When first learning to drive, many people find steering a bit tricky. You realise the roads maybe aren’t as straight as you thought they were and you constantly have to turn an inch this way, and an inch that way. Not being used to the relationship between the wheel in your hands and the wheels on the road, you’re not quite sure if the unsteady minute manoeuvers you’re having to make is because you lack the skill, or if the road is wrong, or if the wheels are not all connected up properly. Many cars seem to have some slack between the steering wheel and the road wheels.
With autonomous cars of course you no longer have to worry about your steering skills. In fact, if Google has its way, you may not even see a steering wheel. For not only did the self-styled archiver of all human knowledge stupefy everyone by presenting us with the crazy idea of driverless cars and actually persuade everyone it’s actually quite a good idea when you think about it, the modern equivalent of Big Brother is now telling us it wants to do away with the steering wheel, the acceleration pedal, the clutch and brake. The weird thing is that their mad ideas make sense to us, even though we have a sneaky suspicion that they really shouldn’t. But paranoia aside, why would you need a steering wheel or anything like that in a car that you don’t have to operate, that moves around by itself? On this evidence, Google will continue to drive people out of their minds, and we will accept it, probably.
Now, of course, everyone and their grannies are developing autonomous car technologies in anticipation of some brave new world where all cars have the same rights as humans. And who better to help us innovate our way into inconsequence than the Germans? Their long tradition of automotive engineering excellence would demand that they come up with at least one screwball idea that people may think is actually quite practical. So in keeping with Google’s continual challenges to conventional thinking, the Germans have been pushing the idea of car wheels all turning and moving independently of each other, theoretically in any direction the autonomous, cloud-connected robot chooses for each one.
The reason for this is that these weird new wheels would allow for increased manoeuvrability, which is “pushed to the limit by cramped inner city conditions”. That’s according to a group of companies and organisations which are looking into this ingenious and freewheeling approach. This group, working under the ominous label OmniSteer, says that those who need to park their vehicles frequently, such as delivery services and mobile care providers, lose a lot of working time searching for and then getting into parking spaces. They say that new chassis types with wheels that can be steered individually, and modern electric drives, make it possible to increase maneuvrability and therefore efficiency, particularly in flowing urban traffic.
(I suggest spherical wheels. Like ball bearings. Attached using magnets. Or something. Just an idea. Maybe I should patent it.)
The OmniSteer project, which is funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is aimed at researching suitable concepts and prototypes by 2018 and has a budget of €3.4 million. It includes:
- automotive and industrial supplier Schaeffler;
- Paravan, which has expertise in developing cars for disabled people;
- Hella, which develops intelligent image-processing systems and sensors, and driver-assistance systems;
- Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT, but not David Hasselhoff’s KITT); and
- FZI Research Center for Information Technology at KIT.
In a statement, project managers Dr Marcel Mayer from Schaeffler and Dr Michael Frey from KIT said: “The increasing electrification and automation of vehicles makes it possible to offer users innovative driving functions. The added value offered by electric drives compared to internal combustion engines is significant, because we can directly integrate electric drives into each wheel.”
Together with innovative wheel suspension types that allow a wider range of steering motion on the front and rear axle, suitable distance and lane guidance systems (highly-integrated lateral and transverse guidance systems) are also being developed that will significantly increase manoeuverability.
“It is possible to switch seamlessly between front-wheel, rear-wheel, and all-wheel steering depending on the situation,” says Mayer, who is in charge of Schaeffler’s automated driving work group and is carrying out research at KIT as part of the Schaeffler Hub for Automotive Research in E-Mobility (Share) research collaboration.
Driving manoeuvers in restricted spaces – such as turning corners and changing lanes in a traffic jam or when approaching road works – will, they say, become more efficient with OmniSteer in terms of both time and energy, and this will improve the way in which lanes are utilized. Delivery services will also enjoy an enormous benefit, since it will even be possible to continuously pull into parking spaces at a right angle to the direction of the traffic, which in turn will make it possible for even the smallest parking spaces to be used and more rapidly allow traffic to continue moving.
“These driving functions therefore directly increase safety, comfort, and energy efficiency as well as also improving the utilization of space and the flow of traffic in cities in the long term,” explains Dr Frey from the KIT’s institute of vehicle systems engineering.
As part of the OmniSteer project, a scaled-down demonstration vehicle with a lateral and transverse guidance system capable of performing orthogonal, multi-directional, and non-linear driving and steering maneuvers is being developed. These three features allow innovative driving functions and thus make it possible to utilize the full potential of automation in electrically-driven vehicles.
The vehicle will use sensors to identify its surroundings, calculate the best possible path of travel, and then independently perform complex maneuvers. A specially-developed display and operating unit will allow the driver to select and keep track of the driving functions and to intervene if necessary.
The FZI Research Center for Information Technology is contributing manoeuver and trajectory planning processes to the project, which select the best possible chassis configuration based on the situation.
The OmniSteer project is set to last three years. The Omni prefix (from the Latin word for “all” or “whole”) firstly represents the holistic approach to steering. Additionally, however, it is also an acronym for Orthogonal (maneuvering at a right angle to the original direction of travel), Multi-directional (different travel paths are possible), and Non-linear (the position of the steering wheel is decoupled from the steering angle).
As well as the main project partners, the collaborative project is also receiving support from associated partners: Dekra, Custom Interactions, and Cluster Electric Mobility South-West, which is coordinated by e-mobil BW, the innovation agency for the state of Baden-Württemberg. Around €1.9 million of the €3.4 million overall budget is being provided by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of its Intelligent and Efficient Electric Mobility for the Future – or “e-Mobilize” – program.