With some fanfare, Siemens announced earlier this month that it’d be attacking the Goodwood Hillclimb with an autonomous 1965 Ford Mustang. It went poorly. We finally have some explanations as to why.
Here’s the full video, in case you are just catching up.
It didn’t go great. The Mustang drunkenly ping-ponged across the lane, even running into the hay bails lining the course at one point.
But! The Sunday Times spoke to some of the people behind the project, who explained why everything went so bad. The power steering broke, along with the fact that the whole thing was a rush job, with a masters student programming the software in less than six weeks. The car also did not use radar or lidar, instead relying on GPS, which tended to cut out when the car was under tree cover.
And they also claimed they totally meant for the car to be ping-ponging, because a moving steering wheel looks better on TV.
We were baffled when told that the car was programmed to weave along the course. Why? Because the TV production guys thought it would look better on camera if we could see the steering wheel moving on its own. The trouble with this, which was obvious to almost everyone after the first run (and arguably should have been obvious long before that), was that it just made it look like the Mustang couldn’t go in a straight line.
Did they regret this strategy? Well, that’s a moot point once the runs are under way, apparently, as changing the programming last minute would have simply added more uncertainty and potential issues.
The project was a collaboration between Siemens and Cranfield University, a publicity stunt that was, on paper, intended to inspire young people to pursue careers in engineering. One irony of the whole project was that the very act of documenting the stunt may have also helped doom it.
The ‘stang was fitted with a live feed camera for the TV crews and a whacking great antenna to transmit the signal from the car. This apparently stopped working on Friday and was fixed, then the signal “turned up to 11”, according to the Cranfield guys. As we stepped out of the car, following our definitely-less-than-perfect ride up the hill, they had a lightbulb moment— was it interfering with their own signal? To find out they vowed to get the feed killed for their second run of the day.
I salute the attempt for all involved, and definitely wouldn’t be able to do this myself, even given an engineering textbook and ten years in a small room, yet there also seems to have been a number of own goals in the process.