Age of acceptance: Retirement communities embrace driverless shuttles

July 16, 2019  - By
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Two companies have integrated GPS/PNT tech into a growing autonomous vehicle market: driverless shuttles for retirement communities. Powering the service, a cloud-based GNSS corrections system delivers centimeter-level accuracy without deploying and maintaining a GNSS network. This leading-edge application targets autonomy at scale and enables high-precision positioning for mass-market automotive and autonomous vehicle applications.

Photo: Voyage

Photo: Voyage

For many seniors, retirement communities offer the best of both worlds: the freedom to live in their own homes and access to immediate assistance when they need it.

Driverless cars are an option several retirement communities have embraced to better serve residents who no longer have the ability or desire to drive, but want to retain the ability to come and go as they please.

“Autonomous vehicles are a great fit for any community where the environment is well-understood, less complex than dense urban areas, and the transportation demand is high,” said Justin Erlich, vice president of strategy, policy and legal for Palo Alto, California-based Voyage, a company that employs existing technology to develop fleets of autonomous vehicles. “Retirement communities satisfy all of these characteristics.”

Serving Seniors

Voyage deployed driverless shuttles to serve 130,000 retirees at The Villages, a massive retirement community encompassing more than 50 square miles in Sumter County, Florida.

“The community’s residents enjoy an extremely active lifestyle, but often face challenges getting around,” Erlich said. “Autonomous vehicles are perfectly suited to meet this demand.”

The six vehicles in the fleet stay within the confines of the retirement community, where all roads have been precisely mapped, speed limits are lower and traffic patterns are more clearly defined than in a typical city. The vehicles travel over a network of roads that span 750 miles.


THE VILLAGES

Location: Sumter County, Florida
Area: 50 square miles
Road span: 750 miles
Number of retiree residents: More than 130,000
Number of Voyage autonomous vehicles: 6


To request one of Voyage’s autonomous vehicles, a resident can summon the shuttle on-demand with a smartphone. Voyage is working with residents on the possibility of using other shuttle-request options, including text messages, phone calls and well-marked pickup zones in crowded downtown areas, Erlich said.

All passengers ride with Voyage safety drivers in the front seat. The drivers take note of any “events” during rides so Voyage can investigate how to improve the riding experience.

Photo: Voyage

Photo: Voyage

Eventually, residents will be the only passengers in the vehicles. If they need assistance during a ride, they will be able to communicate with remotely located Voyage employees, Erlich said.

Testing and rolling out fleets of driverless vehicles in private communities like The Villages allows Voyage to develop and perfect the autonomous vehicle technology it uses. As a result, the company can deliver the service to new clients in mere months.

Voyage, which has been working on its autonomous technology for more than two years, uses daily customer feedback to constantly adjust to its technologies to better serve riders.

“Feedback collected during test drives is one of the biggest factors in shaping our technology roadmap,” Erlich said. “Driving data — collected across all sensors and traffic scenarios — is automatically processed each night, highlighting interesting ‘events’ for our engineering team to analyze and review.”

During Voyage’s beta test process at The Villages, residents applied to be part of the company’s Pioneer Program for early access to the autonomous vehicles and the ability to offer feedback early on. Riders who test the service complete scorecards after each trip to help improve the experience for all riders.


Europe Takes the Lead

(Tire photo: iStock.com / TANAPHONG)

(Tire photo: iStock.com / TANAPHONG)

Autonomous vehicle technology is taking off in Europe, shows a study published by the European Patent Office and conducted with the European Council for Automotive Research & Development. From 2011 to 2017, European patent applications related to automated driving increased 20 times faster than other technologies in recent years. The “Patents and self-driving vehicles” study reveals automated driving patent applications at the European Patent Office rose 330%, compared with 16% for all technologies during the same time.


“As one of the only self-driving car companies that are picking up actual passengers as a part of our Pioneer Program, we believe we can learn a lot from the feedback we hear from our initial Pioneer riders as we try to make this the best service for The Villages,” said Oliver Cameron, co-founder and CEO of Voyage. “We are excited to see so much interest from other residents to become a part of this program.”

