Staying true to its roots, Jeep is taking a dirt road to the autonomous-technology arms race. The brand has started testing a fleet of Grand Cherokee-based prototypes fitted with experimental technology that lets the big SUVs drive themselves on challenging off-road trails.
“We are tackling challenges that are in some sense greater than what you experience in on-road autonomy,” explained Neda Cvijetic, the head of artificial intelligence and autonomous driving at Stellantis, while riding in one of the prototypes on the outskirts of Moab, Utah.
Jeep had little to say about its off-road autonomous technology; we don’t even know the system’s name yet. The company clarified that it’s developing this technology exclusively for the cars in its range, which suggests that — as of writing — the system won’t show up in a Ram, and the prototypes it’s testing in Moab look pretty much stock at first glance. The main difference between the Grand Cherokee-based test mules and the Grand Cherokee sitting in front of your nearest Jeep dealer is the armada of sensors and other hardware installed on the roof.
It’s a similar story inside: it looks like standard Grand Cherokee fare with the exception of a big screen installed over the touchscreen that displays the infotainment system. One of the images released by the brand shows a Grand Cherokee in a green box labeled “lead,” which seemingly confirms that the system can detect other cars in addition to various obstacles in the trail. It may be able to follow other cars, too.
While this could be merely a back-up system, the video posted on YouTube by Jeep shows Cvijetic with a tablet that provides several driving-related options. There’s a live video stream and a control panel with features labeled “target speed,” “vehicle speed,” “target lateral angle” and “vehicle lateral angle,” respectively. And, fear not, there’s a big, blue button labeled “EMERGENCY stop” in case something goes wrong.
Jeep envisions several use cases for this technology, and it sounds like engineers want to create a system that’s also useful on paved roads.
“These features and technology will have real-life applications on and off the trail in a wide range of driving conditions,” said company boss Christian Meunier. We’ll need to be patient to learn more: Jeep pledged to release more details about the system in the summer of 2023. What’s next is up in the air, but we’d guess that if Jeep is testing the technology, there’s a good chance it could ultimately reach production.
Jeep isn’t alone in this niche: Land Rover has tested autonomous off-road technology for close to a decade, though the system hasn’t reached production. On one hand, deploying autonomous cars off the pavement is arguably easier from a regulatory point of view. On the other hand, engineers need to teach the system a new set of location-specific parameters. Human drivers can have a difficult time telling which boulder to drive over and which one to drive around, and teaching a car geology is harder than teaching it what a city bus looks like.