Back in mid-March, visitors to Finland’s Aalto University were met with the unusual sight of a self-driving buggy cruising around in snow blasted from a snow cannon. This was not a student prank, however, but rather Finnish startup Sensible 4 demonstrating the technology it claims can solve a crucial problem with autonomous vehicles: how to keep them going in any weather condition.
“Current automation technology is mostly being developed in California and Southern Europe,” explains Harri Santamala, CEO and co-founder of Sensible 4. “But this kind of ‘flip-flop automation’ does not work in all four seasons, more like two.”
By way of example, Santamala points to Tesla’s much-hyped autopilot.
“It is not really autonomous; it is more a video camera-based lane guard,” he states. “But if it cannot see the lanes [due to the weather], it is easy to conclude what is going to happen.”
Sensible 4’s ‘automation-in-a-box’ technology does not have the same issues. It combines a multi-sensor system (complete with thermal cameras and radar sensors) with proprietary algorithms to ensure an appropriate reaction to any changes in a vehicle’s environment.
During the demo the buggy, loaded with the startup’s technology, was unfazed by the snow thrown in its path.
“I ran, walked and stopped in front of the vehicle and it spotted me every time despite the snow – it did not run over its CEO,” Santamala says with a laugh. “We are doing this is because our automation system works in any season.”
Made for industry
While Sensible 4 was only founded in February, the company has over 30 years of automation expertise behind it. Its technology comes from GIM, a startup founded in 2014 to commercialise the robotics research done at the Helsinki University of Technology (today Aalto University) since 1985.
What brought Santamala together with GIM was a robot bus pilot he was running in Helsinki last autumn.
“Their CEO Jari Saarinen invited me over and gave me a bollocking – ‘Why did you use foreign technology in the pilot? It does not work in winter, our technology can adapt to this’,” Santamala recalls. “It sounded funny then, but we started to think about it and decided we should do this ourselves.”
Now Sensible 4 is preparing to launch its first test vehicle in late 2017. This is when the startup’s claims of being winter-proof will be put to a real test and, if successful, the first pilots with customers will start in 2018.
Sensible 4’s primary target groups are public transport and the logistics industry, such as bus and truck manufacturers, where Santamala anticipates autonomous technology will spread much faster than in private vehicles.
“New technology is always expensive, but are car owners ready to pay for the comfort [of self-driving]?,” he asks. “The decision is much easier for companies as autonomous technology can directly reduce their costs.”
Clear skies ahead
The next step for Sensible 4 is to find the right investors to support its ambitious goal of becoming a global leader in all-weather technology for robot vehicles.
But behind the company’s drive are not only the business opportunities, but a passion for better transport systems. Santamala would hate to see the same number of private cars exist 20 years from now and instead of being parked most of the time they would drive around largely empty.
“We want to take the development in the other direction and help make public transport, car-sharing and robot taxes into such a great package that it encourages people not to own cars anymore,” he concludes.