When developing autonomous technology, safety is Voyage’s top priority, Erlich said. Every change to the hardware and software used undergoes a multi-stage validation process. Company engineers perform “on-desk” tests of every change using unit tests, functional tests and a driving simulation environment. Then, an operations team runs suites of real-world traffic and validation tests in a completely controlled environment at a closed-course testing facility in San Jose, California

“Voyage makes extensive use of simulation testing and closed-course validation before any of our vehicles are driven in our partner communities,” Erlich said. “All changes must pass these closed-course tests before making their way onto the roads of our partner communities.”

Vehicle design also ensures riders stay safe. “Our fleet vehicles have been designed with multiple levels of safety redundancies for braking, steering and power, and leverage an advanced diagnostics system to automatically detect anomalies and safely stop the vehicle,” he explained. “In addition, we have developed a remote teleoperations solution that allows the vehicle to request additional help when a driver is not physically in the vehicle.”

Skylark provides high-precision localization. (Image: Swift Navigation)

Skylark provides high-precision localization. (Image: Swift Navigation)

Making Autonomous Work

When building an autonomous system, localization — knowing exactly where you are in the world — is critical. Erlich said it’s often difficult to estimate your position within an accuracy of several feet when using more traditional GPS solutions.

“For autonomous driving, you need to be able to estimate within several centimeters,” he added.
Voyage uses Swift Navigation’s GNSS receivers and Skylark network as one of the primary inputs into its localization solution.

Swift Navigation is a San Francisco-based tech firm that develops GPS technology to power autonomous vehicles. It is working to extend the Skylark network across the contiguous United States, and then plans to expand globally.

“Coupled with high-definition maps, odometry sensors and other inputs, we’ve been able to use Swift Navigation’s differential GPS solution to achieve the localization results we needed to deliver a true autonomous driving service,” Erlich said.

Voyage’s autonomous vehicles are equipped with a suite of sensors on their roof racks that includes the Swift Navigation Piksi Multi GNSS receiver, lidar devices, cameras, radar and an inertial measurement unit. They create and constantly update a 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings.

Duro – Piksi enclosure. (Photo: Swift Navigation)

Swift Navigation’s Duro is one of two GNSS receivers Voyage uses for its autonomous vehicles. (Photo: Swift Navigation)

A computer in the trunk integrates all sensor signals and uses the vehicle’s Controller Area Network (CAN) bus to operate steering, braking and other functions.

Skylark, Swift Navigation’s cloud-based GNSS corrections service, provides Voyage’s autonomous vehicles with precise positioning to eliminate the complexity of deploying and maintaining GNSS networks.

Skylark offers a plug-and-play experience that delivers convergence times measured in seconds. Its positioning algorithms provide a continuous data stream to individual devices from the cloud. This data stream allows for quick positioning and high reliability and availability.

The correction service enables receivers to connect to a constantly adapting, cloud-based model to obtain GNSS observations. Dependence on base stations in each area of deployment is eliminated, increasing the geographic area in which they can travel. Skylark works seamlessly with both of Swift Navigation’s GNSS receivers — Piksi Multi and Duro.

In addition to Piksi Multi and Duro, Voyage uses third-party receivers and microprocessors that benefit from the lane-level positioning Skylark delivers.


Equipment Specs

Photo: Swift Navigation

Photo: Swift Navigation

GNSS receiver one. Swift Navigation — Piksi Multi
• Dual-frequency and multi-constellation
• Up to 20-Hz solution rates
• Raw data outputs from on-board MEMS IMU
GNSS receiver two. Swift Navigation — Duro
• IP67 rated
• Centimeter-level positioning
• Raw data outputs from on-board MEMS IMU
Lidar devices. Velodyne — VLS-128
• 128 channels
• Up to 300-meter range
• Up to 360-degree surround view
Cameras. iDS — Global-Shutter units
Proximity sensors. Chrysler OEM
Inertial measurement unit. Xsens — MTi-300
• 375-Hz bandwith for accelerometers
• 415-Hz bandwith for gyroscopes
Antenna. Swift Navigation — Mini-survey for the Duro RTK unit
• 1 L1/L2 GPS/GLONASS/BeiDou mini-survey


The Swift product suite delivers centimeter-level localization —important to riders who may have mobility issues that require vehicles with smooth starts and stops.

Skylark was built specifically to deliver the speed, security, precision and reliability demanded by automotive manufacturers with autonomous and safety applications architected to support ASIL-rated (Automotive Safety Integrity Level) systems.

Because Skylark is a network, it is fault tolerant. In the unlikely event an individual cloud reference station goes offline, Skylark’s positioning algorithms will continue to provide a continuous stream of corrections.

