SUVs

​Why Land Rover's move to take autonomy off-road may be its trickiest ascent yet

Britain's luxury off-road masters gave me a glimpse into their self-driving future. Will customers buy in, or will the magic be lost when everything goes autopilot?

Land Rover

Last week, I experienced Land Rover's first tentative steps toward an autonomous future that will not only see its SUVs driving themselves down the roads, but eventually, off them, too.

Even in these very early stages, it's deeply impressive stuff. And as Land Rover officials are quick to point out, the technology promises to imbue off-roading greenhorns with the knowledge and judgment of the world's most seasoned trail guides.

But it's an open question whether doing so will pay off for the brand.

It is unquestionably necessary and smart for Land Rover to develop on-road autonomy systems to ensure it doesn't get trampled by rivals. Not only will the tech be a valuable convenience, many years from now when self-driving cars become the majority of new vehicles sold, it's conceivable that LR will need the autonomous technology to stay on the right side of the law (or at the very least, the insurance industry).

Yet such competitive motivations and regulatory strictures are far less likely to follow Land Rover customers off-road, and the British automaker is pursuing self-driving beyond where the pavement ends regardless.

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Terrain-Based Speed Adaption's stereo cam is discreetly mounted atop a light bar.

Land Rover

To date, LR has successfully convinced its owners, and us, the driving enthusiast community, that technological innovations like Hill Descent Control, Terrain Response Control, surround-view cameras and air suspension help make us better drivers off-road, with only a few cynics saying they just make us more capable passengers.

Thus far, the Green Oval has preserved enough of a challenge for the world's wealthy that when they head off into the wild unknown, they still emerge on the other side having earned a genuine sense of accomplishment -- perhaps by cresting a hill or finding a distant fishing hole that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to reach.

Yet the Land Rover of the future is working to graduate from merely assistive drive technologies to the fully automated. And as HS Automotive Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley notes, "It does seem as though off-road enthusiast interest in autonomy is somewhat limited -- for most off-roaders, getting themselves through rough terrain is the joy of the adventure and proof of their skill."

To borrow a phrase, Land Rover will have to tread carefully when it comes to marketing self-driving technology to its most hard-core fans.

Land Rover Surface ID development rig

This ultrasonic sensor scans the way ahead and automatically optimizes the vehicle's systems.

Land Rover

Surface ID

Among the systems Land Rover is developing, Surface ID employs ultrasonic sensors to scan the way ahead. It then takes its findings and cross-references them with an internal library of scans of terrain including gravel, sand, grass, mud, snow and ice. The system then automatically adjusts Terrain Response Control to gird the vehicle's various systems for ideal performance on the upcoming surface, all without driver intervention.

Surface ID could theoretically pay dividends on-road, as well, like detecting black ice before the vehicle runs over it, or instantaneously softening up the air suspension at the exact moment the vehicle encounters a speed bump, not unlike Magic Body Control in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. So far, the sensors only have a range of about 15 feet, but this is an early implementation.

Terrain-Based Speed Adaption's high-res stereo camera.

Land Rover

Terrain-Based Speed Adaptation

Surface ID will no doubt become a close companion to another of LR's developing technologies, Terrain-Based Speed Adaptation, which automatically slows or accelerates the vehicle off-road according to the terrain it encounters. The system relies on a stereo camera that's of higher resolution than current production models, but other than that, little specialized hardware is required.

The camera scans the road well ahead (around 100 feet out), and in my testing, was able to successfully see challenges ahead including shallow streams, muddy ruts and bends in the trail, automatically adjusting the vehicle's speed to suit. Using the cruise control +/- switches, I was able to select my Range Rover Sport test vehicle's relative rate of progress to hit the sweet spot between rate of progress and ride comfort.

