Is society ready for driverless cars?

Autonomous cars: when are we only passengers?

We are - to put it mildly - in a little traffic chaos. And by that we do not mean the hopefully lack of traffic jams in the evening rush hour, but the mobility of the future: car sharing, electric cars and autonomous driving are currently the biggest construction sites in the automotive industry and transport policy. They are all supposed to help to keep traffic flowing as safely, environmentally friendly and free of traffic jams as possible.

In terms of car sharing, it works quite well. The number of customers in Germany rose to 2.46 million in the course of the past year, according to the Federal Carsharing Association (bcs), an increase of almost 17 percent. And electric cars are also gradually buzzing more frequently on German roads. According to the Federal Motor Transport Authority, both electric and hybrid vehicles recorded "considerable growth" at the beginning of the year.

The dream of driverless driving

What, on the other hand, still sounds like a dream of the future: autonomous, self-driving cars that - if necessary - roll on the streets all by themselves. But this is also not a technological advance that happens overnight.

Even if further developments are not announced every day, autonomous driving is still high on the agenda of automobile manufacturers. This was recently shown by the merger of VW and Ford, as well as the joint venture between Daimler and BMW, who decided in early 2019 to jointly develop computer-controlled cars.

Test field for autonomous vehicles in Karlsruhe: Only with a special permit on the road

But not only car manufacturers, but also search engine companies such as Google, mobile phone companies and various start-ups are working on the autonomous car. The Swedish start-up Einride, for example, was the first to put a fully autonomous electric truck on the road this year.

T-Pod is the name of the electric truck that shuttles back and forth between two warehouses of the DB Schenker haulage company in Jönköping to deliver goods. Driverless and without a driver's cab. The electric truck received approval from the Swedish Transport Authority in March 2019. After their examination, this came to the conclusion that the T-Pod was able to drive in accordance with the Swedish traffic regulations. Since then, the autonomous truck has also been using a public road in the industrial area.

But even if T-Pod has done its job flawlessly so far, the autonomous truck is still a pilot project. Its road approval is limited to the end of 2020.

Autonomous driving: where are we today?

In terms of technology, the industry has arrived at autonomous driving, and test vehicles are already on the road around the world. It is currently unthinkable that self-driving cars will be on the road without special permits.

Since 2017, however, "highly automated driving", or "piloted driving" for short, has been approved in Germany. This step corresponds to the third level on the way to the fully automated car.

The automotive industry, specifically the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE for short, German "Verband der Automobilingenieure"), has agreed on a five-stage system for the development of autonomous driving (see infographic). Each stage or level stands for a different degree of automation, i.e. the extent to which the vehicle can take over the driver's tasks.

The third stage means that the car almost completely takes over the journey, but the responsibility remains with the driver. That means he must be able to intervene in every situation. But: As soon as the driver puts his car into highly automated mode, he can turn his attention away from the traffic. He could read the newspaper, for example, or turn to the children in the back seat.

The vehicle is sufficiently intelligent to cope with everyday situations on its own - including steering, braking and warnings in critical situations. Nevertheless, the system is designed in such a way that the driver can override the system request at any time. Level 3 is particularly intended for use on motorways.

Automation: Level 3 is rolling out

However, vehicles with this level of automation cannot yet be seen on the streets. Theoretically, the traffic jam assistant in the Audi A8 from 2018 fulfills the requirements, since it controls the car in traffic jams and on the motorway without the assistance of the driver up to a speed of 60 km / h, but this function is not yet approved.

The introduction of the traffic jam pilot "requires not only clarity about the legal framework, but also specific adaptation and testing of the system for each individual country," says Audi. In addition, there are different approval procedures around the world and their deadlines must be observed. Therefore, the traffic jam pilot will be brought into series production step by step, depending on the legal situation in the respective country.

And the rest? Mercedes-Benz is planning its Level 3 presentation in the coming year. BMW wants to catch up in 2021, Ford and Volvo then even want to boast level 4 autonomy.

The greatest challenges

But when do we drive autonomously? The complexity of this question is often presented very briefly, writes the Prognos Research Institute in the study "Introduction of automation functions in the car fleet: Effects on inventory and safety". Serious statements on this are only possible if various general assumptions are taken into account.

In their study of autonomous driving, the researchers identified four main obstacles: legal aspects, technological maturity, inertia of the fleet and infrastructure expansion.

MIT online game on autonomous driving: Morale machine

A whole series of factors are subordinate to these, such as the current national and international legal situation, renewal cycles of technologies, data networks, monitoring and, last but not least, ethical questions. In particular, there will probably never be correct answers. In 2018, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dared to try their hand at it for the first time and sparked discussions with their Moral Machine, the "Moral Machine"

Question after question

The researchers confronted test subjects with different situations in an online game. They had to decide on what they consider to be justifiable accident damage: Do I run over the pensioner who crosses the street when it is red, or do I drive into the concrete wall that endangers the occupants of my car, including children?

The majority of respondents would rather spare children than older people. And most would - given the choice - run over animals rather than people.

