Renault’s experiments with driverless tech at the cusp of going mainstream

S. Muralidhar | Updated on: May 23, 2019

Being chauffeured in the autonomous ZOE cab is novel, but ...

It would seem like two disconnected, parallel developments, but the electrification of cars and the emergence of self-driving technology have become batchmates, merging and presenting what looks like the inevitable future of mobility. Today this immediately conjures up the image of concepts and prototypes that look like pods or glass bubbles that can potentially drive around by themselves while the car’s occupants knit sweaters, engage in animated conversation, work on that pending PPT or do something ‘handy’ on the rear seat (like the recent Tesla controversy).

Every major car-maker is engaged in research and development aimed at eventually launching road-legal autonomous electric vehicles in the next decade. And in the absence of an IC engine, with the miniaturisation of cameras and controls, and without the need for a conventional dashboard, these cars could come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Many of the features in current day passenger cars (including in IC engine vehicles) are actually modules or small parts of advanced autonomous vehicles. So, features like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, parking assist and cross-traffic alert form part of the network of hardware and the software in vehicles that are rated at Level 4 autonomous. Of course, there is even more tech in these vehicles to identify potential hazardous situations on the road and take corrective action.

Evolving tech

American EV-maker Tesla has been the most vocal about its cars and their autonomous driving capabilities. As the most successful EV-maker with a host of self-driving capabilities, it has been in the news for all the right reasons, but has also had more than a fair share of controversies. A string of accidents have highlighted that its systems are yet to be perfected and that complete autonomous driving is still a few years away. But other manufacturers have also been quietly working on their own self-driving cars. Today, Level 3 autonomous is not hard to come by in the portfolio of many car-makers. Soon most Japanese and European brands will have cars at Level 4. One brand that already has an experimental fleet of self-driving cars running on regular roads is French car major Renault. I’ve ridden self-driving car prototypes on test tracks under extremely controlled conditions and experienced the self-driving tech in Teslas and Mercedes-Benz’s cars over short stretches of road.

But, to experience an autonomous car completely free of any intervention on regular roads, I travelled to Paris last week where Renault is running a fleet of three electric, self-driving ZOEs within the campus of the University of Paris-Saclay. It is a good idea to test self-driving cars within the confines of a university campus because while it is nearly identical to the conditions outside, the number of variables are not as complex and chaotic as the centre of town. In the case of Paris, some of the areas near the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe can be as chaotic as Mumbai’s streets.

The ZOE is a familiar car, because the electric and the IC engine versions of this B+ segment hatch are already popular in many parts of Europe. As part of a French project, Groupe Renault operates an on-demand car service with electric and autonomous Renault ZOE Cab prototype vehicles on the Paris-Saclay urban campus.

The service is designed to provide many pick-up and drop-off points, which do not interfere with other traffic and are located near (never much more than 300 metres from) the most frequented campus areas. If needed, the vehicle stops on the way to pick up another passenger travelling along all or part of the same route.

Back to school

People travelling to the campus by public transportation will be able to use the service to freely move around the site. Currently, the users are pre-identified and have access to a specially created smartphone App that allows them to book or call for the ZOE cab. The app can also be used within the vehicle to track progress and drop-off times etc.

The autonomous ZOE cab itself is not much different from the regular ZOE EV, which sports the special light blue paint job and has blue tinted headlamps. The difference of course is in the number of cameras, and additional, GPS sensors, RADARs and LIDARs mounted onboard and on the roof of the car. Some of these systems are being miniaturised and may eventually only seem like small appendendages on the roof of the car. A few of the prototypes that are currently part of the experiment already feature a front passenger seat which has been turned in reverse to face the rear seat passengers, so that a lounge-like atmosphere can be created. The prototypes also feature a larger right rear door for an easier and safer entry into the vehicle. Inside the car, the dashboard, steering wheel and controls are similar to the ones found in the regular ZOE, but the autonomous prototype features cameras and screens to monitor and offer information to the occupants. There is also on-ground infrastructure such as wifi-connected traffic lights, thermal cameras and sensors on the other side of roundabouts to enable the autonomous to be even more accurate than human intuition.

For my trip, the Renault officials at the university booked a ride to a small shopping area within the campus. My ride is a generation-older ZOE prototype compared to the latest one showcased by Renault at the Paris Viva Tech show earlier in the day.

Even as I’m wondering why it has arrived with a driver at the wheel, I was told that French law requires that a safety driver be present and alert at the wheel of all self-drive cars. I slide into the passenger seat, belt-up and confirm the route and trip, and the car instantly starts moving forward.

The steering wheel turns automatically after the turn indicator has been activated to alert oncoming traffic and we were off. Along the way, the car detects speed limit information, status of traffic signals and lane markings to stay on course, and obey road rules. But, more importantly, it detects pedestrians and other road users and carefully avoids them or stops for them even if they are distracted. We did face a situation where the car took a right turn at the signal and two shoppers decided to quickly cross over to the other side of the road. The self-drive prototype threw up an audible alert and then braked hard to come to an instant stop before moving forward after the pedestrians had crossed over. All through the trip and back, the safety driver had his hands on his knees and stayed alert, but never once took control of the wheel.

The future?

Renault’s future prototypes will feature even more autonomous tech and cabin styles that are more lounge-like.

In fact, the next ZOE cab prototype at the Viva Tech show features a forewing, scissor-style single door on the kerbside to enable both front and rear passengers to enter and exit with ease. The safety driver zone has also been isolated just like in a real cab.

Many of the new features are likely to take these new prototypes past Level 4 autonomous and the scope of the Paris experiment could widen and take on a larger geography with each passing year.

For petrol-heads like me, these could make cars more and more like appliances meant to just finish one’s commute in and not so much an extension of our lives. There is no denying the novelty of the experience of sitting in driverless car, but would I call it exciting? Not really.

Published on May 23, 2019
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