Self-driving cars aren’t a 21st century development. More than 30 years ago, a German professor sent a Mercedes on its way with no-one at the wheel. Now a law is to bring autonomous vehicles from the research laboratories to the street in Germany.
Established and less established automakers, suppliers, transportation service providers, tech giants and countless start-ups all dream of autonomous driving. It’s a dream as old as the car itself. A driverless car by the Chandler Motor Company brand attracted attention in New York as early as 1925. The electrical engineer Francis Houdina controlled electric motors on the steering wheel, brakes and gas pedal from a car driving behind using a remote control. Of course from a technical viewpoint this wasn’t really a self-driving car. That would have to wait more than 60 years.
In the summer of 1987 a vehicle moved on the road on its own for the first time, using sensors, cameras and a “data center” in the trunk. This wasn’t somewhere like Silicon Valley, this was on a new 20-kilometer long stretch of road in Dingolfing, Bavaria. The Mercedes D508 box wagon modified by Professor Ernst Dickmanns reached speeds of a brisk 100 kilometers an hour.
Later, as part of the EU project “Prometheus”, a Mercedes S-Class 500 converted by Professor Dickmanns was able to stay in its lane, drive in convoy and overtake. This development was made possible by autonomous cruise control and an emergency brake assistant. An over 1,000-kilometer trip from Germany to Paris on the highway at speeds of up to 130 km/h was an absolute highlight at the time and would have taken the top spot in the “Disengagement Report” of the Californian traffic authority (DMV), assuming the drive would have taken place from San Francisco to LA and back again, for example.
What makes the report from the Californian traffic authority so interesting is that, in the state, all those of distinction in the industry—including German manufacturers—are allowed to test on public streets. Currently, this is 66 companies. However, with the exception of Waymo, Nuro, AutoX and the start-up purchased by Amazon, Zoox, a passenger still needs to be inside for safety purposes.
And every time the car doesn’t know what to do next and hands over to the co-pilots, it creates a disengagement entry. Each year these end up in the Disengagement Reports along with the kilometers traveled. Even if some experts have doubts about the usefulness of this document, it delivers a relatively objective insight into the status of development.
According to this, Waymo and Cruise, the subsidiaries of Google and General Motors (GM), reinforced their market leadership last year. Tesla didn’t appear at all, as their autonomous vehicles are not registered in official test processes, and German automakers hardly played any role. At 195 kilometers traveled, BMW reported three disengagements and Mercedes, at 47,974 kilometers, reported 1,167. By comparison, Waymo reported only 21 with 1,006,142 kilometers traveled and Cruise just 27 with 1,232,079 kilometers.
In order to regain market leadership in Germany, the German government recently passed a law that is to enable the use of autonomous vehicles in designated zones across the country. Shuttle buses and goods transports will then be allowed to drive fully automated at level 4—i.e. with a co-pilot—on public roads over short stretches. As before, the insufficient data protection, questions of liability and the provision of secure radio connections to technical supervision are the subjects of criticism. However, provided these three points don’t lead to additional revisions, the law will come into effect in May this year. We could see vehicles drive independently on highways from Munich to Hamburg, for example. But that’s a few years off yet.
According to a current Prognos study, analysts expect a larger portion of fully autonomous vehicles without companions who can take over (level 5) no sooner than 2040. That is, if consumers go along with it. They are the greatest variable. According to a study by business consultancy firm Deloitte, they always harbor large concerns when it comes to new technology: In Germany, Japan, Korea and the U.S., nearly half of those surveyed were categorized as unsure. Even in technologically brisk nations such as China, skepticism grew from 25 percent last year to 35 percent and in India from 48 to 58 percent. In the coming years, some persuasive work needs to be done, since small demand means a small market, even for passenger transportation. Because of this automated trucks will be transporting goods long before the world’s highways are overrun by autonomous passenger cars.