Going off road in Land Rover's prototype self-driving cars

We got up close with a range of Land Rover's new concepts, including new autonomous tech for its off-road vehicles.

Andrew Lanxon
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
Andrew Lanxon
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Autonomous driving features such as cruise control and object avoidance are quickly becoming commonplace on the world's highways. Now British motoring giant Jaguar Land Rover is looking at ways the same technology can make off-road driving safer and more enjoyable.

I went along to JLR's huge testing facility at Banbury in Warwickshire, England to get a close look at the new technology, as well as find out what other prototypes the company is tinkering with.

One of my favourite things is the off-road connected convoy. Each off-road vehicle is connected wirelessly to each other to share information such as speed, location and even the amount of work the suspension is doing on the difficult terrain. The idea being that in a large off-road convoy -- such as on safari or for convoys providing aid in hard-to-reach areas -- the lead car will be able to share details about the road to cars coming behind.

The lead car would, for example, be able to drive through a shallow river and send depth information to the other vehicles, which could indicate which of the vehicles would be unable to repeat the manoeuvre. The tech will also be able to alert the whole team if any of the vehicles stops or gets lost.

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The screen here shows a very early prototype of what the system could look like. The car diagram on the right shows in real time the different stresses being put on the lead car's suspension.

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The car-to-car technology is being tested on the roads too. JLR is part of a consortium of manufacturers attempting to equip all future cars with technology that allows every car on the road to talk to each other. Not only would this allow cars to share speed information -- which would allow your car to keep pace behind another much more safely -- but a car could immediately alert the vehicle behind when it brakes suddenly.

I took this tech for a spin and found it worked extremely well. I was told to keep a very close distance to the car in front, even at a speed of 70 mph. The car in front slammed its brakes on, which normally would have sent me smashing into the back of it. Instead, my car received the brake signal from the one in front and braked at almost the exact same moment, stopping me before any impact.

JLR explained that by synchronising all cars' braking and accelerating, cars on a highway would be able to maintain close distances to each other much more safely, meaning fewer accidents when emergency braking takes place.

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JLR also wants your car to connect directly with road signs, allowing upcoming warnings to be transmitted to your vehicle, which can begin braking automatically. Similarly, broken down vehicles would be able to send out alert signals to all approaching cars, alerting them to the upcoming hazard.

I think the car-to-car (and car-to-roadsign) technology is a great idea and certainly something I can see having a positive impact on road safety. The problem is that it will require every single vehicle on the road to have it, which is a massive undertaking. Putting the technology in the roadsigns too will be hugely expensive for local governments, and I really don't see it happening any time soon.

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While cruise control works well on flat tarmac, it's not safe to use on off-road tracks, as the irregular terrain means your speed needs to be changed too often. JLR, however, has some impressive scanners on its prototype Land Rovers, which are able to plot the ground ahead.

By being able to sense rocks, drops, water hazards and a variety of other features, the cruise control can automatically adapt speed and suspension sensitivity to give a safe -- and comfortable -- drive over the terrain.

As well as the visual scanners, some cars are also being tested using ultrasonic technology that is able to distinguish what the ground ahead is made of. The test car I drove was able to "see" that I was about to drive onto loose gravel, and then onto grass, meaning it could automatically adjust drive settings to be optimised for the different terrain.

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The scanners are also able to determine the width and height of approaching objects. In this case, it was able to measure the overhead obstruction, and alert us that our car was too tall to pass through.

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It's not just for off-roading either. Here, the same technology has been used in a Jaguar XF. By telling the scanner how tall the bikes are, it's able to scan the demo car park entrance and tell the driver that it's too low for them to drive through without smashing up the pricey cycles.

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Too low, pal! Back up and try another entrance!

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The scanners look pretty rough in prototype form, but down the line they'll be built into the car in a more subtle way.

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The side sensors on this Jaguar XF are able to more accurately determine how close we're driving through these roadworks. It's able to assist with the steering, ensuring that we don't hit any of the traffic cones -- or any cars that we may be passing by.

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What would a tech showcase be without a wearable? This wristband is essentially the key for Jaguar's new F-Pace. When you exit the car, you lock the vehicle by tapping it against the J on the rear logo and do the same to unlock it.

The car's usual key fob is big and chunky, but by putting it into a waterproof wrist band, drivers can go off cycling, kayaking or running without having to have the car key banging about in their pocket.

It's a nice idea and it's one that's already available to Jaguar customers. The downside? This wristband is a £300 extra (roughly $395 or AU$520). You can get an Apple Watch for that.

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Jaguar's F-Pace SUV was also used to show off new cruise-control systems that allow the vehicle to very steadily get over large objects. Note how the car is pointing right down at the ground here, after going over a large bridge.

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