UK telematics test track opens for business

The UK’s Innovits facility, one of the most advanced of its kind, will help take smart vehicle systems to the next level.

’In 100m, turn right,’ says the confident voice of your satellite navigation system. You obey the command, take a right and end up in a dead-end street. Backing out, your satnav tells you to ’turn around where possible’ and reverse in again. You squint at your satnav display. Where does it think you are? You keep driving in defiance of the nagging voice urging you into a dirt track reserved for pedestrians. Completely lost, and in despair at modern technology, you rip the satnav from your windscreen and pull over.

28-29 GPS.jpg
Steering clear: according to a report, the UK is over-reliant on satellite navigation

It’s a scenario familiar to motorists up and down the country. You don’t have to look far to find a headline about the strange places satellite navigation systems have led unsuspecting drivers. A widely reported incident where a bouncy castle was delivered to an old people’s home was blamed on a satnav. Another case saw a US tourist who typed ’Windsor Castle’ into her system end up at a pub in Somerset. More seriously, in 2009, a BMW was left teetering on a 100ft cliff in Todmordern after following satnav direction down a Pennine footpath.

Today, the use of space-borne and timing data in satellite navigation systems is commonplace and set to increase with the introduction of even more intelligent transport systems (ITSs). But despite the flaws of satnavs, a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering claims that the UK has become dangerously over-reliant on these technologies. With our dependency growing, engineers are keen that the errors in the newer systems are ironed out before being placed in commercial applications that could compromise safety.

“This is not just a test track. We do more than that, but a lot you can’t see with the naked eye”


Europe’s most advanced facility for ITS, formally launched last week, claims to be able to do this while also increasing the speed of research and development. The innovITS Advance site has received £10m of government money to deliver vehicle technologies such as collision avoidance, traffic management and eco driving systems. Based at the MIRA proving ground in Nuneaton, the site provides a controllable and connected virtual cityscape that gives car manufacturers the ability to test their systems away from the public eye.

’This is not just a test track,’ said chairman David Pearson. ’Test track implies vehicles driving around on a road. We do much more than that, but a lot of it you can’t see with the naked eye… These added capabilities will allow engineers to validate their research in ways that previously weren’t possible. It will also mean companies in the UK are not at a disadvantage when it comes to ITS.’

28-29 innovITS 5.jpg
Driven to distraction: 70–85 per cent of all testing for ITSs is done on public roads

The main focus of innovITS Advance is the ’city circuit’, made up of a network of roads with a number of junctions, intersections, roundabouts and multi-lane highways. The physical network covers an area of 120,000m2, but combined with this is an open-architecture multi-zoned GSM, GPRS and 3G private standalone mobile telecommunications network along with a Wi-Fi mesh system. This means that products can be tested with a number of different scenarios in mind.

One of these is when the signal from satellite navigation systems deteriorates in an urban landscape. SkyClone, developed by Nottingham Scientific, is a software system that can customise 3D city models to simulate signal obstruction and replicate GPS and Galileo signals. ’As far as we’re aware, this is the first in the world,’ said Pearson. ’It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of, alongside the fact we have our own private 3G network that can control in a very tight space.’

Traffic, a lack of privacy during testing and the inability to control variables means that satnavs can be flawed

Phil Pettitt, chief executive at innovITS, claims that the data available from the site will allow engineers to test and develop ITS products in a way that is simply not possible in a real town or city an issue he believes has held back the development of a number of systems in the past. ’About a year ago now, there was a showcase opportunity in Amsterdam where various European projects were invited to demonstrate what they had,’ said Pettitt. ’Unfortunately, a lot of those demonstrations weren’t working properly because they didn’t have somewhere to test them first.’

The company estimates that between 70 and 85 per cent of all testing for ITS systems is done on public roads. Traffic considerations, a lack of privacy during testing and the inability to control variables such as satellite navigation means that often these systems can be flawed and take far longer to make commercially viable. It is a problem that needs to be resolved, according to innovITS, if the next generation of intelligent vehicles and transport systems are to gain public acceptance.

28-29 Use of SkyClone technology at innovITS ADVANCE.jpg
Urban legend:SkyClone can customise 3D city models to simulate signal obstruction

’The big area is everything to do with eco driving,’ said Pettitt. ’In the next 10 years, I think we’re going to see more guidance from computers, extra information to the drivers and technologies that are making the decisions and are controlling the vehicle for you. I think what we’ll also see is testing as a matter of regulation. We’ll be seeing increasing testing and accreditations in order to allow us as consumers to buy complex technology without being experts in the systems.’

If the future does lie in computer-controlled passenger vehicles, then facilities such as innovITS Advance are likely to be in much greater demand. For now, the site is hoping to prove to government that its investment has been well placed. ’I’ve never allowed anybody to open a bottle of champagne and celebrate,’ said Pearson. ’Building something only takes you so far. Now, we have to prove its value and I’m excited to see where that takes us.’ Hopefully, for ITS users, this won’t be down another dead-end street.

vehicle testing

Advanced hybrid car uses mobile phone communications, GPS and mapping data

The Sentience intelligent advanced hybrid vehicle is one type of system suitable for testing on the innovITS Advance site. The technology enables vehicles to ’see’ beyond the horizon through the use of internet-enabled mobile phone communications, GPS and advanced mapping data. Based on route information from these systems, the Sentience vehicle can calculate and follow the best driving strategy. Its control system adjusts vehicle speed, acceleration and deceleration via its adaptive cruise control. Integrating these technologies into the car’s own hybrid control system has already allowed the engineers on the project to demonstrate fuel savings of between five and 24 per cent.