NEWS

19 October 2021

How does LiDAR work?

How does LiDAR work?

We talk a lot about autonomous vehicles at Darwin; they’re a fascinating subject, after all. In our posts about autonomy levels and autonomous convoys, though, we haven’t addressed one of the most interesting autonomy questions: how do autonomous vehicles work?

This is a broad topic, so it makes sense to take it one step at a time. In today’s post, we’re going to talk about LiDAR sensors, and how self-driving cars use them to make sense of their surroundings.

We talk a lot about autonomous vehicles at Darwin; they’re a fascinating subject, after all. In our posts about autonomy levels and autonomous convoys, though, we haven’t addressed one of the most interesting autonomy questions: how do autonomous vehicles work? This is a broad topic, so it makes sense to take it one step at a time. In today’s post, we’re going to talk about LiDAR sensors, and how self-driving cars use them to make sense of their surroundings. What is LiDAR? LiDAR stands for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’. You might notice its similarity to ‘radar’, an acronym so common it’s usually written lowercase, which stands for ‘Radio Detection and Ranging’. LiDAR and radar are similar; both systems send out electromagnetic waves and measure how long it takes those waves to be reflected back to a sensor. In doing so, they can determine how far away things are and build an image of their surroundings. Radar does this by sending out radio waves, whereas LiDAR does the same thing using light. Autonomous vehicle developers, such as Navya, often incorporate LiDAR sensors into their vehicles. How do autonomous vehicles see using LiDAR? If a vehicle is designed to operate without a human driver, it needs to be able to ‘see’. You can use satellite navigation to tell an autonomous vehicle where it is, where it needs to go and what route it needs to take in order to get there. This is valuable information, but it’s not enough by itself. With maps and satnav alone, a vehicle might know that there’s a building to the left, but it won’t know that a sheep has wandered into the road. Autonomous vehicles need to be able to monitor their surroundings in real time, because it’s not possible to inform them of every potential obstacle in advance. Light famously travels at phenomenal speed, which means that LiDAR sensors can pick up on changes in the environment almost instantly. This is valuable for autonomous vehicles, which need to detect and respond to obstacles straight away in order to operate safely. Navya’s autonomous shuttles use a large number of sensors to monitor their surroundings, including LiDAR sensors. Two LiDAR sensors, located above the vehicle’s front windscreen, can each detect obstacles in a 360° range. Six more LiDAR sensors, each able to detect obstacles in a 180° range, are distributed across the rest of the vehicle. These LiDAR sensors are accompanied by cameras, odometry sensors and a GNSS antenna for satellite navigation. All of these constantly feed information to the shuttle’s onboard computer, and the computer uses this information to make navigation decisions in real time. You can read more about Navya’s use of LiDAR on the Navya website. We’re currently trialling one of these autonomous shuttles at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, with the European Space Agency and UK Space Agency’s support. We’re hoping to have more to share about it soon, so keep an eye on our news page! What else is LiDAR used for? LiDAR sensors aren’t exclusively used for autonomous vehicles. They can also be found on roads in a very different context: they’re used in some speed cameras and handheld speed detection devices. A LiDAR speed detection device will send out a pulse of light to determine the position of a vehicle, then a second pulse to determine how far the vehicle has moved. By comparing the distance the vehicle has travelled against the time between the pulses, the device can determine how fast the vehicle is moving. There are also uses for LiDAR off the road. Some phone developers have started incorporating LiDAR sensors into the cameras of their products. The depth recognition of LiDAR makes it possible to improve camera focus and augmented reality apps. 3D scanning is another interesting thing that LiDAR is capable of. It’s possible to move around an object or environment with a LiDAR sensor, scanning it, and create a digital 3D model of that model or environment. This has strong possibilities for, for example, video games. In the 2018 blog post ‘Announcing Project Atlas’, EA’s chief technology officer Ken Moss writes about how LiDAR can be used on a game development platform: In one example, we are using high-quality LIDAR data about real mountain ranges, passing that data through a deep neural network trained to create terrain-building algorithms, and then creating an algorithm which will be available within the platform’s development toolbox. With this AI-assisted terrain generation, designers will within seconds generate not just a single mountain, but a series of mountains and all the surrounding environment with the realism of the real-world. Although many of LiDAR’s uses may seem futuristic, it can also help to give us a better understanding of the past. Archaeologists can use LiDAR from the air to gain a detailed view of a landscape, making it easier to spot signs of human impact. Light can’t penetrate the ground, but to some extent it can show what’s under vegetation; BBC Future has an article talking about how LiDAR gave new insight into a Mayan city hidden in the Belizean jungle. At Darwin, we’re mainly interested in LiDAR’s applications for autonomous vehicles, but it’s a fascinating and versatile tool. With all these uses, it might not be long before ‘LiDAR’ is as common a household term as ‘radar’ is now.
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5 October 2021

