Estonian spin-off company Auve Tech and the University of Tartu are developing a hydrogen-powered self-driving vehicle. Iseauto, an autonomous bus for seven passengers, is expected to be completed by mid-2021. Auve Tech CEO Johannes Mossov shared his ideas about how future traffic is going to look with environmentally friendly, self-driving cars.
What are the next generation of self-driving vehicles you are developing and how are they superior to the previous generation?
Our first-generation vehicles were largely prototypes to test the maturity and capabilities of various technologies. In the case of second-generation vehicles, we have placed a great deal of emphasis on ensuring safety and autonomy. We want to reach the level where we bring the safety person out of the vehicle to the control room, so that the vehicle can be controlled remotely. The purpose of our self-driving vehicle is to fill a gap in so-called ‘last mile transport,’ which is not covered by public transport infrastructure or where smaller vehicles are needed for shorter routes
What makes a hydrogen car special and what are its benefits?
The use of a hydrogen fuel cell provides the advantage of very fast charging and also eliminates the need to use additional vehicles at the time of loading, which would increase the cost of the service. At the moment, we have two prototypes: the hydrogen fuel vehicle is developed in cooperation with the University of Tartu. At the same time, we have made a prototype solution for a car using supercapacitors with Skeleton Technologies. The idea is that this vehicle can be driven 24/7 making use of its extra fast charging capability on-the-go at the bus stops. Supercapacitors will allow us to fully charge the shuttle batteries in 11 seconds. It is meant to solve the problem in airports and other service terminals where the need for continued transportation never ends.
A traditional electric-powered vehicle can operate up to 8 hours, but that may not be enough to do a 12-hour shift. It takes up to a few hours to fully charge the traditional battery pack. That pauses the operation or creates a need to run an additional vehicle. Therefore, in some places in the future, a vehicle running on hydrogen and again on a supercapacitor will be better suited for use.
What is needed for self-driving vehicles to become more widely used?
The most important thing is to reach the level of technical capability where there is no need for a safety person in the vehicle. A real economic advantage arises when it is possible to operate several vehicles at the same time from a control room that could be located anywhere.
It is also important to achieve production capacity that will reduce costs. Once in mass production, the unit price would become much cheaper and the end customer could use it profitably without having to hire an operator. In June this year, our self-driving vehicle was recognised by the Road Administration as a street-legal car, and it is now possible to operate it on Estonian and European roads.
Please describe your cooperation with the University of Tartu?
The cooperation with the University of Tartu arose from the desire to find a real application for the unique solutions developed in the laboratory. Together with the University of Tartu, we’ll manufacture a prototype of a self-driving hydrogen vehicle where we combine the hydrogen fuel cells developed and manufactured at the university with a vehicle developed by Auve Tech. For the university, this is a great opportunity for research and we can see whether or not we can get this hydrogen-based system in vehicles on a daily basis. Our hopes are high and things are moving forward at full speed.
And you also cooperate with Tallinn University of Technology?
Auve Tech grew out of a cooperation project with Tallinn University of Technology that started in 2017, within the framework of which the first prototype of a self-driving vehicle was made to celebrate the 100th birthday of the university. Now we are part of a consortium with the University of Technology in the Horizon 2020 FABULOS project. We are in the last phase of this. Our first vehicle operation in Tallinn’s Ülemiste City was a success and our second project in Lamia, Greece is coming to an end before Christmas.
What are the results of tests in Iseauto in Ülemiste City?
We started with test drives in the university’s campus and operating in Ülemiste is a valuable experience that has led us to develop rapidly. It is a very difficult route with constant traffic and a changing environment – complex intersections with heavy traffic, many manoeuvres, many different objects and obstacles to watch for, from scooters and bicycles to cats and dogs. In the last three months, we have made a technological leap forward while operating there. At the moment, it is important to go through as difficult situations as possible with the vehicle, so that it is possible to step back from there later. Due to the fact that our development team is also located in Tallinn, it has been a very good opportunity for direct communication between the teams in order to continuously improve the process.
Have you found partners elsewhere? And if so, what is the cooperation about?
The main partners are currently from Finland, Germany and the USA. Much of the cooperation is with operating companies, thanks to which it is possible to involve our vehicles in various international pilot projects in countries whose legislation or day-to-day work we do not yet understand so well. For example, our buses started operating in Tampere, Finland, at the beginning of September under the operating company Roboride. We also have technological partnerships with the German company Pylot, which offers us the capabilities needed to control a vehicle remotely.
What kind of feedback have you received for Iseauto so far?
Passenger feedback has been largely positive. However, most uses today are still a one-time exploration, and as this is a very innovative technology that many are experiencing for the first time, the consumer experience is also very entertaining. We are preparing a longer project where the vehicle would become a part of everyday traffic for people. If a customer uses an Iseauto every day to travel their last mile to get home, for example, from a bus stop to their home or office, then we really need this feedback on the overall service.
Feedback from partners and contacts has also been positive so far. They are very surprised that we have been able to complete such a vehicle in such a short time. We have a network of contacts in almost every part of the world so that we can send vehicles there. But here it must be acknowledged that bigger proofs are yet to come, and we are currently working to ensure that.
What is the top priority for Auve Tech at the moment: R&D, sales and exports or something else?
We are currently going through a transition period, where R&D is still a priority. In addition to the alternative drivetrain solutions, we want to develop a modular platform for the vehicle that could be suited for different applications. This way we could provide solutions for not only passenger transportation but also for example parcel and waste transportation. We are also gradually preparing to start placing more emphasis on sales and export, starting from gathering a real-life experience from different environments around the world. To tackle the ambitious expansion plans of getting sustainable transportation solutions into our everyday life, we have been putting together a global expansion team. The team will be led by ex-Prime Minister of Estonia, Taavi Rõivas, who will join Auve Tech in early 2021.
This is a very research-intensive undertaking. What new knowledge has the whole enterprise provided?
It is difficult to point them out separately, but we are glad that we have been able to cooperate with various universities and several enthusiastic students. At Tallinn University of Technology, many smaller research papers have been developed from this project. The best fruits of this research have still been the people who have joined our team. Thanks to them, we have very good cooperation with universities.
Today, this preliminary research project has grown into Auve Tech and, from there, into a commercially usable solution. This shows that it is possible to do great things in small Estonia, and we will definitely keep an eye on all research activities, including those that have not grown directly from the Iseauto project. Such a bond in R&D shows that, through cooperating with universities, it is possible to make a very research-intensive and innovative physical machine.
Self-driving vehicles are being developed all over the world, but what are your biggest advantages?
Our strongest trump card has been that we started at the right time. Those who started seven or eight years ago have made insane investments in software and sensory systems. We started exactly three years ago, and by that time, technology and software had become much easier and cheaper to access. The size of the initial investment did not have to be so large that it would be difficult to recoup it later.
If we talk about the vehicle then, in terms of its overall size, we have found exactly the golden path. We have competitors who make much larger self-driving vehicles, but their main disadvantage is that a large car that runs autonomously and slowly is much harder to pass and takes up a lot of space on the road. The size of our vehicle has also made it possible to use it on a larger sidewalk or pedestrian area, where it can move slowly and does not disturb the surrounding pedestrians or cyclists.
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