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£25m competition to take autonomous cars off-road

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An autonomous vehicle competition in the California desert kicked off the driverless car revolution in the United States. Today, the UK announced another one – with £25m of government funding available for off-road driverless innovation.

The original competition took place in 2004 and was funded by DARPA, the research arm of the US military, and brought together enthusiasts and companies for a race across a challenging off-road circuit. None of the vehicles finished the course, but it did bring together people who would go on to work on Google’s pioneering self-driving car project.

However, the bulk of the research on self-driving cars since then has focussed on the on-road sphere – and teaching cars how to navigate the man-made landscape of junctions and stop signs, and how to avoid pedestrians on relatively smooth surfaces.

Today, the Business Secretary Greg Clark will announce funding for a Connected Autonomous Vehicles research and development competition, the third of its kind in the UK. Investments have been earmarked for cutting-edge projects that will grow the commercial potential of off-road driverless technology.

The Government has previously invested more than £100m of research and development funding in over 50 connected and autonomous vehicle projects across the country. Previous projects funded by the first two competitions include the GATEway, which has brought driverless pods to the streets around Greenwich.

It’s hoped that this wave of funding will help to create technology with applications for industries such as construction, farming and mining.

Off-roading creates its own challenges for self-driving vehicles. They have to determine what kind of surface they’re driving on in order to optimise traction. “Surface identification is looking at what the road surface is before you get to it,” said Chris Holmes, a senior research manager at Jaguar Land Rover, who are developing an off-road autonomous vehicle, in an interview with Wired last year. “That helps if you’re about to hit some ice or some water, or maybe you’re about to go onto some wet grass, it then allows the vehicle to set itself up for what it is about to hit rather than what you’re actually encountering.”

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