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Volvo Utilizes Road Magnets to Steer Self-Driving Vehicles

March 14, 2014

Many automakers see autonomous cars as the future. With more companies developing such vehicles, it seems like the end of driving will come sooner than later. Volvo is one of the car manufacturers trying its hand in creating self-driving vehicles and it has recently come up with a solution to the problem of proper positioning—magnets.

A major issue for autonomous cars is accurate positioning. With no driver to steer it in the right direction, the vehicles must find the edges of driving lanes and properly follow the roads. Most prototypes are able to navigate the roads with the help of cameras and GPS, relying on these to dictate the right position. Unfortunately, these are not reliable all the time. The vehicle’s positioning on the roads will be compromised during inclement weather and when there are obstructions to the camera’s view.

The Swedish car manufacturer wanted a more reliable solution, and thought to put magnets on the road to assist the vehicles in terms of positioning. The company had made a 100-meter long test track in its Hällered facilities, located outside Gothenburg, Sweden. Small ferrite magnets were embedded 7.9 inches below the track’s surface. The test cars were equipped with magnetic field sensors, which were placed at the bottom of the vehicles.

When the cars coasted along the track with magnets, they were able to identify road edges and lane markings through the help of the sensors.

According to Volvo, magnets on the roads allow autonomous vehicles to find their positions more accurately compared to GPS. Accuracy with magnets is estimated at less than four inches. Jonas Ekmark, Volvo’s preventive safety leader, said this in a statement: “The magnets create an invisible ‘railway’ that literally paves the way for a positioning inaccuracy of less than one decimeter [3.9 inches].”

Moreover, he said that while it is possible for self-driving autos to navigate the roads without changing the existing infrastructure, the addition of new technology—or in this case, magnets—offers a lot of possibilities.

The automaker performed this first round of testing to address problems regarding reliability, durability and detection range, among others. Its researchers determined that ferrite magnets were an ideal solution to the existing concerns—not only were these efficient, but also quite inexpensive.

Volvo highlights the potential of embedded road magnets to further driver safety. With the help of the magnets, vehicles equipped with sensors can effectively avoid accidents. A car is less likely to cross lines or run off the edge of the road with the magnetic system in place, as the sensors will detect the magnets buried on the surface on which the vehicle is driving. Because cars will stay within their respective lanes, accidents are less likely to happen.

Even snow will not prevent the magnetic system from working. Snow plows can take advantage of the markings to plow snow-covered roadways and avoid its edges.

More and more autonomous cars are hitting the roads. The Induct Technology Navia, the first self-driving vehicle, is already on sale. It is an electric vehicle that resembles a golf cart and can seat eight passengers. Google, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz have followed suit with driverless autos of their own, which have been tested on public roads.

Volvo will continue to work on its autonomous cars in an attempt to reduce road accidents, which are often a result of human error. The company intends to test 100 autonomous cars on Swedish roads from 2017 onwards.

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