Blue Peter and the Science Minister on the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle

Blue Peter and the Science Minister on the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle

We had some special guests on the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle last week! It was a pleasure to welcome Blue Peter and the UK’s new science minister to Harwell Science and Innovation Campus on 27 September.

We had some special guests on the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle last week! It was a pleasure to welcome Blue Peter and the UK’s new science minister to Harwell Science and Innovation Campus on 27 September. Science minister George Freeman was at Harwell to launch the national space strategy at the UK Space Conference. While he was here, he took a ride in our self-driving shuttle, created by Navya. The last time we mentioned this shuttle, it was being introduced to the public at Aviva’s headquarters. It’s now driving itself up and down roads at Harwell, in a trial supported by ESA and the UK Space Agency, and it’s great to see it in operation. It was also great to meet the Blue Peter team, who filmed a bit for the show in the shuttle. We’re looking forward to seeing it in action on a future episode! Many thanks to our guests; it was good to have you here, and we hope you enjoyed the ride! We’re hoping to have more news about the autonomous shuttle soon, so keep an eye out. Update: The shuttle and one of our drones appeared in the latest episode of Blue Peter, 'New Competition Alert'! You can watch it on iPlayer over here. If you're in a hurry, you'll find the drone at around 6m30s and the shuttle around the 9m20s mark.
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21 September 2021

Autonomous convoys: the future of the road?

Autonomous convoys: the future of the road?

We’ve touched on the subject of autonomous vehicle convoys a couple of times in previous articles. Convoying is a broad topic that’s brimming with possibility, though, so it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at it. In today’s post, we’re talking about the possibilities of autonomous vehicle convoys.

