A major manufacturing group who trusts UTC

Virginie Maillard, Exec. Director of R&D with the Renault Car-making group describe the full potential of the offer of the new joint lab. SIVALab (acronym in French for Lab for Driverless Car Integrated Systems), in a partnership signed with the UTC-CNRS-Heudiasyc Lab.

A major manufacturing group who trusts UTC

For how long has the Renault Group been involved in the concept of driverless cars?

For over two decades now, Renault has been interested in the development of automated devices designed to improve vehicle safety performance. For example, car braking systems that incorporate obstacle detection and vehicle speed regulators were first to benefit from these innovations. Our new models Espace and Scenic already integrate technological driver aids to trigger an emergency stop if a pedestrian inadvertently crosses the road ahead of the car, or if there is a sudden traffic slow-down ahead. The idea here is to free the driver’s time (and mind) for other activities. Gradually, Renault models will incorporate an ever-wider range of solutions to delegate driving to the automats on certain, monotonous, routes (e.g., on long motorway stretches or in traffic jams). As of 2020, we hope to be able to put our first 100% driverless vehicle on the market, which will be quite a step forward.

 What role can UTC play in this area of research?

 We have been working on these topics with scientists at the UTC-Heudiasyc Lab, on a research contract basis, for over 10 years now. The creation of the SIVALab, inaugurated March 3, 2017, provides a solid 4 year base for our partnership. We chose UTC because of the excellent track-record and skills at the Heudiasyc Lab, particularly in terms of on-board data acquisition systems, which are quite unique. SIVALab is the only example in France of a Renault partnership with an academic laboratory centred on this thematic.

What new opportunities are offered by SIVALab?

 SIVALab makes it possible to share human resources and equipment infrastructures. Qualified engineers and PhD students at Renault combine their efforts with the members of the UTC-Heudiasyc Lab. Some Renault ZOE (all electric) cars will be provided, inasmuch as electric vehicles lend themselves to driverless mode experiments. The electric propulsion unit is easier to remotely control. Moreover, this vehicle fits in well with the image Renault wants for its future cars: ecological, driverless and connected.

 What special themes will be studied at SIVALab?

 The fifteen SIVALab research scientists will study some inherently difficult problems that relate to improvement of perception systems to analyse the near-vehicle environment and its localization in reference to a land coordinate map. In order to attain this objective, we must make the data forwarded by the on-board cameras, radars and associate connections, more reliable. Current precision of GPS units is down to 1m but this is not enough to control a vehicle in a driverless mode (where a 1 cm accuracy is required). By considerably improving communication with the roadside infrastructures and with other road users in the same area, we shall be in a position to consolidate GPS data.

Philippe Bonnifait, a specialist in robotics at UTC-Heudiasyc Lab and lecturer in computer sciences and applications, has been appointed Director of SIVALab. He explains the relevance and the scientific assignments of the new structure.

 What role will UTC be playing in research on driverless vehicles?

 Following the launch of several Cifre collaborative schemes, PAMU (2010-2015) was the name of a collaborative project which enabled us to build close contacts and exchanges with Renault’s R&D teams. We were looking for a solution to foresee a vehicle park in driverless mode. The slow manoeuver speed and the fact that we are experimenting on an off-road site allowed us to design a ‘first’ fully automatic manoeuver, including an emergency stop function should a pedestrian get in the way. With acceptable priced sensors, we were able to design, assemble and produce a new technology accessible to the public at large. At the time, this innovation was deemed, however, to be a gadget. At the time too, we spoke of ‘smart’ cars rather than ‘driverless’ cars … Things have evolved a lot since and UTC-Heudiasyc is now in a pioneer position in this highly promising field. In 2011, UTC was awarded an “excellence” lab label under the Government incentive programme “Investments for the Future” and an ‘Equipex’ named ‘Robotex” in which we already make use of two driverless Renault Zoe cars. The fact that our strong points and success in the field are fully recognized now led Renault logically to propose a long-range partnership with a university laboratory.

 So, what specialties does your research programme cover?

Our research field choices lie in methods and systems for vehicle localization and its environment perception. With these two main themes, we focus on technological strategies that relate to data acquisition and consolidation (the data being provided by maps and GPS receivers) but this allows flexible policy decisions – our research topics can vary as we progress. Industrial priorities will be taken into account while we continue, nonetheless, to carry out the widest ranging research possible. There are numerous potential applications, not only for private cars but also for shuttle transport vehicles and robot taxis, already experimented in Singapore and soon in France. Differing from other concepts such as the Google Car, our line of philosophy, with the car manufacturer Renault Group, consists of providing the driver with an aid but not replacing him/her. The activities assigned to the SIVALab will be coherent with other research projects conducted at UTC-Heudiasyc on the same theme of driverless cars in the framework of the European Galileo geolocalization programme which became operational in December 2016.

 How exactly will this joint laboratory be managed?

 Before SIVALab was established, we used to sign annual research contracts which did not really allow us to envision or plan our work over a mid or long range period. Thanks to this 4 year renewable agreement, we now have a flexible and ambitious road-map with key deadlines. The next three months will be devoted to recruiting research staff. We recall that SIVALab is a three party structure: UTC / CNRS / Renault Group. A steering committee has been appointed to manage operational questions, oversee and monitor research activities. It is essential that these factors be shared. Financial arrangements and intellectual property rights for innovations made and developed in the lab will also be shared between the lab and Renault. This partnership with a major car manufacturing group enables our research activities to change scale. We shall be able to access technological means that were beyond our reach beforehand, such as smart cameras, laser sensors, latest generation GPS receivers and test-tracks for the vehicles.