Volvo experimenting with magnets to keep self-driving cars on track
Tests include embedding small ferrite magnets in the roadway and sensors on a vehicle.
If you liked to play with cars as a kid, one of your first experiences with self-driving vehicles may have been with an HO-scale electric racing set. The tiny vehicles — or “slot cars,” as they're called — are held to the track via the engine's magnets and guided by a pin beneath the chassis that fits into a slot in each lane.
Volvo is testing a similar concept to keep life-sized autonomous cars in their lane, but by using magnets embedded in the roadway rather than slots and guide pins to help keep a self-driving vehicle on track.
“The magnets create an invisible 'railway' that literally paves the way for a positioning inaccuracy of [about 4 inches],” Jonas Ekmark, preventive safety leader for Volvo Car Group, said in a statement. According to Volvo, the benefits of magnet guidance allow self-driving vehicles to be unaffected by poor weather conditions and physical obstacles that can make GPS and camera technologies vulnerable to failure.
And besides making the path of self-driving cars more accurate, guiding a wide range of vehicles via magnets has other advantages.
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Volvo pointed to road safety applications from helping to prevent accidents by keeping cars in their lanes on a snow-covered road to guiding maintenance crews or emergency personnel in inclement weather. It added that the use of magnets could also allow for narrower lanes and therefore more efficient use of road space.
In cooperation with the Swedish Transport Administration (Trafikverket), Volvo is testing the magnet concept on a 100-yard track at the automaker’s test facilities outside its headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. A research vehicle has several magnetic field sensors installed to detect a pattern of 1.5-inch by 0.5-inch ferrite magnets installed below the track’s surface.
The primary objectives for the research program are to evaluate the technology's reliability, durability, detection sensitivity, cost and how it could affect road maintenance. “We have tested the technology at a variety of speeds and the results so far are promising,” Ekmark said.
“Our experience so far is that ferrite magnets are an efficient, reliable and relatively cheap solution, both when it comes to the infrastructure and on-board sensor technology,” he added. "The next step is to conduct tests in real-life traffic."
If those tests are successful, magnets could someday "pull" us into a potentially safer and more efficient mode of autonomous driving, while also solving other transportation infrastructure challenges.
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