Driving force

MIRA’s Dr Anthony Baxendale believes telematics holds the key to a range of benefits, from fuel efficiency to passenger safety. Niall Firth reports.

Viewed from above, one could certainly get the impression that MIRA primarily focuses on car-testing. The automotive engineering specialist’s Nuneaton HQ features 760 acres of impressive high-speed banked tracks and giant sheds that hide its advanced aerodynamic wind tunnels and crash labs.

In fact, vehicle testing — although extensive — counts for less than half of what MIRA does as an organisation. The majority of its work is focused on research and innovation. Co-ordinating this crucial aspect of MIRA’s work is Dr Anthony Baxendale, who has been the organisation’s head of research for the past three years. Whether as part of a collaborative project or internally funded, MIRA is involved in up to 15 research projects every year.

Having celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, MIRA, originally known as the motor industry research association, was set up to pool the research resources of all the major automotive companies in one place. Once a recipient of a government grant, it is now a fully commercial business that divides its work between testing operations and product engineering. ‘Some companies compete with us in certain areas but no one can match what we do in breadth,’ said Baxendale.

One of MIRA’s key innovations is its cutting-edge simulation work that is designed to reduce the amount of physical testing that is required during the design process of a new vehicle. Dubbed its ‘hybrid’ approach, MIRA uses a combination of physical testing of components in its facilities and a series of powerful software packages to accurately model early vehicle prototypes.

As well as working on behalf of its automotive customers — a client base that covers almost every international car manufacturer — MIRA also spends the majority of its surplus on research projects where the company itself is the customer. In conjunction with academia, this is where much of the exciting technology is to be found, said Baxendale.

With Leicester University, MIRA is developing advanced ‘pattern’-based software to run in-car electronics. On the hardware side, reliability is key. ‘In the not-too-distant future all safety-critical aspects of vehicles will be entirely run by the electronics. From active safety systems to advanced cruise control we are gradually moving towards the greater control of functions by software and hardware.’

To this end, MIRA is working with Loughborough University to develop extremely reliable, fault-tolerant microprocessors that can be trusted to work safely in a car. ‘You need to engineer into a car the same level of reliability as you get in an Airbus,’ he said. ‘But it is a completely different approach because while you can afford to spend £1m on a computer system for a plane that is obviously impossible in a car.’

As part of a major project part-funded by the Energy Savings Trust, MIRA is also using its considerable expertise to design an advanced hybrid 4×4 vehicle. Described by Baxendale as the ‘next generation’ of hybrid electric vehicle, the car — code-named H4V — will boast impressive fuel economy figures.

‘We hope it will reach 80 miles per gallon. We are looking at features like electric motors inside wheels and electric braking — all things that aren’t currently legal on UK roads due to safety issues,’ said Baxendale. ‘The clever bit is the strategy it will use when it’s in electric mode by being able to adapt to the style of driver, making it more intelligent.’

Due to be completed in just over a year’s time the H4V demonstrator is an indication of where MIRA’s priorities lie away from the day-to-day vehicle testing work. In fact, according to Baxendale, intelligent transport systems (ITS) are a key area of the association’s future strategy.

As well as his day job as head of research, Baxendale also sits as director of Innovits, a UK centre of excellence in telematics and ITS. Set up by the DTI, Innovitsis designed to help the UK exploit future opportunities in this exciting new area of transport technology and MIRA is taking the lead.

Last year MIRA ran a full-scale demonstration with a fleet of intelligent ITS-enabled vehicles on a section of UK road. It showcased the full range of ITS possibilities from automatic speed limiting and braking to speeding drivers receiving a slap on the wrist via vibrations through the accelerator pedal.

While MIRA developed the ITS for the project an important role was played by Leeds Universitywhich looked at driver behaviour when using ITS technology. Baxendale suggested that it is the public’s reaction to such perceived ‘Big Brother’ tactics that will determine how quickly these ‘active safety’ technologies are taken up. ‘Speed control isn’t something that will go down well with the public. It is not ready yet but attitudes are changing.’

MIRA has showcased a full range of in-car safety possibilities from automatic speed limiting and braking to speeding drivers receiving a slap on the wrist via vibrations through the accelerator pedal

A form of active safety technology that MIRA is looking into is in the field of vehicle-to-vehicle communications. This technology allows cars to set up ad-hoc networks with other road-users and transmit relevant information between each other.

‘We are looking at sat-nav systems that have extra layers of dynamic information on traffic conditions and incidents. For example, a car ahead of you turns a corner and has to apply its brakes suddenly. Your car is told immediately and adapts to this.’

Baxendale’s next step in this area is a refinement of an earlier project known as Save You, which used advanced data fusion — combing the data from a variety of sensors — to detect and react to vulnerable pedestrians. Two years ago brave volunteers stood in the path of an oncoming car on MIRA’s test track to test the vehicle’s ability to detect endangered pedestrians. Now at the next stage, the project team is looking to refine its techniques and, crucially, decide how quickly the move from simple alert to full intervention should be. It’s a topic that Baxendale believes should not be taken lightly.

‘There are real issues in this change [towards intervention]. When it’s an alert the driver is responsible, whereas when it’s automatic intervention it’s the system that’s responsible. That’s a big jump.’

There are a number of other issues with ITS too. Current GPS capability is not accurate enough to be relied upon for automatic speed control, for example, because the area that each GPS co-ordinate covers could easily fall within two different speed limit zones.

‘If your car was passing through a 30mph limit zone while travelling at 60mph and it slammed on its brakes there would be chaos. GPS alone isn’t accurate enough so it has to be able to understand where it is in many senses,’ said Baxendale, suggesting dead-reckoning technology as one complementary development that could help.

‘ITS is part of the future but it is easy to forget that there’s a driver involved too so we need to design the human-machine interface to make it less confusing or we’ll just cause more problems.’

MIRA’s interest in ITS and other intelligent transport technologies is about to reach its zenith as part of a project with BAE Land Systems to develop a fully-autonomous vehicle. With the project two-thirds complete, the prototype vehicle — which can be controlled by voice through ‘talk-steer’ — is to be unveiled at the Defence Procurement Agency’s annual DVD Show in June this year. This project is one of many collaborations between MIRA and the military and Baxendale suggested that it was no coincidence that the most exciting intelligence and autonomy research was for military applications.

‘It tends to go to the military because you don’t have the problem of a legacy fleet. You don’t have to contend with older vehicles, that aren’t self-aware, around it,’ he said.

Exciting though the technology may be, there is one important reason why it will be a while before autonomous vehicles and advanced interventionist active safety technologies become a daily reality for drivers everywhere, according to Baxendale: human nature.

‘The public are not going to want to leave go of the controls themselves,’ he predicted. ‘I can readily see the steering wheel being replaced within 10 years, perhaps with a Playstation-type control, and I can even see these semi-autonomous forms of intelligent vehicle with active safety being accepted, also within 10 years’ time.’

‘But fully autonomous… I just really cannot see that happening.’