Land Rover Is Developing an Off-Road Autonomous-Driving System

The project could benefit self-driving cars that stay on pavement.

Land Rover wants to take self-driving cars off road. The automaker is launching a project called Cortex to develop an autonomous-driving system that can function away from pavement, and in all sorts of weather conditions. That will be a major engineering challenge, even for a company with off-road expertise to spare.

Today's cars equipped with semi-autonomous technology rely on paved roads with clear lane markings and orderly traffic patterns to orient themselves, and even in those conditions, they don't always work perfectly. But in order to proliferate, autonomous cars will need to be able to handle every environment that human drivers can handle. Land Rover's Cortex project could be an important step toward that goal.

Land Rover hopes to develop self-driving cars that can not only find their way through places without roads, but that can navigate through vision-obscuring conditions like dirt, rain, or snow. The automaker is developing what it calls a "5D" sensor array that combines acoustic sensors, cameras, lidar, and radar to give cars a greater awareness of their environment.

That heightened awareness may be necessary for self-driving cars to achieve mass adoption. Companies won't always be able to count on clear lane markings and signage, or good weather, so cars will have to be equipped to deal with less-than-optimal conditions. That may be the major long-term benefit of Cortex. The point of off-roading is that it presents a challenge for drivers, so it's unclear what the marketability of an autonomous off-roader would be.

Land Rover is testing self-driving cars on public roads in the U.K. alongside sibling brand Jaguar. Like many other automakers, it has made vague promises to commercialize the technology in the future. Jaguar will also to provide up to 20,000 I-Pace electric SUVs to Waymo for use in the company's planned autonomous ride-hailing service.