Sunday 20 January 2019

Getting to grips with tyres and tech in the frozen tundra - and my first autonomous drive ... on ice

In focus: Ice driving

Audi S4 Avant
Audi S4 Avant
Autonmous driving on ice

John Galvin

Continental are one of the biggest names in the tyre business but that's not all they do. It's hard to name a single car that doesn't have some component supplied by the giant.

They regularly invite us up to the frozen north to try their latest tyres but this year we'd also get a chance to test some of their active safety systems.

Our trip began in a classroom, about halfway up Sweden. For a fascinating afternoon, the boffins explained their latest breakthroughs, including intelligent tyres and wheels capable of altering rim width and pressure to adapt to prevailing conditions.

Intelligent tyres are three to five years away. Already, we have tyres with embedded pressure sensors which pass their data to the car over a radio link. They are also able to instantly detect a puncture and can measure temperature, pressure, tread depth and, ultimately, the contact patch with the road.

Audi S4 Avant
Audi S4 Avant

Probably a more fanciful concept is the adaptable wheel, which uses hydraulics to restrict and expand the rim width. The wheel can also alter the tyre pressure while running so you can have a narrow rim with high pressure for low resistance at high speed, but switch to a wider wheel with low pressure to provide more grip on snow or mud. Fascinating stuff but I'd say we'll be waiting a while.

The following day, we flew north to near the Arctic Circle to Continental's own proving grounds. Our first task was to trial the latest high-performance winter tyre, the TS 860, in an Audi S4 Avant, BMW 440i and front-wheel-drive MINI.

The improved performance comes mostly from changes to the compound. The tyres were incredibly grippy even on deeply packed snow.

Next we had the chance to try ABS3, the latest module already in the Volvo XC90 and Honda Civic. We compared it to ABS2 by applying maximum braking at 70kmh on a chequered pattern of alternating ice and tarmac, the ultimate test for ABS.

While both modules performed well, there was a step up in performance with the latest, which can react in five milliseconds. It was more stable and stopped the car more quickly. That said, on one of the runs, my colleague hit the brakes with the car slightly off centre and we ended up broadside. Even with the best electronics, the driver can make a mistake.

Then we got into a 5-litre V8 Mustang with a prototype stability system that allows the back of the car to slip by six degrees and no more. Halfway through a slalom course, the engineer beside me switched the system off and I was left with standard stability control. Instantly, the car was much harder to control - an emphatic demonstration.

With the system still off, I had a bit of fun on the way back up the lake, taking advantage of the Mustang's correct wheel drive to keep the car sideways for as long as possible. I tried to keep the engineer distracted by asking how the system worked but I'm sure he still noticed. To operate properly, this new system depends on the presence of a roll sensor, so we won't be seeing it in a production car for a few years.

Finally, we had two automated driving demos. Continental have a system that uses an ordinary camera to detect what type of surface the car is driving on. For an autonomous car, this is important data and this device was eerily accurate and quick.

From there, we were autonomously driven at decent speed around an ice track with solid-looking snow banks either side. I never expected my first real experience of a self-driving car to be on snow.

Continental's Vision Zero mission is for a world where there are zero accidents or fatalities. Getting there depends partly on the technology and automation we experienced at minus 20 degrees.

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