We’ve touched on the subject of autonomous vehicle convoys a couple of times in previous articles: for example, our articles on the possibilities of 5G and on how self-driving cars can benefit the environment. Convoying is a broad topic that’s brimming with possibility, though, so it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at it. In today’s post, we’re talking about the possibilities of autonomous vehicle convoys. What is an autonomous vehicle convoy? In an autonomous vehicle convoy, multiple self-driving vehicles follow each other closely along the same route, with the lead vehicle setting the pace. These vehicles can connect to each other and feed each other information. Each vehicle in the convoy is aware of the position and speed of the vehicle ahead of it at all times, and can adjust its own behaviour accordingly. Autonomous vehicles don’t have to be sent out in convoys to benefit from this. In theory, an individual autonomous vehicle could detect another autonomous vehicle on the road and communicate with it over a 5G or satellite connection. This means that the vehicles would be able to behave like a convoy for as long as they’re travelling in the same direction, then go their own ways. Increasing road throughput with connected vehicles No matter how fast the cars on a road are travelling, that road can only hold a certain number of cars. Even in good conditions, you should keep at least a two-second gap between yourself and the car in front, so you can react if that car stops suddenly. This space requirement means that, in normal traffic, large amounts of space on the road aren’t being used. That doesn’t mean the space is being wasted, of course; it’s crucial to have that space between vehicles in order to reduce the risk of accidents. What if we didn’t need to leave that space in order to drive safely, though? Imagine if roads had a lane dedicated to autonomous vehicles, similar to a bus lane. The autonomous vehicles can move in sync; each one is connected to the one in front, and the entire convoy can brake or accelerate simultaneously. There’s no need for a two-second gap, because a self-driving car doesn’t need time to think before reacting to an unexpected development. If one of the vehicles needs to brake sharply, all the vehicles behind it will receive the information that it’s braking and brake at the same time. This would hugely increase the number of moving cars the road can hold. Think about how a traffic jam can pack a lane with cars. The theoretical autonomous vehicle lane would be able to hold that many vehicles even if they were moving quickly, rather than at a standstill. This means greater throughput, more efficient travel and fewer traffic jams. Of course, we don’t necessarily want every inch of every road to be filled with cars, even if they’re moving smoothly and quickly. For environmental reasons, governments can’t focus exclusively on making travel by road in private vehicles more convenient; they should also invest in greener modes of transport, such as cycling and trains. However, autonomous convoys do have some environmental benefits, which we’ll go into below. Smooth movement for energy efficiency In a convoy of connected autonomous vehicles, the vehicles can accelerate or brake at the same rate and the same time. Except in the case of emergency braking, there’s no need for sudden changes in speed. If one vehicle speeds up, the vehicle behind can speed up smoothly to keep pace with it, rather than waiting for the distance to increase and then accelerating sharply. If one vehicle slows down, the vehicle behind will expect the change in speed and won’t need to brake suddenly, as a human driver might if taken by surprise. This smooth driving can save fuel. Sharp acceleration and sudden braking increase fuel consumption. Vehicles in an autonomous convoy can avoid unnecessary changes in speed, with a lower cost both for the vehicles’ owners and for the environment. Has an autonomous convoy ever actually driven on the road? As far back as 2012, in a test organised by Volvo, a convoy of self-driving cars travelled 125 miles on a Spanish motorway; you can read the BBC News article on it here. The lead vehicle was driven by a human, but the three vehicles following it were all autonomous. Although the lead vehicle wasn’t autonomous, the following vehicles were connected to it wirelessly. As we’ve described, they were able to react instantly to any action the lead vehicle took, such as braking or accelerating. This test also illustrates the fact that autonomous vehicles don’t necessarily need to drive with the same gap between them as human-driven vehicles. The convoy was travelling at 52 mph on the motorway. At 50 mph in dry conditions, the AA advises leaving approximately 55 metres between your car and the car in front, so you have enough time to stop if necessary. Volvo’s autonomous convoy was able to travel safely with a gap between vehicles of just 6 metres. Autonomous vehicles may not yet be a part of everyday life, but the benefits of autonomous convoys aren’t just theoretical. We’re looking forward to seeing those benefits in action.
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7 September 2021

The history and future of vehicle insurance

The history and future of vehicle insurance

Car insurance became compulsory in the UK close to a century ago, but it’s undergone many changes since then. New laws have been introduced, old ones have been altered, and the way uninsured vehicles are found has changed. In the near future, we’re likely to see even more changes as autonomous vehicles take to our roads.

In this article, we’re taking a quick look at some of the ways vehicle insurance has changed over the years, and at how it’s changing today.

