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Autonomous cars: When will our cars finally really drive us?

For years we have been talking about autonomous, self-driving vehicles. Yet we don't see them on the streets. But be patient, even if you can't see them, something is happening.

We are in the middle of a traffic chaos, to say the least. And by that I don't mean the hopeless rush-hour traffic jams, but the mobility of the future — car sharing, electric cars and autonomous driving are currently the largest obstacles for the automotive industry and transport policymakers. Put together, they should soon all help make traffic as safe, environmentally friendly and free of traffic as possible.

So far, car sharing has been working quite well. The number of customers in Germany has grown to 2.46 million over the past year, according to the German car sharing association (bcs), an increase of almost 17%. And even electric-powered cars are becoming more ubiquitous on German roads.

Next to that, autonomous, self-driving cars that can roll on the streets alone, seem like a distant dream. Indeed, it is not a step that can happen overnight.

The dream of driverless driving

Even if developments are not announced on a daily basis, autonomous driving is still high on the agenda of vehicle manufacturers. This was recently demonstrated by the agreement between VW and Ford to work together, as well as the joint venture of Daimler and BMW for the joint development of computer-controlled cars.

But it's not just carmakers that are on the move. Tech giants like Google, mobile companies and various startups are also working on the autonomous car. For example, the Swedish startup Einride was the first to send a fully autonomous electric truck on to the road earlier this year.

Autonomous vehicles are not yet allowed on the streets, unless they have a special permit like at this testing ground in Karlsruhe

Autonomous vehicles are not yet allowed on the streets, unless they have a special permit

T-Pod, the electric truck, shuttles between two warehouses that belong to DB Schenker in Jönköping delivering goods. It moves without a driver and doesn't even have a driver seat.

Approved in March 2019 by Sweden's transport authority, the T-Pod is able to drive in accordance with the country's traffic rules. Since then, the autonomous truck has also moved to a public road in the industrial park.

But even if T-Pod has done a flawless job so far, the autonomous truck is still a pilot project, and its permission to be on the streets runs out at the end of 2020.

Where do we stand today?

Technologically speaking, the industry has made rapid advances in autonomous driving and test vehicles are already on the move worldwide. Still, it is currently unthinkable that self-driving cars plow the roads on their own without special permits. But "highly automated driving," otherwise known as "piloted driving," vehicles have been permitted in Germany since 2017.

This is the third step on the way to fully automated vehicles. The automotive industry and the Society of Automotive Engineers have come up with a five-stage system for the development of autonomous driving (see graphic). Each level stands for a different degree of automation — the extent to which the vehicle can take over the tasks of a driver.

Levels of automation for vehicles

Level 3 means that a car can almost completely take over the journey, although the final responsibility remains with the driver. That means the driver is able to intervene in any situation. But as soon as the driver puts the car in the "highly automated" mode, he may turn his attention away from traffic. The driver could, for example, read a newspaper or talk to the children in the back seat.

The vehicle is smart enough to handle everyday situations on its own — including steering, braking and giving warnings in critical situations. Nevertheless, the system is designed in such a way that the driver can override the system at any time. Level 3 is especially intended for highway driving.

Watch video 02:29

Avoiding accidents in self-driving cars

The next level

Vehicles with this degree of automation are not yet on the roads. Theoretically the "traffic jam pilot" in the Audi A8 from 2018 meets the requirements, since it can control the car in traffic jams and on the highway up to a speed of 60 kilometers (37.3 miles) per hour without the assistance of the driver, yet this function is not approved.

The introduction of the traffic jam pilot "requires for each individual country not only clarity about the legal framework, but also specific adaptation and testing of the system," according to Audi. In addition, there are different approval procedures worldwide with different deadlines. The assistant will therefore be brought into series production step by step, depending on the legal situation in each country.

And what about everyone else? Mercedes is planning its Level 3 presentation next year. BMW wants to catch up by 2021. Ford and Volvo are already striving for Level 4 autonomy.

Big challenges

But when can we actually drive autonomously? The complexity of this question is often simply ignored. Yet researchers at the Prognos research institute identified four major obstacles in their study of autonomous driving: legal aspects, technological maturity, inertia of the fleet and infrastructure development.

MIT used an online Moral Machine simulation to see how subjects react in different traffic situations

MIT used an online simulation to see how subjects react in different traffic situations

These issues can be broken down into a whole series of factors, such as the current national and international legal situation, cycles of technological renewal, data networks, surveillance and ethical issues. In particular, these ethical questions will probably never be satisfactorily answered. In 2018, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made a first attempt and started major discussions with their Moral Machine.

In an online simulation, the MIT researchers confronted subjects with different situations. They had to decide which accident was justifiable in their eyes: Do I drive over the retiree who is crossing the street on red, or do I drive into the concrete wall and endanger the occupants of my car, including children?

Results showed that the majority would rather spare children than older people. And most would rather run over animals than humans. The researchers wanted to use the data to find out how self-driving cars could be ethically programmed in the future. But so far there is no solution, only moral dilemmas.

Half full or half empty?

The Prognos researchers, however, have something to show for their work even if it's vague: In their study they conclude that automated driving will come slowly — which may not come as a surprise.

"By 2050, about half of all vehicles will already have an automation function. In most cases, however, this will only be usable on motorways," according to their report Automated Driving Spreads Only Slowly. At best, the share of new vehicles, where the driver can completely turn away from the task of driving on all motorways, will rise from 2.4% in 2020 to 70% in 2050.

As of 2030, cars with "city pilots" — the ability to drive alone both on the motorway and in the city — will gradually emerge on the streets. After 2040, a larger number of cars will be offered that are completely autonomous, meaning they will no longer need a driver even on city roads.

Admittedly, 2040 is a long time away and 2050 is a lifetime. But like I said: Have patience, something is happening.

Watch video 01:48

Ford and Volkswagen to collaborate on autonomous cars

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