With the data, the MIT researchers tried to find out which ethical ideas could be used to program self-driving cars in the future. But so far there is no solution to this, only the moral dilemma.

Forecast: half full or half empty?

The Prognos researchers, on the other hand, have one result, albeit a very vague one. In their study on autonomous driving, they conclude that automated driving will only slowly gain acceptance - this may not come as a surprise.

"In 2050, around half of the vehicles will already have an automation function. In most cases, however, this will only be usable on motorways," it says. While a good 40 percent of the mileage could be performed automatically on motorways, it is less than four percent on country roads.

Prognos delivers two assessments, one pessimistic, one optimistic. At best, the proportion of new vehicles in which the driver can completely turn away from the driving task on all motorways will increase from 2.4 percent in 2020 to 70 percent in 2050.

From 2030, cars with city pilots - i.e. the ability to drive alone both on the motorway and in the city - would gradually appear on the streets. And after 2040, a larger number of cars will be offered that come completely autonomously from door to door, i.e. no longer require a driver on country roads.

"A significant penetration with vehicles that can drive automatically in the entire network is not to be expected until after 2050," predict the researchers.

So, as I said: patience, something is happening.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Travel from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas

    This Audi A7 is full of sensors. At the beginning of 2015, the car drove independently all the way from Silicon Valley to the CES technology fair in Lag Vegas. The road trip on the highway was 900 kilometers long. The helmsman was only on board in an emergency - he did not have to intervene on this voyage.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Really cozy!

    This prototype from Mercedes Benz bears the name F015 and shows in all its conventions what an autonomous car could look like: a driver's seat is superfluous. Instead, all occupants can look at each other while driving and chat in comfort. This research vehicle was also developed in Silicon Valley. Its maximum speed is currently 200 km / h.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Not for the impatient guy

    Autonomous vehicles are actually very safe. They are programmed in such a way that, in case of doubt, they tend to slow down the journey. You definitely keep the specified safety distance and do not endanger other road users with aggressive driving maneuvers, such as this speeder.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Cozy always afterwards

    These two autonomous cars from the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich show how it is done: One car drives in a relaxed manner, the other follows faithfully, always behind. They even find their way in unpaved terrain on paths that they did not know before. This is shown by an exercise at the ELROB robot competition 2012.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    That wouldn't have been necessary

    Such pile-ups occur when people drive too fast, have poor visibility and do not keep a safe distance. Smartly built robotic cars wouldn't make such mistakes. If many of them were networked, they could even send signals kilometers in advance to the following cars: Beware of traffic jams!

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Sensors for all types of danger

    Robot cars can use different eyes to recognize their surroundings. An autonomous car developed by Google, for example, uses such a laser sensor. It rotates and scans its surroundings three-dimensionally with a laser beam.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    The real world from a laser point of view

    And this is what it looks like: The car of the University of the Federal Armed Forces drives through rough terrain. The laser creates a three-dimensional map that it feeds into the computer. So you can even take the perspective of an outsider and watch the car on its journey of discovery.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Orientation by satellite, radar and eye

    Robots can also use many other means to orient themselves in the field. For example with optical eyes - like this commercially available USB camera - or small radar sensors. Positioning by satellite is also important for cars - via GPS data.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Seeing cars - future technology from Germany

    Researchers at Daimler also work with optical cameras. In 2011 they were nominated for the German Future Prize for the invention of seeing cars. This camera is mounted behind the windshield of a mid-range car. She attentively follows what is going on on the street.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Image points become movement

    The optical camera initially recognizes thousands of pixels - a so-called point cloud. From the movement of individual pixels, it calculates vectors - that is, movement arrows. Different vectors are of different lengths. From this, the on-board computer creates a complex movement image of the traffic in front of and next to the car.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Slow down or evade?

    The on-board computer filters out the vectors that are unusual at the car's driving speed, so it can recognize dangers: A pedestrian walks in front of the car from the right and is marked orange. Another car is moving away in the background. The movement points are green - no danger. This allows the car to react if the driver is inattentive.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Who decides - computer or human?

    So the technology would be ready. But the question of whether robots should be let loose on the traffic autonomously poses difficult ethical questions to politicians and lawyers: Who is responsible if a robot car has an accident: manufacturer, software programmer, owner or driver? And what about outside of normal traffic?

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    When it gets too dangerous for people

    For example in the war effort - when you want to transport material from one place to another. Or after a chemical or nuclear accident, when the contaminated area is too dangerous for people. To this end, developers are building autonomous vehicles that can already perform practical tasks, such as here at the Polish Military Academy.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Exhibition of autonomous robots

    The European robot competition ELROB took place at the Polish Military Academy in Warsaw in summer 2014. Such autonomous vehicles were able to compete there for five days. This van from the Swiss company RUAG was first presented in 2012 in Thun, Switzerland.

  • The car thinks, the car steers

    Hands off the wheel!

    If a vehicle drives into a booby trap without a driver, the technology will break down, but at least nobody will be harmed. During the ELROB exercise, however, someone still had to sit in the driver's cab to press the emergency stop button if something went wrong.

    Author: Fabian Schmidt