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Finland paves the way for robotic vehicles

Finland wants to become a world pioneering test and development environment for intelligent automation in transport. Reija Viinanen reminds that automated driving solutions have to also work in winter conditions.Credits: : Aurora

The perfect test environment for Amazon’s delivery drones and Google’s self-driving cars may soon be found in Finland. Especially when challenging Arctic conditions enter the picture.

Unmanned aircrafts, driverless cars and roads that sense their environment are the future of transport, but for now they are concepts in need of extensive testing. This is where Finland steps in by offering a strong digital infrastructure, plenty of ICT and robotics expertise, challenging winter conditions and permissive legislation for transport testing.

These elements form the backbone of Finland’s new strategic plan to become a pioneering development and test environment for intelligent transport automation. The plan covers all transportation modes – road, rail, water and air – as long as a robotic system or a device increasingly capable of independent action, learning and decision-making is involved.

“Automation will bring many benefits. Traffic will become more fluent and safety will drastically improve. 90 per cent of traffic accidents today are caused by a human error,” says Kirsi Miettinen, robotics specialist at the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications, which is behind the strategy. “But for automation to advance as rapidly and safely as possible, it needs to be tested in different kinds of conditions.”

Consequently Finland has set its focus on building suitable digital traffic infrastructure, deep public-private collaboration and the right legislative environment for real-world pilots and experiments.

Finland is already among the forerunners in allowing testing on public roads and is currently reviewing other legislative areas. For example, while every car on Finnish roads needs to have a driver, the driver doesn’t have to be inside the car which allows for remotely controlled testing. The Finnish Transport Safety Agency Trafi has even created ‘a one stop shop’ concept for all testing related services.

“As far as we know there isn’t any other country in the world where practically the whole road network is open for experimentation,” Miettinen says. “Furthermore Trafi announced in September the world’s most permissive regulation for [the testing of] remotely piloted aircraft systems.”

First in the world

Finland’s plans are still in their early stages, but they are already taking advantage of the country’s Northern location: a unique Arctic test ecosystem for intelligent transport systems and automated driving is currently being built in Lapland.

90 per cent of traffic accidents are caused by a human error. Automation is believed to turn the traffic more fluent and improve road safety. Image: istock.com/Lightcome

“There is a global need for this. At the moment no test ecosystems exist anywhere in the world where automated driving could be tested in challenging conditions,” says Reija Viinanen, managing director at Fell Lapland Business Services, and coordinator of the project. “Currently testing is mostly done in summer conditions, but to commercialise and advance these solutions automated driving has to also work in winter conditions.”

The project, called ‘Aurora’, includes both closed and public test roads and is open for any company looking to participate. The only requirement is they contribute to the development of connected vehicles, automated route management, digital transport infrastructure or innovative mobility services.

In practice these categories can include anything from a real-time warning system of reindeers on a road to robotic cars communicating with one another. The first tests are scheduled to start late this year after a suitable stretch of public road is equipped with all the necessary sensors and monitoring tools.

Current participants in Aurora include traffic authorities, Finnish Meteorological Institute, National Land Survey of Finland as well as mapping company Here, private test area Lapland Proving Ground and traffic infrastructure condition monitoring specialist Roadscanners. The project has also raised plenty of international interest.

“We want to create new kinds of business opportunities both for Finnish and international companies,” says Viinanen. “The goal is to make [Fell Lapland] the Silicon Valley of intelligent transportation – and that is entirely possible.”

The future is autonomous

Aurora is currently the flagship project in Finland, but the long term goal is to create a test ecosystem with several globally significant intelligent transport automation hubs set up in the country by 2020.

In fact, Finland is already involved in several pan-Nordic and European projects developing intelligent transport systems. These include Nordic Way where current mobile networks are used to advance communication between vehicles and between a vehicle and traffic infrastructure.

Miettinen envisions a future where automation has seamlessly intertwined with everyday transport by air, land and water. With its legislation, innovation and Arctic testing climate Finland hopes to become a major part of this.

As the slogan for the Finnish plan goes: “If it works in Finland, it works anywhere.”

The world’s first Arctic test ecosystem for intelligent transport systems and automated driving is being built in Finnish Lapland. Image: Visit Finland / Jani Seppänen

Text: Eeva Haaramo

Published on 14.03.2016