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To reach level 4 autonomy, these self-driving cars head to winter boot camp

Is there a more magical seasonal sight than snowflakes falling on banks of snow under a white sky, the only bursts of color to break up the merry scene being a jolly holly bush or a Christmas robin hopping across the top of a frozen fence? Maybe not if you’re a human. If you’re a self-driving car, on the other hand, that scene is pretty darn terrifying.

Autonomous vehicles are increasingly great at parsing street scenes and safely navigating according to either camera images or bounced Lidar inputs. Unfortunately, snow is an issue for both cameras and laser scanners due to noise (read: falling snow) blocking the sensors, and white-out conditions preventing the camera from seeing surroundings properly.

That is a problem autonomous cars are going to have to deal with — especially for parts of the world where snow isn’t a twice-a-year novelty, but a part of daily life. This is the case in Lapland, where winter lasts for seven months, and permanent snow cover hangs around for much of that time.

With that in mind, a Finnish self-driving technology company called Sensible 4 is this month setting off on a two-week-long autonomous winter driving test of its tech in dark and snowy conditions. The software is the still-in-progress autonomous driving technology that will ultimately power its self-driving kit, Dawn, due to be released in 2022.

Sensible 4 winter driving
Sensible 4

Putting Sensible 4’s tech to the test

Dawn is described as a level 4 self-driving software product, designed to power shuttle buses in severely inhospitable conditions. It will be capable of being integrated into any four-wheel vehicle, and is intended for last-mile driving scenarios such as transportation around airports and campuses. Its creators claim that they have built the first commercial software in the world that will be able to handle driving in all weather conditions and environments. This upcoming test run will set out to establish just how far along they are with that mission.

“Testing the software is crucial for developing the features of the commercial release,” Tommi Rimpiläinen, chief operating officer of Sensible 4, told Digital Trends. “Conditions in the dark, cold, and snowy Lapland can be extreme. If the software works there, it works everywhere. Our vehicles have been driving in various conditions for some years already, including really harsh winter conditions. After [our] A-round funding in Feb 2020, our pace of software development has gained some speed, and therefore we have a lot of new features to drive with.”

The test will serve two purposes. The first is to test the software’s ability to drive in really bad weather. The second is to gather real, raw sensor data from extremely bad weather conditions the team can use to build better future algorithms.

Dawn’s technology eventually won’t need a safety driver because the vehicles can also be controlled remotely. However, for the test this month it will feature a person on board at all times in case the car needs to be stopped. So spare a thought for the poor person who has to clamber onboard an autonomous vehicle traveling through extreme snowy at speeds of up to 40 kilometers an hour. Even if the technology works as hoped (and the team seems very confident that it will), they’ll certainly have earned a Christmas drink or three at the end of it!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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