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We Drive a Fleet of Land Rover Test Mules to See the Future of Off-Roading

We know it’s coming. Probably sooner than we want. And it scares the hell out of us. Autonomous, connected driving is the future of active vehicle safety, and every major manufacturer is heavily invested in making it happen. Jaguar Land Rover is no exception.

But rather than working on a future where personal transportation is reduced to driverless ground drones delivering you from Point A to Point B without so much as a hand on the wheel, Land Rover’s engineers envision a suite of advanced technologies to ensure an engaged driver still gets as much enjoyment out of his vehicle as possible, whether on the pavement or off. We recently had special access to the company’s otherwise restricted Gaydon proving grounds to play with a handful of development mules packed with a variety of new technologies that will – eventually – add to the arsenal of tools that already make Land Rovers uniquely capable in all situations

The show-and-tell demonstrations highlighted technologies that really fall into two separate but related categories – semi-autonomous driving, where the car’s sensors and activators can assist a driver in certain circumstances, and car-to-car communication, where vehicles transmit and receive each other’s driving data to prepare in advance for changing situations.

The hardware for most of these systems is largely on the shelf already, things like sonar and lidar sensors, and stereo and infrared cameras. What still requires development is the logic, programming and testing to make all these things work together in a way that not only seems natural to those of us already used to driving ourselves, but also doesn’t introduce new scenarios that would never arise out of human logic alone.

The bright spot is that once these systems are fully developed and implemented, they have the potential to not only seamlessly prevent life-threatening accidents, but also enhance the enjoyment of more active driving activities like off-roading. Here’s a rundown of what we got to play with and our analysis of their functionality in the real world.

Overhead Clearance Assist
We’ve probably all been there. Whether it’s a city parking deck or a low branch over the trail, chances are you there’s come a time when you’ve crept along slowly, wincing in anticipation of the inevitable scrape across your roof as you pray your vehicle is low enough to actually clear the obstacle overhead. Even with a sign to indicate maximum height, you’re never quite sure how tall your vehicle really is.

Overhead Clearance Assist uses a windshield mounted stereo camera system to scan the path ahead and warn the driver of potential hazards. These could be anything from a fast-food drive-thru canopy to the underside of a low underpass. A visual notice in the center display of our test cars issued fair warning in the pre-staged situations we encountered, but a production version might also include an audio alert similar to the ones used in conjunction with park distance sensors.

Land-Rover-Overhead-Clearance-Assist

The key to this system’s effectiveness is making sure the vehicle knows how tall it is before you start driving. Vehicles so equipped would have a default height setting based on standard ride height, and presumably the system would detect changes in height based on load or off-road suspension settings. Where it gets trickier is when you load the roof, such as with bikes, skis, rooftop tents, spare tires and jerry cans. It’s likely the manufacturer would install some pre-set profiles, such as for a factory rack loaded with standard-size mountain bikes, for instance.

Where it may get trickier is with user-specific payloads, whether it’s a rack-mounted solar shower or your neighbor’s old couch. In these cases, the driver would be responsible for entering an overall height through the information system. It’s not unreasonable to expect you’d be able to set user-defined profiles – “Baja roof rack/Tepui tent,” perhaps

We like this feature a lot. It has the potential to spare the driver costly and embarrassing damage and it should be minimally intrusive in the background. It also has practical applications, both on road and off.

Terrain-Based Speed Adaption (TBSA)
All Terrain Progress Control, recently introduced on Range Rover models, is essentially an off-road version of cruise control, merging conventional speed control with Hill Descent Control to let the driver maintain a predetermined pace and simply steer while let the truck modulates the throttle and brakes. But what if the vehicle had advanced knowledge of what’s coming up ahead and could make proactive adjustments based on changes in the road surface? Terrain-Based Speed Adaption, or TBSA, does exactly that. Think of it as cruise control with a keen sense of the road ahead.

