Running up that hill… autonomously!

A 1965 Ford Mustang powered up the famed hill climb track at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last week. Nothing unusual about that, perhaps, given the Festival is a celebration of all things automotive, except this Mustang was driving itself autonomously, as Nick Peters reports.

The Mustang about to start its run
The Mustang about to start its run

The extraordinary sight of a legendary 53-year-old car running up the Goodwood Hill without human guidance was thanks to a partnership between Siemens UK and Cranfield University, which retrofitted the classic vehicle with autonomous-driving technology.

“Let me tell you, I’m relieved it worked!” Siemens CEO, Juergen Maier said afterwards. And well he might, for sitting in the back seat of the car was the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, owner of the Goodwood Estate in West Sussex, and creator of the iconic Festival of Speed, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.

The climb did indeed go off without a hitch, although Dr James Brighton, head of Cranfield’s Advanced Vehicle Engineering Centre, who was behind the wheel and who had access to a kill switch at all times, confessed he had been obliged to tweak the steering on two occasions, essentially because the engineering in a 53-year-old car is nowhere near precise enough for the fine tolerances required by an autonomous system.

And, to be fair, it is not an entirely autonomous vehicle in the purest sense of the word, because it was programmed to run on the Goodwood track, being guided by the 3D digital map created by Siemens, not the kind of autonomous vehicle that one day might navigate itself around unfamiliar terrain. However, it is an eye-catching exercise that Brighton says has a very clear purpose.

Dr James Brighton of Cranfield University

“We did it to promote careers in this domain and really enthuse the next generation of engineers by showing them something a little bit different,” Brighton said.

“Our students have done most of the control work on it, in a really quick time – we only had about a month and a half to turn this around – and the first time it went up the hill was this morning, to open the Festival of Speed.”

For Siemens, the goal also is to use the very latest experimental technology to demonstrate how bleeding-edge technology delivers benefits to manufacturers at every level.

“We’re basically showing the art of the possible in the future of vehicles and autonomy,” Juergen Maier said. “The whole reason we’re here, in partnership with people like Cranfield University, is because they are demonstrating the cutting edge of technology.

“We will be able to apply that same technology to autonomy in factories. It could be an automated guided vehicle running with full autonomy without a guided strip, or it could be in a quarry where we have automated vehicles, or it could be autonomy applied to robotic systems. So, we very much apply the same sorts of technology that we’re learning here today into everyday manufacturing processes.”

The 1965 Ford Mustang converted to autonomous driving

The concept of autonomous vehicles has inevitably gripped the public imagination, but James Brighton believes the technology will develop far faster than the public’s willingness to invest total trust in a vehicle they are not controlling.

Indeed, the technology to make real-world autonomous driving possible is already with us, he says.

“We’re working on the HumanDrive project, funded by Innovate UK,” he said, “and in six months or so an autonomous vehicle will drive itself from Cranfield to Sunderland on the public highway.

“So, the technology is more or less there. But what we’re trying to do with autonomy is reduce the (human) burden and increase traffic density, because ultimately our roads are too full and we need to find a way to get people around more efficiently.

“We therefore need to be very sure that autonomy doesn’t reduce traffic density, because then we won’t have achieved one of the major goals of doing it.”