. Lageweg explains: ‘When we make these models correctly, we can simulate behaviour, and imitate real events. If these simulations are accurate as well, the model is validated: we have proven that it is representative for real-life situations. In this case, we can use these simulations to develop advanced control systems.
These systems help to optimise the performance of a vehicle, and can be used for integrated emission management or automated collision avoidance. They are programmed to be adaptive and self-learning. ‘Eventually, these systems will be able to predict events’, says De Cloe. For instance: TNO is working on a methodology to prevent collisions between cars and cyclists. This system is capable of predicting the movement of a cyclist. ‘A cyclist moves rather wobbly, and may seem unpredictable. Nonetheless, our software has proven to be effective. When a cyclist comes too close, the autonomous emergency breaking system will be activated and the car will stop.’
Until now, most car manufacturers develop sensors and control systems that communicate only with other systems of their own brand. At TNO, the ambition is bigger: the researchers want all cars on the road to talk to each other. This system called cooperative driving contains multiple sensors that, amongst others, measure the distance between cars and the speed of the individual vehicles. When the distance is too close and the speed too high, the safety system automatically sends a message to the breaking system: your car is too close, keep more distance. This prevents accidents and traffic jams. De Cloe: ‘This requires another architecture and standardised communication – all systems need to speak the same language.’
Fully automated driving will most likely begin on the highway, thinks De Cloe. ‘Highways are more predictable. In urban areas with a high traffic density, the conditions are very complex and the variety of scenario’s is enormous. But it is possible! I am convinced that highly automated driving will soon break through. We have already demonstrated this technology in an automated ride with our minister of transport on the public road in Amsterdam.’
Bridging the gap
The wider focus of TNO, which is not limited to a single car brand or component within a car, is also key to the work of Lageweg. ‘Manufacturers are all optimising their specific components within a vehicle. We regard a vehicle as a platform that needs to be optimised as a whole.’ One of Lageweg’s projects is a hybrid truck that automatically switches to the electrical engine when entering an emission-free zone. Many cities in Europe are creating emission-free zones, where only vehicles with low CO2 emissions may enter. This poses a great challenge for trucks, because they still depend on diesel engines. Lageweg: ‘Trucks will always need diesel, also in the long run. It is impossible to make trucks fully electric, because the batteries would take up too much of the space needed for moving goods.’
All these challenges, to make cars safer and cleaner, require specific knowledge and experience. ‘Because of the multidisciplinary character of our research, our work is very complex’, says Lageweg. ‘It is within our DNA to perform fundamental and in-depth research, but there is always an application within reach. This enables us to bridge the gap between universities and companies. Our goal is to develop radical rather than incremental innovations. We are working on integrated solutions for the car of the future, with a sustainable architecture that works in the long run.’
These challenges are very tough for individual companies to address. Therefore, scientific and industrial clients more often rely on the knowledge and experience of TNO. De Cloe: ‘We notice that there is a growing need for expertise that bridges the gap between fundamental knowledge and applications. There is always room for talented new people here, who have strong analytical skills and a critical and problem solving attitude. Even if there are no official vacancies.’
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