Off-Road Connected Convoy

With Off-Road Connected Convoy, a vehicle-to-vehicle communication system Land Rover is developing, the lead SUV in a group can transmit data about its exact location, surface conditions, overhead obstacles and so on to those following it within three-quarters of a mile or so. Using Dedicated Short Range Communications, ORCC will also shortly be able to automatically share its system settings with trailing vehicles. That means a veteran guide at the head of the pack will be able to automatically set things like suspension height, stability-control intervention threshold and drive mode for the other vehicles in the convoy, all without their drivers lifting a finger -- or potentially even being aware of what's happening, let alone why.

Even in this early stage, ORCC allows users to drop "pins," Waze-like flags to call out trouble spots on the trail, but presumably they could be used to call out scenic vistas, wild animals if you're on safari and so on. One can imagine the future could hold Pokemon Go-like off-road geocache games.

Land Rover Terrain-Based Speed Adaption development rig

There's a lot going on in this engineer's office. Production versions won't need all the extra hardware.

Land Rover

Full autonomy off-road, but only when you want it

Land Rover officials admit their long-term goal in combining all these technologies is to develop a detailed 360-degree view of what surrounds the vehicle at all times. That information will ultimately then be used to create a fully autonomous drive mode capable of descending rocky slopes, fording rivers and negotiating narrow forest trails.

To hear LR officials tell it, this level of automation will be desirable in part because because these vehicles will still offer the option to turn off the autonomous capabilities and let drivers do it all themselves. But will owners still feel the same sense of accomplishment and mastery if they know they have a technological "get out of jail free" security blanket they can invoke at any time? It's hard to say, but Dave Sullivan, manager of Product Analysis at market research company AutoPacific, argues that self-driving tech may actually encourage more off-road use. "If you don't have the skill set to go off-road and keep your vehicle from getting damaged, this might allow people to go off the beaten path who might have been intimidated by it before," he said.

There could be other usage scenarios, too. IHS Automotive's Brinley: "There are locations where roads are still very rough and not fully formed, and Land Rover sells vehicles in those areas...an autonomous Land Rover could deliver medicine or transport groups over rough terrain in Africa." Indeed, an injured hiker on a trail or at a base camp would likely be very pleased to have a vehicle with fully autonomous capability to ferry them safely to a distant hospital.

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Land Rover's Defender is poised to finally get a replacement in the next year or so.

Land Rover

Will Defender owners want autonomous capability?

Interestingly, some industry pundits think the auto business' move to embrace autonomy could trigger a growing reactionist market for autonomy-free, hard-core manual-function cars and trucks. Even today, defiantly old-school niche models like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and Morgan Three Wheeler are already selling better than ever, and sales of classic cars are robust. More than likely, any such action will happen in the premium market where Land Rover lives, because more buyers can afford to keep a third (or fourth, or fifth) vehicle just for hairy-knuckle Sunday drives.

But as AutoPacific's Sullivan points out, such sales opportunities are likely to be limited. "Maybe Land Rover will leave the analog world to Jeep and move into a different realm," he speculates. "Really, the market here is too small, even for Land Rover. I expect if the Chinese demand some sort of autonomy or driver-assist technology, Land Rover will do it. We [North America] are not the most important market for them longer-term."

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This 1979 Land Rover III is defiantly, brilliantly analog.

Land Rover

After sampling all of Land Rover's futurethink technology at the company's Gaydon proving grounds, I was offered a welcome refreshment. A quick jaunt through the woods at Land Rover's proving grounds in a green 1979 Land Rover Series III revealed just how far the company has come. Wooly manual steering. Manually shifted gears. Manual shifting in and out of low range. Fixed suspension height. No silicon-chipset trickery. Driving a Series III was a bouncy, high-concentration, high-force workout, but it was a truly rewarding experience, a real highlight of my day.

Land Rover owners of the future will likely never experience the unfiltered brand of joy and sense of accomplishment that a Series III can deliver, but most will never know -- or care about -- what they are missing. With the company's sales continuing on a record clip, it may be inevitable that a handful or two of traditionalists will be left trailside when autonomy enters into the picture. Or perhaps, as Land Rover officials hope, they'll just be happy to turn the technology off.