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Talking buses and transparent platoons – autonomous driving at CeBIT 2017

A CeBIT highlight: Autonomous minibus Olli with IBM's Watson technology. (Photo: CeBIT / Deutsche Messe AG)

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Exciting ideas, stunning concepts and cutting-edge implementations of autonomous driving: The digital business trade fair in Hanover, Germany, is back – and everyone’s talking driverless vehicles. We take you on the highlight tour.

We enter CeBIT 2017 at the western entrance and find ourselves right in the middle of the transition that the traditional IT and digitalization fair is undergoing. Digitalization is not only reducing the size of exhibition stands. The companies that are exhibiting also change: while some are new to the field, others are no longer exhibiting. This is resulting in vacant exhibition space and forcing the fair organizers to make a virtue of necessity. Hall 13, which until last year was home to network and security companies, is today mostly empty. It is now serving as a route for an autonomous minibus that usually operates in the Swiss town of Sion. As part of a two-year trial, it is giving exhibition guests a glimpse into what it feels like to be chauffeured by an autonomous bus. The demonstration highlights the role that autonomous driving is playing at CeBIT 2017. As a matter of fact, CeBIT is still considered to be the largest computer fair on the planet – only that today “computer” means almost any device with a chip in it, so including the entire Internet of Things.

This Swiss minibus is driving autonomously through the town of Sion. (Photo: CeBIT / Deutsche Messe AG)

The second focus of the project involves developing an app that passengers can use to signal their desired boarding location and time. People who board the bus enter their destination on a tablet. Then, based on this information, the backend plans the optimal route.

Super computers control vehicle fleets

Volkswagen is applying a similar concept – only for individual traffic and with a large amount of vehicles. Their idea: super computers calculate the best route and driving strategy for each individual vehicle in a fleet. They take into account optimization criteria such as driving time, energy and fuel consumption, as well as the efficiency of the system as a whole. One of the most interesting aspects: weighing the interests of the individual vehicle against the performance of the entire system. At the recent Geneva International Motor Show, Volkswagen presented what could be a suitable vehicle for such a concept: the self-driving van “Sedric”.

Telecommunications company Vodafone is also putting emphasis on connected vehicles at CeBIT. In a joint demonstration with Audi, they are showcasing three concrete applications of a connectivity platform that is based on the current state of the car-to-x technology LTE-V.

Driverless cars will constantly communicate with their environment. (Photo: Audi AG)

The first use case: during a simulated platoon ride, the following vehicles see a front camera image of the leading one and can practically see through the whole convoy. The biggest challenge here is processing the high amount of data from the moving camera images.

The second use case: an emergency brake assistant. Within fractions of a second, the assistant receives the information that the vehicle in front has initiated full braking. In the demonstration, the latency between the two vehicles is 50 milliseconds.

Use case number three: spotting pedestrians that are not immediately visible. They are recognized via other means – their smartphone gives away their presence via car-to-device communication.

Vodafone is also offering a glimpse into the more distant future with an elaborate virtual reality presentation. The company is showing how it envisions the traffic applications of the future mobile phone technology 5G to be – with data transfer rates of up to 15 Gbit/s. Among the impressive visual concepts are intersections without traffic lights where all vehicles can coordinate right of way within milliseconds. 5G technology is expected to be market ready by 2020.

New motorway test beds in Germany

In the “Public Sector Park” at CeBIT, many federal ministries are presenting their agenda. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure for example is showcasing the “digital A9 motorway test bed” – a motorway section between the Bavarian cities of Munich and Ingolstadt where vehicle manufacturers and system developers can trial infrastructure and solutions for autonomous driving.

The intelligent motorway is one of the topics at CeBIT 2017. (Photo: CeBIT / Deutsche Messe AG)

Among the installed technology along the section is infrastructure similar to 5G mobile networks. Called mobile edge computing, it is bringing latency down significantly. Interesting side fact: the project is so successful that the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg has announced plans for their own autonomous driving testing area – scheduled to start by 2019. Lower Saxony, a state located in Northern Germany, has already invested in similar plans.

Japan is this year’s partner country at CeBIT. And Nissan is presenting a version of their electric vehicle Leaf, equipped with “SAM”. SAM is short for Seamless Autonomous Mobility. In this concept, interaction between man and machine is a key component.

The mobility concept based on artificial intelligence was developed from NASA technology to help autonomous vehicles deal with unexpected or complex situations. The vehicle sends live data to a human mobility manager who instantly teaches it what to do. The vehicle then shares its learnings with all the other cars in the system so that they too become smarter.

IBM Watson: the virtual bus driver

Talking about artificial intelligence: one of the autonomous driving highlights at Cebit 2017 is definitely IBM’s Watson technology. The IT giant is demonstrating how it could be used in the context of autonomous driving with the help of autonomous minibus “Olli”. Olli is able to transport up to twelve people, without a driver. And that is why Olli needs Watson’s artificial intelligence.

Watson doesn’t support Olli’s navigation or steering. Instead it focuses completely on the interaction between the vehicle and its passengers. IBM’s idea: if a bus lacks a driver, it also lacks a contact person for all questions surrounding directions, the right bus stop or tourist attractions worth visiting. Olli, or Watson, can fill that gap. So not only do we conclude our tour with another innovative concept that exemplifies the importance of a human machine interface in autonomous vehicles, we also end with another likeable minibus – further suggesting that autonomous driving in public transport is already much more concrete and real than many people would expect.

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