The Road Ahead (Part 1): Driving reimagined
Let’s hear from the experts! In the first part of our tech talk, Dr. Andree Hohm and Dr. Björn Filzek, two engineers in leading roles at Continental, reveal how automation will change the way we drive – and why science fiction is closer to reality than we think.
Every day, we are picking up speed on the road to automated driving (AD). Engineers are working feverishly to remove the obstacles along the way. By the year 2025, driving will no longer be the same. We spoke to two guys who know a thing or two about that: Andree Hohm, Head of Lighthouse Program Automated Driving and Björn Filzek, Head of Technology Concepts Automated Driving at Continental.
Mr. Hohm, Mr. Filzek – what does the year 2025 mean to you?
Andree Hohm: In the time beyond 2025 I expect fully automated driving will be available in specific situations. In a nutshell that means: in these situations, the driver can hand over control to the vehicle – and doesn’t have to pay attention to the car and the road anymore. We will have time for things that matter.
Björn Filzek: Coincidentally, 2025 is also the year that my daughter will learn to drive. It will be fun to look back then on how we drove in 2016! A decade from now, driving will be completely different from what we know today – the things you can do during the drive, the way the technology unburdens you. But you will still be able to drive manually if you want to! If, for example, you’re on an idyllic winding road on a lovely summer’s day.
How will you spend the time in the driver’s seat once the car does all the work?
Hohm: Enjoy the things that aren’t possible today: like watching the morning news on TV, reading a newspaper, making phone calls fully concentrated – or just looking out the window hoping to see something interesting!
Filzek: I’ll get things done that I’d normally do in the office. This way I’ll have more time with my family when I get home.
“A new world order will be established”
AD technology is advancing at high speed. What are the most thrilling features to be introduced in the next few years?
Filzek: Three things will happen: firstly, the car will become a part of the internet. It will grant us a user experience which is similar to the smartphone. Secondly, cars will park themselves – without the driver even being in the car. And thirdly we will have features that can steer a car automatically on highways.
Let’s cut to the chase, how sure are you that we’ll see these things on the roads by 2025?
Filzek: The technology will be ready – I’m sure of that. The question is, will the legal framework be ready as well?
Traditional car makers seem to see the introduction of AD as a step-by-step process: driver assistance systems get ever more advanced until we eventually reach the point of full automation. Meanwhile, Google is working on the fully autonomous car. Evolution or revolution – which is it going to be?
Hohm: Both! Those approaches do not contradict each other – they’re two sides of the same coin. The car makers’ vision has always been the vehicle that is in general able to meet all possible need of your mobility: it takes you anywhere – to your faraway holiday destination as well as to your business appointment in the city. For that, a step-by-step approach makes most sense, giving the driver stepwise the option to use automated driving for more and more situations. On the other hand, new market players are addressing specific areas of mobility – like megacities and their collapsing traffic systems. In these areas it could possibly make sense to re-think if our common approach still fits or if we need completely new solutions. For example, Google came up with those small autonomous vehicles, possibly without pedals or steering wheel and only capable of quite low speeds. I am absolutely sure that in the end, both approaches will be symbiotic.
Should traditional car makers consider the Silicon Valley a danger? Should they fear that they might become mere suppliers for powerful new car brands of Google and Apple?
Hohm: Business is always dangerous! There are always competitors you need to watch. True, with AD we will see a great many new players emerge. A whole new eco system will come into being. So the car makers have to be prepared! But many of these companies have a quite long history – they wouldn’t have lasted 100 years or more if they faltered at new challenges. I’m sure that when we look back in 2025, we will find that a new world order of the automobile has been established and both the old and the new players have found their place.
“Cars will be able to see around the corner and beyond the horizon”
Let’s take a closer look at the technology involved. What is needed to make fully automated driving a reality?
Filzek: Firstly, we need very good sensors. We must give the car an awareness of its surroundings that has to be in some respect even better than a human’s. The car needs to see, feel or hear everything that is going on around it.
What role does artificial intelligence play in this?
Hohm: What Mr Filzek just described is already a kind of swarm intelligence. But even beyond that, A.I. has a gigantic potential for autonomous vehicles. Especially for very complex driving situations. Imagine a megacity crossing scenario: with various lanes and traffic signals, with a multitude of lights and colors, with a wet and bumpy surface and confusing lane markings. Then add crossing pedestrians and various parked cars. You have a scenario which for human drivers is admittedly a challenge but they are obviously able to master it. With methods of A.I. we have the potential to provide vehicles with the same intelligence. But we’re still a few steps away from that…
What would an intelligent car actually be like? Tell me it’d be like K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider…
Hohm: I wouldn’t go so far as to say, K.I.T.T. is a realistic scenario. But Hollywood has indeed produced some fascinating visions for automated driving. Look at “I, Robot” or “Minority Report” for instance. I love collecting these examples. Some are amusing, some are actually compelling. It’s inspiring to see how creative people envision, say, a human-machine-interface. We live in fascinating times – where visions we know from science fiction may soon become reality.
It must be fun to work on this technology…
Hohm: Oh yes. Working on automated driving is like hitting the jackpot for an engineer.
But surely that is not enough…
Filzek: Yes, the car also needs a kind of inherent driving competence. Think about it: when you drive the same road to work every day, at some point you know the road so well, you don’t need to think about certain maneuvers. It all happens subconsciously. You only react to things that are unusual, for example a construction site. Automated cars will have that level of driving competence – and more: they will share their experiences via a backend server. This forms a collective memory.
So cars can inform other cars what awaits them around the next bend?
Filzek: Exactly. This will enable cars not just to see their surroundings – but to look around the corner and beyond the horizon. They will know about that construction site long before it is even visible to the eye or camera.
Do cars need to be connected in order to become automated?
Filzek: No. Automated driving will be safe with on-board sensors alone. But with connectivity, it will become a lot more comfortable and applicable to more traffic situations. One example: if there’s an obstacle on the road, an automated car without connectivity will be able to perform an emergency braking that keeps the driver safe. But if the car is connected, it will know about the obstacle way in advance – so that hitting the brakes won’t even be necessary.
In the second part of our tech talk, the experts explain what challenges the industry faces to ensure that automated cars drive safely.