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Digital city simulation to shape driverless fleets

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The organisation behind a UK trial of driverless pods is now taking part in a multi-million pound project to transform the way future car, van and truck fleets operate.

Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) spin-off Immense Simulations has joined forces with London-based technology company Improbable in the three-year project to develop software-based tools to optimise autonomous vehicle fleet efficiency and reduce operating risk.

Autonomous vehicle research has so far centred on the technical problem of moving drivers and passengers, with comparatively little effort put into understanding how to optimise entire vehicle fleets.

The new project aims to change that by bringing together transport modellers and the computer games industry to help improve the return on investment.

TSC, the UK’s not-for-profit technology and innovation centre for intelligent mobility, is already behind the Lutz (low-carbon urban transport zone) Pathfinder initiative.

Located in Milton Keynes, it is one of four Government-backed autonomous vehicle projects – other trials are taking place in Bristol, Coventry and Greenwich – with two-seater driverless electric pods being tested in public urban areas.

The new project is one of eight announced by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, sharing £20 million of Government funding from its £100m Intelligent Mobility Fund (fleetnews.co.uk, February 1).

TSC says technology such as driverless vehicles, intelligent phone apps and social media will transform how future travel will make journeys safer, faster, and more connected.

But there is potential for the £3.2m project –  £2m from the Government and the remainder from partners – to transform the fleet industry.

Immense Simulations will develop tools for autonomous logistics operations and management, building on Improbable’s Spatial OS platform.

Initially built for the creation of ever more complex online games, Spatial OS is being used to create a large-scale, real-time digital simulation of a city to maximise the efficiency of a fleet of driverless vehicles, while also reacting to shifting traffic patterns and supporting just-in-time logistics.

The project team aims to build on existing research in cooperative routing – sharing advance journey planning to achieve maximum efficiencies and avoid congestion – fleet operations, predictive vehicle health management and real time traffic management.

By combining the latest thinking, the aim is to build a  solution on the Spatial OS platform to support both strategic decision-making and real-time operational control of  fleet vehicles.

As a consequence, theoretically fleet operators will be able to optimise the operation of autonomous fleets on a city-wide scale for the first time.

TSC chief executive Steve Yianni said: “Fleet operations and logistics planning is a well-established element of the value chain for fleets of vehicles.

“It is expected that autonomous vehicles will have a huge impact in this area, and that this project will help the industry prepare for this eventuality by developing solutions for operating fleets of autonomous vehicles.”

Robin North, co-founder of Immense Simulations, which was created to commercialise some of TSC’s ideas, said: “The fleet management role will evolve, and there will be niches in which autonomous fleet vehicles function.

“But those vehicles will still need managing and our tools will help manage those new requirements.”

He highlighted the many things that drivers presently do that do not involve the physical act of driving a vehicle, such as accessing sites, particularly in the case of commercial vehicles, journey decision-making, vehicle maintenance and securing freight and tools carried.

“Developing tools to manage autonomous vehicles will encourage companies to invest in these vehicles, operate them efficiently, obtain a return on their investment and drive business benefits,” said North.

He believes such tools could be used in the future not only by fleet managers, but also motor manufacturers, vehicle leasing companies and fleet management providers, as fleets globally move to partial and full automation in some niche applications over the next 20-25 years.

“By modelling we can enhance strategic fleet planning and predict where and when people want to drive and then make sure that vehicles are in the right place,” North added.

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