The HEAT is on

During a three-week test period, the autonomous minibus built by IAV and partners that goes by the project name of HEAT (Hamburg Electric Autonomous Transportation) was put through its paces on public roads in the city of Hamburg. All expectations in terms of performance and safety were fulfilled in the course of the test. At the moment, the vehicle is being prepared for the next stage: in February, it is to operate in a larger area at higher speed.

During the first three weeks of August, HEAT was put through its paces in Hamburg’s HafenCity at speeds of up to max. 15 kilometers per hour. “We had to comply with a defined small circuit round a block of houses as we have to apply for a permit for autonomous driving on specific route sections”, reports Veit Lemke, Executive Project Manager at IAV and HEAT project leader.

The minibus receives data not only from its own onboard sensors but also from the surrounding infrastructure: radar and lidar sensors had been fitted to roadside masts by project partner Siemens for wireless transmission of the measured values to the vehicle. “This gave HEAT a better idea of what to expect at upcoming junctions, in order to adapt the driving strategy accordingly”, explains Lemke.

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A vehicle attendant was on board at all times during this early test phase and could have triggered an emergency stop at any time to bring the vehicle to a standstill. HEAT’s passengers consisted of development engineers from IAV, tasked with monitoring the technical systems as well as drawing conclusions from how the vehicle performed for subsequent journeys and for the next development stage.

“All those on the demonstration journeys were surprised at how unusual it is to ride in an autonomous vehicle, and were also amazed at all the meticulous care that had gone into the entire development”, reports Stefan Schmidt, Executive Vice President of the Project Management Office at IAV. “But we all felt completely safe after next-to-no time, and all the more determined to make the project a success.”

Many lessons learned in a dynamic setting

The experiences gained will also have a contribution to make. “The test has taught us a great deal in a highly dynamic setting”, says Lemke. “Apart from the fact that this was a densely built-up area, other challenges included the many road users who didn’t always abide by the rules of the road, including fast, flexible e-scooters.” The minibus was fitted with video cameras to register as many of these traffic situations as possible.

The recordings are now being used in simulations for further improvements to HEAT’s autonomous driving functions. All personal data such as registration plates and faces are rendered unrecognizable for privacy reasons. Autonomous driving depends on precise positioning of the vehicle.

“We need accuracy of 15 centimeters, so that GPS alone is not adequate”

Veit Lemke — Executive Project Manager at IAV and HEAT project leader

“During the three-week test, we recorded a high-resolution map of the area to include the position of landmarks such as road signs or hard shoulders.”

At the moment, IAV is preparing the HEAT minibus for the next test phase. In February 2020 the plan is for it to operate in a larger area at speeds of up to maximum 25 kilometers per hour. In addition to the necessary software updates, new components will also be added for this purpose: “For example, an improved joystick by our partner Schaeffler Paravan Technologies (SPT) will be fitted for manual driving”, says Lemke.

“Up to now, we had no possibility of manually evading a hazard situation and had to revert to an emergency stop. In future, the vehicle attendant can intervene in the steering even in automated mode.” Specially trained passengers will be taken on board HEAT for the first time during the next test phase. Every time the vehicle is upgraded, it has to be inspected again by the technical inspection company Dekra, with renewed approval necessary from the authorities. Only then is HEAT allowed back on the roads, fitted with a regular registration plate.