NUI Galway’s Connacht Automotive Research (CAR) group last month announced a strategic partnership with car-component manufacturer Valeo Vision Systems, in a move which cements pre-existing links between the two, and will keep both CAR and Valeo at the forefront of automotive vision systems, providing an example of how collaboration between Universities and the private sector can be of benefit to both parties.
Valeo, founded in 1923 in France by Eugène Buisson as a manufacturer of clutches and brake-linings, now has a presence in 27 countries worldwide, and is a leading producer of emissions-reducing technology, and of driver-assist technology, utilising ultrasonics, cameras and radar.
The CAR group was established in 2005 by its directors Dr. Martin Glavin and Dr. Edward Jones, although its origins date back as far as 1999 when CAR’s directors worked alongside Connacht Electronics, which was subsequently acquired by Valeo Vision Systems. Dr. Patrick Denny (senior R&D engineer and expert at Valeo Vision Systems) was appointed as an Adjunct Professor of Automotive Electronics at NUI Galway last year and has been actively working with the CAR group on securing additional research funding to sustain, develop and grow the CAR group substantially over the next few years.
The CAR group carries out research in areas such as wireless communication for information distribution in the automotive environment, and in image-processing technology for “driver assist” applications.
Dr. Glavin describes the work of CAR as, “Detecting objects, and trying to understand the context of the vehicle on the road, and other objects that might be around it, such as other road users or pedestrians, and other non-road users, maybe obstacles or objects, that a vehicle might come across and might need to be of note, road markings, road signs, things like that”.
“Fundamentally we want to try and make the vehicle have the ability to accurately determine the environment in which the vehicle fits, and there’s an awful lot of work to be done in that space and the variety of scenarios that a vehicle can find itself in.
“In normal traffic, maybe highway scenes, where you’re just talking about road markings, road signs and other road-going vehicles, that’s all very fine, that’s a nicely-controlled environment with very little variation. Whereas if you go to a suburban scene with lots of pedestrians, maybe at an intersection, with complex numbers of lanes, maybe people crossing the road, with cars making unpredictable decisions to change lanes, and you couple that with adverse weather conditions, it’s a very dynamic environment and it’s a very difficult environment to say that there’s one solution that fits all problems.”
Although CAR group and Valeo have a, “good working relationship”, which includes Valeo’s part sponsoring of PhD students and has resulted in a number of CAR researches working for Valeo, this latest partnership, “is about a framework for funding so that we don’t really need to worry about dealing with projects on a project by project basis in terms of the intellectual property that may arise from the project”,a process that will speed-up the transition from research to practical applications, explains Dr. Glavin.
The automotive space is, he says, “a very intellectual property-sensitive space, and the car companies like to have a very clear picture of ownership of intellectual property. This partnership puts in place a framework where intellectual property resulting from CAR’s research, “very quickly goes from the research lab in NUI Galway, to the vehicle, and there’s an agreed process by which that would happen, whereas in the past we would have to agree on a project by project basis what the outcome would be”.
The benefit of such technology is obvious. Myriad distractions can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle: “Maybe they’re on a telephone call, or maybe they’re distracted by a child in the back seat.”
“Even a very simple situation like a car reversing out of a garage can be very, very dangerous. In the US alone, a large number of child deaths are attributed to vehicles just driving around the owner’s premises. Some of our research has shown that you can have a blind spot that extends up to 70 metres at the rear of an SUV, so essentially there’s a kind of an unknown black hole at the back of a vehicle where the driver really does not know what’s in that space. So when the driver is in reverse, they really have no hope of seeing what’s going on behind them.”
“The ultimate scenario,” according to Dr. Glavin, “would be if the vehicle could make the decision not to proceed,” in the direction of, for example, a child who has wandered out into the driveway, but he believes that drivers will not willingly relinquish their autonomy over their vehicles.
“Lots of people like to drive their cars so they may not be that willing to hand over control, they like the feeling and the freedom of driving their own vehicle.”
Tthere are plenty of developments that can be made in this space to improve driver safety, and Dr. Glavin is enthusiastic about the potential for progress offered by partnerships like that between the CAR group and Valeo Vision Systems.
“The trend now is that most vehicles will have at least one camera and it’s very likely that they will have several cameras in years to come, so why not have the cameras looking around them and trying to make sense of the environment that they find themselves in?
“We’re working in a University, we’re developing new and innovative technologies, but we’re also working with a company, so in many ways the loop is being closed there, where the company feed back some ideas to us and they guide our research in the direction where there’s a real market for what we do.
“We do the research, we train up the students, they graduate, they get their qualifications, then they get the option of maybe going working with the likes of Valeo Vision Systems and they go into the company and maybe generate some much-needed revenue for the country. It’s the model that successive governments have tried to propagate; that Ireland is a place where you can do some very hi-tech, innovative business, and that the Universities play a key role. It’s very much a real manifestation of the knowledge economy.”