Car insurance became compulsory in the UK close to a century ago, but it’s undergone many changes since then. New laws have been introduced, old ones have been altered, and the way uninsured vehicles are found has changed. In the near future, we’re likely to see even more changes as autonomous vehicles take to our roads. In this article, we’re taking a quick look at some of the ways vehicle insurance has changed over the years, and at how it’s changing today. Why is vehicle insurance important? Cars are an extremely useful tool, but they can also be dangerous. If a car causes harm to a person or damage to property, there are costs involved, and they can be more than the driver is able to pay. In that case, both the driver and anyone else affected by the accident will be left in a difficult situation. By requiring all vehicle owners to take out insurance, the law aims to ensure that, if there’s an accident, an insurance company will be able to step in and pay the necessary costs. Those affected by the accident can be compensated without bankrupting the driver. The origins and present of compulsory vehicle insurance Car insurance first became compulsory in the UK with the Road Traffic Act 1930. There are aspects of the act that didn’t last for long – for example, it abolished speed limits, which would return five years later – but compulsory vehicle insurance is still around, although it’s changed over time. The Road Traffic Act 1930 required drivers to be insured against physical harm caused to any person by the use of a vehicle. Present-day law, set out by the Road Traffic Act 1988, has added a requirement for insurance against property damage. For a while, it was possible to make a deposit of £500,000 with the Accountant General of the Senior Courts instead of taking out vehicle insurance. Few drivers could afford this alternative, of course, and it was taken up only by a small number of companies. The option was removed in 2019, in part because the £500,000 deposit might not be enough to cover a claim. Although you’re only required to insure against harm your vehicle might cause to third parties, you might also choose to insure your vehicle against any damage that might befall it: theft, vandalism or destruction by fire, for example. Before cameras on phones became widespread, claimants would often need to draw a picture of the incident that led to the claim. If you’d like to see some of the resulting works of art, take a look at Aviva’s excellent ‘Claims, blames and automobiles’, which also touches on some aspects of motor insurance history that aren’t covered here. Continuous insurance enforcement In the current version of the Road Traffic Act 1988, section 144A(1) dictates that vehicles must be insured at all times: If a motor vehicle registered under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 does not meet the insurance requirements, the person in whose name the vehicle is registered is guilty of an offence. In other words, even if a car isn’t driven for a few months, it’s illegal to let the insurance lapse during that time. This rule is called continuous insurance enforcement, and it came into effect in 2011. It’s possible to declare a vehicle ‘off the road’, in which case it doesn’t need to be taxed or insured. This involves making a Statutory Off Road Notification (SORN) to the DVLA, after which the vehicle can no longer be driven or parked on public roads. How uninsured vehicles are found Until 2014, car owners in the UK were required to display a valid tax disc on their car. This was a receipt for payment of vehicle tax, but it also helped to show that the vehicle had been insured, as it isn’t possible to tax a vehicle without insurance. Tax discs were abolished on 1 October 2014, as electronic systems meant it was no longer necessary to issue physical discs. Nowadays, the Motor Insurance Database (MID) is used to keep track of the insurance status of vehicles in the UK. UK insurers are legally required to provide information about the vehicles they insure to the database, meaning that, in theory, the MID has a record of all the insured vehicles in the country. The police have access to this database and can use it to check whether a vehicle has a valid insurance policy. Cameras with automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology, such as speed cameras, can recognise the number plates of passing vehicles. These number plates are checked automatically against the MID to ensure that the vehicles are insured. Insuring autonomous vehicles UK legislation specifies that a person must not use a vehicle without insurance. Section 143(1a) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 reads: a person must not use a motor vehicle on a road or other public place unless there is in force in relation to the use of the vehicle by that person such a policy of insurance as complies with the requirements of this Part of this Act Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Road Traffic Act 1988 doesn’t consider the possibility of autonomous vehicles. There are different levels of vehicle autonomy, and at the moment the law only allows for vehicles up to level 2 on UK roads. A level 2 vehicle can assist the driver with steering, acceleration and braking under certain conditions, but it’s still being operated by a human at all times. At higher levels of autonomy, the human in the car is no longer considered the driver. Before these vehicles can be allowed on our roads, we need to be able to insure them. This means that insurance companies will need to tackle a brand new question: how do you insure a vehicle when it’s not driven by a person? The cost of vehicle insurance is calculated based on the driver’s estimated risk of needing to make a claim. Insuring an autonomous vehicle will require an entirely new set of calculations. For example, the age of a self-driving car doesn’t affect driving risk in the same way as the age of a human driver. How should autonomous vehicles be insured? At Darwin, we’ve partnered with Aviva to help answer this question. Using the information we gather through autonomous vehicle trials, Aviva aims to offer comprehensive insurance for autonomous vehicles. Insurance is compulsory for all vehicles on the road, which means we won’t see self-driving cars in wide use until they can be insured. Alongside Aviva, we’re working to bring that day closer.
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2 September 2021

