Modular approaches mark autonomous transport concepts

Modular approaches mark autonomous transport concepts

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

The central feature of the U-Shift approach is the separation of the vehicle, named drive board, and the capsule-shaped superstructures for transporting people or goods. The U-shaped drive unit contains all the expensive technical components and systems needed to travel autonomously, electrically and quietly. For maximum efficiency, the Driveboard is in operation around the clock if possible. The capsules, which can be manufactured at a much lower cost, can be designed for a wide range of applications.

The U-Shift prototype has the dimensions of a larger van. In its current state of development, the driveboard is remote-controlled; in future, it is to be completely autonomous. During development, particular importance was attached to the aspect of safety. The passenger capsule is equipped with seven seats and a folding seat. A large door with an integrated ramp ensures barrier-free access. The cargo capsule offers space for four Euro pallets or eight grid trolleys.

The drivebord module can accomodate a wide range of application-specific transport modules for persons and goods © DLR

With the help of the prototype, DLR researchers want to gain initial experience with the system that picks up and sets down the capsules. They are in close contact with potential producers and operators. At the same time, they are holding intensive talks with the public to discuss the needs and wishes for U-Shift deployment scenarios and the associated future jobs. With this input, the scientists want to further develop the vehicle concept. An important item on the developers’ agenda is to test the interfaces between man and vehicle. This includes the mechanism for opening the doors, the flow of information and any access restrictions. The next step will be to increase the performance of the drive train, install hardware and sensors for automated and networked driving, test a new battery system and further develop the chassis and lifting device.

A second prototype is planned for 2024, which will be fully automated and reach a top speed of around 60 km/h. The U-Shift team will use it to investigate innovative business areas for companies in the context of new mobility service offers and to realign existing business areas, for example in pilot tests with companies in the logistics sector. The development is primarily geared to the needs of small and medium-sized companies. This is also the aim of the state funding provided by the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

The DLR Institute of Vehicle Concepts’ partners in the U-Shift project include the Stuttgart Research Institute of Automotive Engineering and Vehicle Engines (FKFS), which is developing the drive train, the Institute of Vehicle Systems Technology (FAST) and the Institute of Information Processing Technology (ITIV) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), which are contributing the chassis and the electrical/electronic architecture respectively. The Institute for Measurement, Control and Microtechnology (MRM) at the University of Ulm is responsible for the automation.

The modular concept of the DLR scientists is very similar to that of the UNICAragil research project, which is currently being developed by eight universities and eight industrial partners each under the leadership of the automotive research institute ika at RWTH Aachen University and recently presented its interim results. This project also focuses on the modular design of driverless vehicles. The transport modules for people and goods can be combined with a separate drive module. So far, a people mover called autoSHUTTLE, a robot taxi called autoTAXI, the maximally variable family vehicle autoELF and the configurable freight collection and delivery vehicle autoCARGO have been developed. Despite all the mechanical-physical differences, all four robot cars use the same electronics platform consisting of sensors, computer units and algorithms. The sensor technology comprises radar, cameras and lidar scanners – in other words, the trio of different sensor principles that are considered indispensable by almost all manufacturers in order to achieve a sufficient degree of overlap, redundancy and thus fail-safety, which promise accident-free participation in traffic even under adverse visibility and weather conditions. 

With a number of different application modules, the UNICARagil project targets tomorrow’s multiform urban transport demand ©UNICARagil

Another core element of the UNICARagil research and development work is also the networking of the functional vehicle architecture with the cloud, the road infrastructure and – as a unique feature – a sensor drone to extend the range of the on-board electronics.

With regard to the computer architecture, the researchers have oriented themselves to the human nervous system. Although each of the four sensor modules is equipped with its own computer for data fusion, a central computer is responsible for supervision and determines the trajectories and driving strategies. As far as software is concerned, the UNICARagil researchers borrowed from service-oriented architectures (SOA), modified to include aspects specific to the automobile industry; the whole thing is then called ASOA (Automotive Service-oriented Architecture). The researchers expect this to result in much greater flexibility and robustness. Another important development goal is modularisation not only on the physical level, but also in the software. This makes it much easier to incorporate updates and upgrades even after production, explains UNICARagil project manager Timo Woopen.

Comprehensive networking is a central feature of UNICARagil vehicles © UNICARagil

The UNICARagil project is sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Research; in addition to the RWTH Aachen University, the universities of Braunschweig, Darmstadt and Munich and Ulm as well as the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology are involved. On the industrial side, IPG, the manufacturer of automotive simulation software, the suppliers Schaeffler and Valeo and a number of smaller companies are involved. UNICARagil is expected to present its results in 2022.

More information:

Project page at the German Aerospace Center DLR website

Related articles:

German aerospace agency develops autonomous van

Automated driving tested in urban environment

Automatic road train tested on public roads

German draft law provides for general approval for autonomous vehicles

“Software will become the decisive factor for the coming years”


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