‘We are building an objective and authentic professional base’

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BME participates in the Hungarian-Austrian-Slovenian cooperation agreement on the joint projects for the development of autonomous and connected vehicles.

‘With no other trilateral agreement in this field, the cooperation between the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME), the Graz University of Technology and the University of Maribor is entirely unique in Europe. Relying on EU, and later on industrial funding, our plan is to be present on the international scene as a very powerful focal point,’ the Head of the Department of Automotive Technologies at the Faculty of Transportation Engineering and Vehicle Engineering said summarising the main objective of the cooperation. Explaining the rationale behind the collaboration, Zsolt Szalay said that they are planning to establish an environment in Zalaegerszeg, connected to autonomous vehicle systems, covering all the phases of automotive industry testing ranging from simulation and laboratory tests through testing under controlled conditions to city and eventually public road tests (BME’s involvement in autonomous vehicle development has been reported several times in previous articles – ed.).

A challenge identified in the design phase of the city and public road testing levels was to develop cross-border interoperable conditions and methodology for the special vehicles, which is an area where the European Union has also launched a number of initiatives. Zalaegerszeg is ideally located to facilitate the collaboration with Austria and Slovenia.’

The associate professor added that BME has been successfully working with the Graz University of Technology for a long time and the importance of the cooperation is especially underlined by the establishment in Graz – simultaneously with the test track in Zalaegerszeg – of a consortium named ALP.Lab (Austrian Light Vehicle Proving Region for Automated Driving), which uses EU funds worth EUR 8 million to create a public road testing environment for autonomous and connected vehicles in Austria based on the collaboration of the university and three corporations (not by building new tracks but relying on local special features and using the available infrastructure to test the vehicles in wintertime, on motorways and in tunnels).

Slovenia has also indicated their intention to work together, partly through their large-scale e-mobility programme, EDISON and partly through their initiative called AV Living Lab, to test autonomous and connected vehicles Zsolt Szalay explained as to the reasons for the engagement of the Slovenian partner. He added that the participation of the University of Maribor allows Slovenia to promote these developments and to share their knowledge and experiences on functional safety.

The development of the test track in Zalaegerszeg will be complemented by the establishment of a ‘smart road’ between Graz and Maribor to be equipped with cameras, communication and measurement devices to be able to analyse, interpret and, if required, intervene in mixed traffic situations (the simultaneous presence of automated and non-automated vehicles in traffic).

Zsolt Szalay stressed that the triangle formed by Zalaegerszeg, Graz and Maribor offers not only the functionality of the test track but additional roads and testing opportunities for visiting development engineers. Working as one of the lead coordinators of the test track development in Zalaegerszeg, Zsolt Szalay highlighted the priority of the construction of the test track and the high-speed road R76 to connect Zalaegerszeg and motorway M7 on a newly built, 32-km-long road. This will also function as a ‘smart road’ with smart lighting and traffic lights, variable message signs, isolable lanes, built-in sensors and sections where the communication between the vehicles and the infrastructure will be temporarily disabled (for testing purposes). In Zalaegerszeg, the testing environment will also feature an innovative, luminous pavement. Until the anticipated completion of road R76 in 2022, the lower section of motorway M7 between R76 and the border together with motorway M70 at the border will be equipped with devices allowing the connected testing of autonomous vehicles on selected sections.

In the contract signed in October 2017, BME, the Graz University of Technology and the University of Maribor agreed to:

- participate in the establishment of a cross-border testing environment for autonomous and connected vehicles and the supporting European research programmes as well as in the implementation of joint research programmes to gain access to potential EU funds. In addition, they agreed to provide a scientific background in the academic sphere for these activities by organising multilateral professor visits for the academic and research programmes to share and exchange experience.

- organise joint seminars, workshops and professional meetings,

 - cooperate in the research activities and in the distribution of publications concerning the control, testing and validation of autonomous and connected vehicles. 

Zsolt Szalay emphasized that effective cooperation requires agreement at multiple levels: at government level, between the universities and between the test areas as well as with the road maintenance services and road infrastructure and among corporations. ‘The agreement between the universities was signed first and followed by the conclusion of a cooperation agreement between the Austrian ALP.Lab and APZ (Automotive Testing Track Zala Ltd., i.e. the test track in Zalaegerszeg – ed.) Successful preparations have been made to formalise the collaboration between the Austrian motorway operator, the Slovenian and the Hungarian road maintenance companies while the governments of the three countries are expected to sign their agreement at the beginning of next year,’ Zsolt Szalay said.

The associate professor and department head believes the greatest challenge of the cooperation will be to give meaning to the pre-defined strategic objectives. ‘This requires the determination of a concept, the professional idea and the scope of the joint university research. A cause for concern may be that only one project is expected to be awarded in this specific field at the European level and therefore we need to know how to progress and with what kind of partnership and how to harmonise our research projects,’ he explained.  ‘The EU funds supporting this programme are estimated to total EUR 3–5 million, which is a relatively small sum for each partner in a 25-member consortium, however, they hope to attract substantial industrial financing for the research,’ Zsolt Szalay surmised. ‘The test track development in Zalaegerszeg is a catalyst that helps accelerate the influx of global industrial enterprises, bringing their developments into Hungary. Seeing the concept in its entirety can reassure them that they will find favourable conditions here and they can also confirm why this evolving testing environment is so special, offering a complexity found nowhere else in, and only in few places outside of, Europe,’ the researcher stated.

Zsolt Szalay has been delegated by the Ministry for National Economy to represent Hungary in the initiative called EU GEAR 2030. This forum has already formulated its vision for 2030 concerning connected and automated vehicles together with the professional requirements to achieve the objectives at European level. He added that the availability of the required laws and regulations will play a key role in promoting the widespread use of autonomous vehicles, a field where Hungary is trying to be at the forefront; based on a decree amendment, the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads has been allowed since this April.  ‘The test track in Zalaegerszeg promotes the developments but we have to be mindful of what’s ‘outside of our fences’, including the creation of the ecosystem or convincing corporations to come here. Here, a key role is played partly by RECAR (Research Center for Autonomous Road Vehicles), the research centre operating at BME and the Mobility Platform based on the cooperation of multiple faculties at BME including several working groups led by researchers from BME.  ‘In the field of autonomous vehicle development, BME takes a leading role in defining the directions of engineering higher education studies and in the coordination of the related academic and research activities. We would like to ensure at the university that Hungary has an objective professional base, free from industrial lobbying and external pressures, whose viewpoint can be authentically represented anywhere by the government or an authority,’ the department head stressed.

Zsolt Szalay firmly believes that autonomous vehicles are the future. If we ignore them, we will fall behind. This project requires collaboration between the various faculties making the university stronger. As a result, we can present internationally relevant and visible achievements, which is particularly important for networking. We wish to be a focal point in the world, in the fields of education and research as well as innovation.’

GI-BK

Photo: János Philip