Aviva and Darwin announce the registration of a passenger shuttle designed for use in an autonomous vehicle trial

Aviva and Darwin announce the registration of a passenger shuttle designed for use in an autonomous vehicle trial

Aviva and Darwin have announced a milestone in their five-year strategic partnership with the registration of a passenger shuttle for use in autonomous vehicle trials. The shuttle, created by Navya, will be used to demonstrate the potential of self-driving cars and gather information about their operation.

Aviva plc and Darwin Innovation Group announced their five-year strategic partnership in June. Aviva will use the results of trials of this shuttle to inform its approach to the insurance of autonomous vehicles and associated technologies. On 2 September 2021, the shuttle will be introduced to the public at Aviva’s London headquarters. Aviva and Darwin have announced a milestone in their five-year strategic partnership with the registration of a passenger shuttle for use in autonomous vehicle trials. The shuttle, created by Navya, will be used to demonstrate the potential of self-driving cars and gather information about their operation. Aviva will use data from these trials to evolve its current motor insurance products, enabling it to provide comprehensive cover for autonomous vehicles and associated technologies as they begin to operate on UK roads. From 11am to 4pm on 2 September 2021 (today), Aviva and Darwin are holding a public event to introduce the shuttle outside St Helen’s, Aviva’s head office in the City of London. The shuttle won’t be in operation at the event, but members of the public will have the opportunity to see the vehicle. Darwin began conducting activities involving self-driving technology about two years ago, with the support of the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency. Darwin is also involved in the O2–Darwin SatCom Lab, a collaboration between Darwin and O2 at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, where Darwin and other organisations can test and refine self-driving technology. Darwin is currently working to enable reliable connectivity on the move by combining terrestrial and satellite communications, with the aid of the European Space Agency, mobile provider O2 and satellite operator HISPASAT. Nick Amin, Chief Operating Officer at Aviva, said: “It’s exciting to bring this autonomous vehicle to our London headquarters so that people can witness the future of mobility in the making. There is no better place to unveil the vehicle than at Aviva with its long heritage in motor insurance, dating back to the very earliest vehicles. “This is a great example of Aviva serving as an enabler – in this case, for important advancements in mobility, by providing insurance for the shuttle to be used on the UK’s roads. The data from this trial will help Aviva to better understand the future of mobility and shape our motor insurance policies for the vehicles of the future. I can’t think of a better demonstration of our core purpose, ‘with you today for a better tomorrow’.” Sophia Ward, Operations Manager at Darwin, said: “We are delighted to have registered this purpose-built connected autonomous shuttle for use on publicly accessible roads at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire. This is a significant regulatory milestone on the road to making CAV mobility a reality, and an exciting step on our innovative journey to realising the potential of ubiquitous communications. This latest achievement follows on from our successful trial of a connected mobile testing vehicle in Cornwall, supported by our partners and sponsors O2, HISPASAT and the European Space Agency, without whom this wouldn’t have been possible. We now look forward to announcing future trials involving this exciting new technology soon.” Sergio Budkin, Director of Market Development at Virgin Media O2, said: “We are very excited to see this self-driving technology, powered by our 5G network and HISPASAT’s satellite communication, in action. We are proud to support Darwin R&D in developing this technology and we are confident that this innovation is set to add value to a number of different business sectors, public services and the general public.” Pierre Lahutte, CEO of Navya, said: “At Navya, we have been convinced for many years that autonomous vehicles have tremendous potential to provide a sustainable and efficient solution for passengers’ transportation. This partnership enables Navya to strengthen its technology and demonstrate the benefit that autonomous transport can bring in complex environments. We look forward to working together and thank our partners for their confidence.”
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