Of ′info bees′ and car traffic controllers: German researchers tackle the future of autonomous mobility | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.03.2018
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Of 'info bees' and car traffic controllers: German researchers tackle the future of autonomous mobility

How will we get from point A to point B in future cites? German researchers in Aachen are conceptualizing the future of autonomous, electric mobility.

Over half of the world's population resides in urban areas. According to the United Nations, this trend is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. In response to a rapidly urbanizing world, we need to rethink the way we structure our cities — and that also means how we move around within and beyond them.

Leading German research institutes and universities want to be at the forefront of this development.

And with projects like UNICARagil, German researchers really are rethinking the wheel.

Building a car from the bottom up

At its essence, UNICARagil is a thought experiment. Researchers at RWTH Aachen, Germany's largest technical university, are not merely adapting an existing vehicle with an electric motor and an autonomous driving software.

They are starting from scratch.

Together with researchers and engineers from seven German universities and several companies, they plan to tackle the issues of future electro-mobility and make a kit for autonomous vehicles.

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By 2022, the consortium aims to develop four prototype vehicles for everyday use: a taxi, a shuttle, a delivery van, and a personal car. All prototypes will be electric and self-driving. The final step will be a realistic road-test on RWTH facilities outside of Aachen.

"Since the automobile was founded in Germany over 130 years ago, we want to make sure that future generations of the automobile are also found here in Germany," said Dr. Lutz Eckstein the director of the Institute for Automotive Engineering (ika) at RWTH and the coordinator of UNICARagil.

If building a new car from the bottom up sounds daunting, the researchers have done it before — with an electric car prototype by the name of SpeedE (pictured top).

SpeedE was equipped with some innovative features: In place of a traditional steering wheel, drivers control the car with two joysticks on either side of the driver's seat. These joysticks are electronically connected to corner modules and allow for steering angles of up to 90 degrees - twice the amount of your average automobile.

Innovations like these are what German researchers want to incorporate into their upcoming multi-car project, UNICARagil.

A nature-inspired design

While developing the concept, the researchers looked first to the human body for inspiration.

Eckstein's initial sketches for the car are full of terms you're used to seeing in an anatomy textbook: cerebrum, brainstem, spinal cord.

The cerebrum would be in charge of the car's overall trajectory and would decide when to come to a stop or when to pass. If the cerebrum were to fail, the brainstem would take over, albeit in a less intelligent manner. All of the vehicles will have a built-in system of fail-safes. 

These electronic components will then communicate with larger functional system — an autonomous automobile architecture.

The idea is for data cloud services to receive information about the vehicles' surroundings from various sensors that are mounted to infrastructure, like traffic lights.

Some parts of this architecture are inspired by the natural world. A swarm of "info bees" (read: drones) would buzz around, collect valuable data and would complement the infrastructure-mounted sensors.

"We see these info bees as a good way of providing critical information at times of high traffic or in case of emergency. The collected data could be used to develop a sort of collective traffic experience brain, where all vehicles, autonomous and non-autonomous, can learn from each other and make for a safer traffic experience," Eckstein told DW.

Autonomous vehicles of the future would also communicate with a control center. This comes in handy in the case of an accident or in a situation that requires more driving finesse. It would also allow drivers to talk to real human beings at the center.

Or, put differently: Pretty soon, you may be able to pursue a career as a car traffic controller.

UNICARagil Sketch (Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge, RWTH Aachen University)

One of Dr. Lutz Eckstein's initial concept sketches for UNICARagil.

Ensuring safety, part by part

Conceptualizing the cars of tomorrow can be an exciting exercise. But newly conceived cars also create new risks, and the researchers working on UNICARagil aim to ensure the safety of their prototypes, part by part.

"The core of UNICARagil is the service-oriented architecture, in which the various software and hardware modules can be individually evaluated and the safety can be individually tested. The modular design approach enables us to simply replace and update individual modules. That's the revolutionary thing about it," Eckstein explains.

The project's four-year time frame seems to be a bit short for such a revolution. But further testing and development of the final prototypes by tech startups and other investors might just get the vehicles off the test track and on to public roads.

UNICARagil is primarily funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to the tune of approximately 23 million euros ($28.4 million).

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