Using the same windshield-mounted stereo cameras employed by the adaptive cruise control system, TBSA reads the road ahead for changes in the surface to adjust speed accordingly. This could be as small as a change from asphalt to loose gravel to water, or as large as crests and ditches in the pathway. By reading steering inputs, it also scans the predicted path, reading through curves

Scanning up to 30 meters ahead, the system determines when it needs to adjust speed (throttle and/or braking) to deal with changes in surface, based on a pre-set target speed. It also uses feedback from the vehicle’s internal sensors to make further adjustments on the fly, just in case it over- or underestimated the situation.

Land-Rover-Terrain-Based-Speed-Adaption

Like the Overhead Clearance Assist feature, TBSA has practical use on pavement or off-road. However, it really shines on unpaved terrain. To ensure safe arrival at one’s destination, most off-road driving is done under the mantra “As slow as you can, as fast as you must.” TBSA seems to turn that logic on its head, allowing you to proceed as fast as you want, and only as slow as you must, when you must.

For the inexperienced off-roader, TBSA has the potential to instill a lot of confidence, and an active driver should be able to improve his own skills by paying attention to the changes in speed with conditions. In combination with All Terrain Progress Control, it should make easy work of challenging surfaces. If there’s a downside, it’s that the driver has to engage it, like cruise control. It only works when prompted.

Surface ID
Ever wander onto a dirt road only to discover it’s actually soft sand, a situation that requires a different strategy? Yeah, us neither, but it’s safe to say things aren’t always what they seem. Using a pair of ultrasonics sensors on the front of the vehicle – one to transmit a signal and one to receive – the Surface ID system reads the density of the path five meters ahead to automatically adjust the Terrain response system in anticipation of changing traction needs.

Where the current Terrain Response system’s automatic program is reactive, responding to detected differences in available grip, Surface ID has the potential to make it proactive, switching up traction parameters at the very instant the changes are needed.

Land-Rover-Surface -ID

Still in the early stages – the sensors were literally mounted externally on a bracket well ahead of the front bumper on our development vehicle – the challenge for the engineers is correlating the data measured by the sensors. That means a lot of time on a variety of surfaces in a variety of conditions recording details like whether it’s loose soil or clay, wet grass or dry grass, and so on.

The most practical case for Surface ID is in off-road conditions, but it could also be helpful on-road, particularly as snow accumulates during a storm. There’s still some work to be done, not least of which is integrating the hardware, but this is another system that will likely run seamlessly in the background, with driver and passengers likely unaware of the job it’s actually doing.

Off-Road Connected Convoy
Imagine a future club day on the trails where all of the vehicles in the convoy are communicating with one another in the background. The convoy’s lead vehicle is setting the pace, and as the drivers follow behind, their vehicles automatically display the exact path the leader took through a given obstacle, right down to the steering angle, throttle and braking. That’s the potential for Off-Road Connected Convoy.

Instead of a cackle of radio communication about every change in direction or speed, the vehicles would automatically be fed vital information about the trail ahead. Through a daisy-chain communication system using Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) technology, each truck would remain connected to the rest of the convoy within a range of up to one kilometer. In theory, a group of six connected vehicles could be spread out as far as five kilometers (roughly three miles) and still be connected. The engineers claim there’s no practical limit to the number of connected vehicles in a convoy either, or at least they haven’t found one.

Land-Rover-Off-Road-Connected-Convoy

Drivers or passengers in any vehicle in the convoy could drop notes at exact GPS coordinates to indicate anything from a fallen tree to a photo opportunity on the trail. Though not part of the demonstration, the engineers confirmed that systems such as tire pressure monitoring could also feed the convoy, so that if the last truck in the pack were to experience a puncture, for instance, the rest of the convoy would be aware of the stopped vehicle and know that it has a flat.

Connected Convoy adds another dimension to off-roading in groups. It still allows drivers to make their own decisions based on what they perceive, but it arms them with more information in advance, allowing them to make adjustments to speed and approach before it’s too late. It’s also a great way to ensure safe passage of everyone in a group. No man – or woman – left behind, ever. We look forward to this one showing up.

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