As exciting as the technical aspects of self-driving cars are, their futuristic looks and innovative technology have not succeeded in dominating public discourse on autonomous driving. At the center of the debate are rather the shortcomings of sensors, software, chassis and drive technology – and their consequences: accidents involving damage to property or personal injury, in the worse case fatalities, even if these are few. We look at both sides of the coin.
The good news is that in Germany, for instance, according to the Federal Statistical Office “Destatis”, the number of road deaths in Germany is falling. In 2017, it was at its lowest level since the founding of the Federal Republic. The bad news is that there are still over 2.6 million accidents a year on German roads, leaving an estimated 3,170 dead and 390,000 injured.¹ According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 37,000 people died on US roads in 2016, and the number of fatally injured pedestrians rose by nine percent.²
German traffic deaths
Developers of robotic cars argue that 90 percent of traffic accidents are due to human error. The technology of autonomous vehicles – as and when it ever reaches maturity – will prevent these accidents. When the number of autonomous vehicles tested and their distance traveled are compared with the number of accidents that occurred, the few serious incidents are actually of little consequence. The probability of an accident is 3.2 per million miles, as opposed to 4.2 for people-controlled cars.³
In fact, in the known cases involving Tesla and Uber, it remains unclear whether the accidents were actually due to the automation technology of the vehicles. In the case of the first known fatal accident in 2016, the investigators came to the conclusion that human error had caused the accident. Automated driving is divided into five levels. The accidents involving Uber and Tesla happened to Level 2 cars. Only from Level 5 do we talk about fully autonomous driving. Lower levels are defined as automated or partially autonomous driving.⁴
The SAE (an international association of auto engineers) subdivides automated driving into five levels. Levels 1 and 2 conver assistance systems, whereby the driver must be able to respond directly to the traffic situation at any time. From Level 3, the car monitors the traffic independently, while from Level 4 the driver does not have to intervene even in an emergency.
According to Hermann Rodler, member of the Bitkom-Präsidium, public interest in autonomous driving is considerable. It is foreseeable that the willingness to use autonomous vehicles will increase as soon as motorists experience that they can trust the technology.⁶
To bring the technology to a safe and trustworthy stage requires many test miles, development cycles and bold projects. Driving a large number of test miles is critical to training the vehicles’ artificial intelligence software. The more data is collected through tests, the better the cars can ultimately drive. As a result, in places like the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, autonomous vehicles have been allowed onto the roads on a trial basis. In this case, the start-ups Jingchi and Pony.ai offered public rides. The Chinese companies want to defy the American competition. However, according to the London Financial Times, Google subsidiary Waymo has already logged 4 million test miles.
Japanese carmaker Nissan plans to test driverless taxis with a software company in Yokohama. The goal is to get the cars on the road in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Self-driving cars were also seen on public roads during the CES electronics show in Las Vegas. Cities like Stockholm , Beverly Hills, Gothenburg, London, Singapore, Pittsburgh, Amsterdam, Perth, Boston and Beijing are all gearing up.
Google’s sister company Waymo has promised self-driving cars for the consumer market by 2020. Entrepreneur and visionary Elon Musk announced that a fully automated Tesla vehicle would be available by the end of 2018. To win the battle with Waymo, Daimler wants to get its autonomous vehicles on the road together with Bosch as quickly as possible. Gerhard Steiger, President of the Chassis Systems Control Division at Bosch, has ambitious goals:
“In 2018, we will bring the first modest fleets of robotic taxis to German cities.” Gerhard Steiger, Bosch
For safety reasons, as is the case with Uber, there will still be drivers onboard for the time being. The wider market launch is planned for 2022. “In our view, that is how long it will take before the technology is really secured and all eventualities have been planned for”, Steiger told the German branch newspaper Automobilwoche. In addition to the technology, of course, the interior design needs careful consideration too. What should a driverless vehicle look like? BMW thinks it should be communicative and comfortable: passengers could turn to face each other instead of looking ahead. Initial developments in this direction can be found in the BMW VISION NEXT 100, for example.
Depending on the seating position of the passengers, the topic of indoor air filtration must also be reconsidered. In the future, the fresh air could come from above or from the side, unlike coming through the dashboard, as it has traditionally done. The filters protect occupants from particulate matter, pollens, allergens, odors and harmful gases. Even today, 30% of 18 to 79-year-olds suffer from allergies at some point during their lifetime. In this area, cabin air filters provide a noticeable improvement in the quality of life.
The future on our roads will probably belong to robotic cars as much as it does to the people who bring them there. But what’s next? Here are some predictions:
- Networking and self-regulating traffic – vehicles communicate with each other and inform other road users about impending traffic jams, accidents or weather conditions. This is not only practical but also improves road safety, saves time and reduces stress.
- More intuitive HMI (Human Machine Interface) that, for example, projects information onto the windshield or can be used as a car home theater or workstation. Not only does HMI look cool, it also fits into the age of multi-tasking.
- Fully autonomous, electrically powered vehicles that take us into a new dimension of mobility. Outwardly, a technical masterpiece, environmentally friendly and low-emission: inside, a workplace, rest space or even nursery.
- Greater comfort: improved air quality with filter systems that can be adapted to the needs of drivers and passengers.
What will the future really look like? Time will tell. And soon. Currently, driven by international competition, there is a lot going on within the industry, especially concerning the development of e-mobility, in which autonomous driving will play an increasingly important role. Will we ourselves come to enjoy automated driving in our everyday lives? Probably. At any rate, we are convinced that self-driving cars are the future.