Hiding in plain sight on the outskirts of Borås (on Sweden’s west coast near Gothenburg) is possibly one of the world’s most advanced test facilities for developers of active safety and autonomous driving systems. Having gradually expanded to include 6 different test tracks and being completely booked up in the high season since 2016, the site plays an important role for an extensive number of players in the Nordic region’s automotive supply chain – which is increasingly focusing on smart driving components and systems.
Now the test facility is in the midst of constructing the world’s longest indoor AV test track – at 700m long by 40m wide, with a high ceiling of 4.6m which will allow it to accommodate large vehicles such as trucks and buses. But what need does such an indoor testing facility fulfil?
Peter Janevik, CEO of AstaZero, explains that many advanced cameras and sensors need to be tested and verified in repeatable lighting conditions. Similarly, surface friction is another variable that needs to be controlled. It basically comes down to testing methodology 101 – control variables need to be held constant so that the independent variable (i.e. function of autonomous driving systems and components) can be accurately measured. This facility will therefore allow local OEMs and supply chain partners to avoid costly relocation of testing teams and equipment to test tracks in southern Europe during the wetter and darker months in Sweden. Furthermore, it will also enable round the clock testing 365 days a year – vastly expanding the facility’s available testing capacity.
The indoor facility is being built over the part of the site named the ‘Super Multilane’ test track. The other test tracks on the site are based on different road environments such as rural roads, city areas, high-speed areas and multilane roads.
AstaZero is a not-for-profit joint venture between Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and Chalmers, with financing support from Västra Götaland Region and the EU Regional Development Fund amongst others. Its industrial partners include the three biggest automotive players in the country – Volvo Cars, Volvo Group and Scania. However, Janevik points out that there is also a growing set of international customers, as well as SMEs, using the facility.
While the new indoor test track is certainly exciting and strategically important due to Sweden having an outdoor environment that is “characterized by rain, snow and darkness during part of the year” , there are many other interesting dimensions to the facility that sets it apart from others around the world.
Firstly, it’s important to note that the facility is not just ‘space for rent’ to customers, but AstaZero actually offers a fully integrated range of testing services from test method design, to conducting the actual testing on behalf of customers, all the way to analysis and drawing conclusions. The company has its own team of about 30 research engineers and technicians covering competencies such as vehicle dynamics, driver behaviour, V2X, functional reliability and communications technology.
AstaZero also has a number of partnerships with companies like Ericsson and organizations such as Revere, who can offer additional services to customers such as 5G integration and the supply of test-vehicles and operators. Janevik states that AstaZero’s ability to provide such a broad range of expertise in addition to the testing site itself is broadly down to the region’s human capital:
“The density of personnel specialising in active safety elements in the region around Gothenburg is outstanding. We are simply leveraging the region’s strong competencies which are uniquely suited to solving the problems for automated transport systems of the future.”
Apart from the variety of test tracks and expertise that the AstaZero team is able to provide, the company has also developed some important testing hardware and software solutions in-house. Key amongst these is the so-called test control system, which among other things allows the proving ground to control and supervise very complicated scenarios, as well as injection of virtual targets and environments for use in scenarios utilizing Augmented Reality technologies. For hardware, AstaZero has conducted research and development projects to develop target structures as well as a target propulsion systems both which can be used in combination with the suite of target movers, vehicle targets and pedestrian dummies acquired on the open market.
Another important differentiator for the AstaZero site is that they are a not-for-profit open platform. This means that just about any organisation can use the site and it is not locked into any alliance of OEMs developing AV technologies together – this makes it unique amongst the AV testing sites currently in Europe. In fact, each of the 6 different test areas on the site can be operated independently from each other in secrecy, meaning competitors are often using different parts of the facility at the same time. Only in rare cases where an additional level of secrecy is required do customers feel the need to book out the whole test site in its entirety. Being open platform also means that it is also not just strictly the auto-industry that can use the site – policymakers and research groups from academia are also welcome.
In our interview with AstaZero’s CEO, we spent some time discussing what may be some good uses for the site that could be potentially valuable to society but hasn’t been taken advantage of yet. Janevik would like to see more interest and possible projects on the site from the policy sector as well as academia. Personally, I see a lot of potential in these areas too. The automotive sector will likely continue to primarily focus on the autonomous vehicles themselves and the users of those vehicles. Whereas urban planners and street designers, in particular, might need to take the initiative to test out infrastructure that helps both autonomous and human-driven vehicles negotiate intersections more optimally. The design of signage and road markings is another area. More behavioural studies could also be done from academia and public research groups, but perhaps instead of focusing on users behind the wheel of an AV operated vehicle, they could focus on the behaviours and reactions of pedestrians and other road users. Cities thinking about how to regulate AVs can also use the facility to try out different policy frameworks – for example looking at pedestrian acceptance of AVs going at different speed limits in urban streets.
We at Drive Sweden hope that coverage of this important AV testing facility located in our very own ‘backyard’ will help start or accelerate some of these ideas amongst local policymakers and researchers for how they might make use of it to contribute to better smart transport outcomes.
Written by Bobby Chen, RISE Mobility & Systems.