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Continental pioneers tyre tests with self-driving test vehicles

At its test site in Uvalde, Texas, U.S.A., Continental has commissioned the first driverless tyre test vehicle for a wide range of road surface types.

The aim is to make the test results for Continental’s passenger and light truck tyres more conclusive and minimise the impact of the test procedure on the results. The new test vehicle is based on Continental’s automated Cruising Chauffeur, which was developed for motorways.

The test vehicle is controlled using a satellite-based navigation system. Equipped with camera and radar sensors, the car will be able to react immediately to people, animals, or other unexpected objects on the track, even without a driver.

“In critical situations, the tyres’ level of technology is the deciding factor in whether a vehicle brakes in time,” explains Nikolai Setzer, member of the Continental Executive Board and head of the Tyre division.

One of the challenging tasks in tyre production is to carry out quality tests while tyres are in use. Newly developed rubber compounds and tyre models have to be tested under real life conditions, showing how well they perform on gravel roads, for example.

Driving the test vehicles places huge demands on the drivers, as even the smallest deviations on the test track can have a huge impact on the quality and comparability of the test results.

Since 2016, the team led by Thomas Sych, head of Tyre Testing at Continental, has therefore been working on the tyre test of the future in Uvalde.

“We want to automate and thus standardise tyre tests to such an extent that we can identify even the smallest differences in the tyres,” explains Sych.

“The automated vehicle enables us to reproduce processes precisely, meaning that every tyre in the test experiences exactly the same conditions. This way, we can be sure that differences in the test are actually caused by the tyres and not by the test procedure.”

For these same reasons, Continental engineers developed an electronically controlled car to automate tyre tests 50 years ago. Back then, the vehicle followed a wire that was glued to the track, which limited its use to asphalt test tracks. Today’s prototype can also safely navigate along gravel roads without a driver.

In addition to the significantly improved comparability of the results, the tyre test using automated vehicles will also reduce the maintenance work required for the test tracks.

Because the vehicle is sent on a route that varies by just a few centimetres each time, the test track is subjected to less wear and tear, thus requiring considerably less maintenance.

“Our focus now is on further developing the necessary camera and radar systems for this special case of off-road routes, so that the vehicle can react appropriately when people, animals, or other vehicles unexpectedly appear on the route,” explains Sych.

“We know from our own research, such as the Continental Mobility Studies, that trust is extremely important for the mobility of the future. We are fully aware of this responsibility when developing these new technologies.”