Self-driving Porsche's being Tested at, Nardò, Italy
"Test in three, two, one second," says the voice from the radio. As soon as the countdown ends, a silver Porsche Cayenne immediately springs into action, piloted by a driving robot ensuring that the car stays safely on track.
Together with the Cayenne was a grey Panamera at Nardò Technical Centre (NTC) using the on-site driving dynamics platform. The NTC is Porsche Engineering's proving ground in Southern Italy, where engineers are now investigating autonomous driving functions' performance. Mario Toledo, an NTC test engineer, has a whole stack of test scenarios on the tray above the dashboard, including driving in parallel lanes with sufficient distance between vehicles, changing lanes to the right or left, and avoiding an oncoming car.
As SAE level 4 testing of autonomous driving functions (fully automated driving) are frequently occurring at the NTC, Continuous development of the NTC itself is also required.
"A revolution is looming in the automotive industry over the next five to ten years, caused by trends such as autonomous driving, connectivity and e-mobility, we must adapt to this – with new infrastructure and new capabilities," says NTC Managing Director Antonio Gratis. "
The inner circular track, which in the past was used primarily for testing commercial vehicles, now has 48 kilometres of new road markings. A stretch of the road resembles a regular three-lane European motorway, while another part has been set-up as a three-lane US highway. The unique lane markings on the inner ring circuit enable the testing of autonomous driving functions.
"The new road markings are crucial for us," explains Davide Palermo, Manager of the ADAS Competence Centre. "Without them, tests for autonomous driving functions on SAE Level 4 would not be possible."
With his colleague Toledo and another test rider on a motorcycle, Palermo performs predefined manoeuvres and behaviours typically seen on a motorway: lane changes and driving in the centre lane with and without another road user ahead. In the future, some tests at the NTC might be carried out without any people at all: in February 2020, a Porsche Cayenne drove more than 600 kilometres at a maximum speed of 130 km/h on the circuit – without human intervention. During the endurance test, the steering wheel and pedals were operated by a steering robot, and a test driver was only on board for safety reasons. "This form of test automation promises higher efficiency and better reproducibility," says Palermo. "But it cannot completely replace human drivers."
A further innovation is preparing the NTC circuit for what is to come. In the future, a fibre optic cable will act as a data backbone, connecting displays, traffic lights and transmitter masts along the route to enable communication between vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure (vehicle-to-infrastructure). To this end, the NTC has prepared the infrastructure for laying 91 kilometres of fibre optic cable around the circular track and the vehicle dynamics platform.
Duet on wet road: on the NTC's vehicle dynamics platform, a Porsche Panamera and a Porsche Cayenne test automated driving functions' performance.
The NTC is also working on its own mobile communications infrastructure, which will enable further tests of autonomous driving functions and vehicle-to-vehicle communication. And in a few years, 'Sim City' is set to join the new test area – a city with moving houses and traffic signs, in which different urban scenarios can be set up for testing advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).
Antonio Leuzzi, Senior Manager Project Management, gives a practical demonstration of another circular track upgrade. "Do you notice any bumps?" he asks while driving around the 12.6- kilometre course at 297 km/h. "Last year, we completely renewed the asphalt – and it is now so incredibly smooth that you don't feel any vibrations even at high speeds. This is better for drivers and leads to more accurate results, for example, in vibration measurements – vital for electric vehicles with their inherently low noise levels."
Antonio Leuzzi feels no vibrations on the newly renovated NTC circuit, facilitating more accurate results and is especially important for electric vehicles with their low noise levels.
Test centre customers can recharge their electrically powered test vehicles in the shortest possible time at two rapid charging stations developed by Porsche Engineering. There are six such HPC (High Power Charging) stations at the site, four of them with 920 volts and 320 kW, two with 950 volts and 350 kW. "The NTC should be like a city of the future," explains Salvatore Baldi, Senior Manager Facilities Management. "That's why we have installed all kinds of charging systems – from wall boxes with seven, 11 or 22 kW to 50 kW charging stations and HPC systems."
High-power charging: there are six rapid charging stations for electric vehicles on the NTC site.
To put the vehicle batteries of the future through their paces, the NTC has also upgraded its fire test facilities. Tank systems have been tested here for more than ten years now, but lithium-ion batteries' safety is now increasingly coming to the fore. Batteries can be exposed to a flame of up to 700 degrees Celsius, testing fire resistance, should a dangerous situation arise during a test with an electric vehicle, a particular container is available at the NTC fire station.
"There we can put electric cars and batteries in critical condition under a kind of quarantine," says Baldi. "We pull them in with a winch and then close the container completely." When the smoke detectors sound the alarm, the sprinkler system starts to reduce the flames in the fire's initial phase. Simultaneously, the flooding system is activated, which pumps 800 litres of water per minute at a pressure of six bar into the container. During the system's design and construction, the NTC worked together with occupational safety experts from Denios.
The workshop area of the NTC enables the preparation of the test vehicles.
The NTC is also continuously working on the expansion of workshop capabilities and the renovation of existing spaces. By 2022, plans envision building 20 modular workshops that can be flexibly adapted to the users' needs.
Porsche engineering says that customers will also benefit from more extensive engineering services for their test vehicles in addition to the modernised technical infrastructure. "So far, we have mainly rented out our testing grounds," explains Gratis. "In the future, we want to take on more turnkey projects: the customer brings their vehicle to the NTC and our team carries out all tests on site – right up to the final report and engineering recommendations. Customers benefit from reduced travel costs and greater efficiency because they get everything at the NTC from a single source."
To implement this plan, Pierpaolo Positano, Senior Manager Engineering, is expanding his team of more than 70 engineers, mechatronics engineers, technicians and drivers, adding new skills in areas such as ADAS and e-mobility. "We have gained a lot of experience in recent years, for example with reliability tests or tests on driving dynamics," says Positano. "Now we are facing new challenges, which we are meeting with specialised groups of experts – for example for NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), ADAS and electric drives. In the future, we will be able to offer kilometres on our test tracks and our know-how – in other words, higher-value services for our customers. A magical mix of infrastructure and expertise awaits you."
The NTC finds some of its experts through its close cooperation with universities. For example, Positano and Nildo Sestini, Senior Manager Human Resources, visited universities in southern and northern Italy and gave them tasks they could have fun with. Nildo Sestini, Senior Manager Human Resources
"We don't just want to give a presentation, we want to enter into a dialogue with the young people," says Sestini. Groups from universities regularly visit the NTC as well. "This is always a good opportunity to get to know each other better and find suitable candidates for us," says Sestini. "We offer promising students an internship for a period of time designed to allow them to gain experience and competence and to contribute to our centre."