Once connected, Skylark creates a precise and constantly adapting model of the atmosphere and related errors affecting GNSS. Connected users simply turn on their devices to get the precise positioning data they need.

Safety Drivers

As drivers get older, their mental and physical health can affect their ability to operate vehicles safely. Vision and hearing loss keep many older drivers off the road. Fear of driving at night or in the rain also can be a problem for older drivers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 7,400 adults over the age of 65 died as a result of car accidents in 2016. That same year, more than 290,000 of adults over the age of 65 were treated in emergency departments for injuries sustained in motor vehicle accidents.

Residents at The Villages who have used the autonomous vehicles report positive feedback, Erlich said. They consider the service a major improvement to their day-to-day activities because it’s convenient. Plus, they prefer the ability to be more carefree during happy hour, fewer hassles with traffic and parking, and lack of interactions with poor drivers.

Being on the cutting-edge of a generational technology also is a positive for many residents, Erlich said. “Autonomous vehicles create a clear path to safer, more accessible, and reliable transportation for everyone. From a safety perspective, autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce the more than 37,000 deaths attributed each year to driving. From a lifestyle perspective, there are also huge opportunities: from reclaiming daily commute time, to providing a reliable means of transportation to people with mobility challenges.”


Photo: Hexagon

Photo: Hexagon

Positioning Intelligence Key to Autonomous

Hexagon’s Positioning Intelligence (PI) division is an integral partner in many autonomous vehicle development projects, providing technologies such as SPAN (GNSS+INS technology), TerraStar-X corrections, and Automated Research and Development Platforms from its brands including NovAtel, VERIPOS and AutonomouStuff.

NovAtel hardware and software products, along with engineering support, address the need for accurate, reliable and robust GNSS positioning. TerraStar-X correction services deliver worldwide coverage and assured positioning with continuous availability, and provide the accuracy and rapid convergence needed to achieve lane-level precision for safe autonomous operation.

For developers of autonomous consumer transportation, integrated research and development automotive platforms from AutonomouStuff accelerate time to market.

Making It Safe. For large-scale automotive production, safety is the main focus. The Hexagon PI software positioning engine and TerraStar-X technology are being developed to ASIL-B (Automotive Safety Integrity Level B) standards to provide precise positioning for lane-level performance in autonomous applications.


Image: Trimble

Image: Trimble

Road Corrections

Incorporating precise and consistent absolute location information is an essential component of enabling advanced driver assistance (ADAS) and autonomous driving (AD) technology for vehicles.

To help meet this need, Trimble recently released Trimble RTX Auto. The Trimble RTX Auto correction service provides a precise point position (PPP) solution that can be used to correct the position of any auto grade GNSS chipset. RTX Auto works in parallel with other on-vehicle sensors to deliver a positioning solution that satisfies ADAS and AD requirements.

Absolute position contributes to many features:

  • Lane centering. Systems designed to keep a car centered in a lane, relieving the driver of the task of steering, is often achieved with cameras and absolute position data. Absolute position can be used when lines disappear, or weather prevents them from being seen.
  • Map aiding. a combination of precise map and location data helps to navigate junctions, lane changes, roundabouts or intersections where lane information is essential to safe driving.
  • Prediction of future road structure. Both allow a vehicle to begin slowing in advance of a bend in the road and to avoid harsh braking that would happen if the system only relied on short range sensors.
  • Adhering to the speed limit. This helps drivers anticipate changes in speed limits when a downpour prevents cameras from seeing the speed limit signs or when they might be obscured by natural surroundings or another vehicle.

RTX Auto is both Automotive Safety Integrity Level (ASIL) and Automotive Software Process Improvement and Capability Determination (ASPICE) certified. These certifications validate that Trimble RTX Auto meets functional safety requirements for ADAS and autonomous applications in the auto industry.

Super Cruising. Trimble is on the road today providing RTX-based absolute positioning within General Motors’ Super Cruise driver assistance feature, a hands-free driving system for the freeway. For more information on Super Cruise, visit www.cadillac.com/world-of-cadillac/innovation/super-cruise.


See also Autonomous street sweeper relies on Unicore precision.

About the Author:


Diane Sofranec is an award-winning writer, editor and marketer. She has more than 30 years of experience editing and writing for technical print publications and 15 years of experience editing and writing for e-newsletters and websites.

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