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Wheely innovative: Continental’s first self-driving car turns 50

On September 11, 1968, the test vehicle took to the track at Continental’s Contidrom test facility.

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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Continental’s past reveals the future, Volvo challenges air travel and Apple’s crash causes headlines: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

The road to automated driving is paved with pioneers that struggled with reluctance – but kept pursuing their vision. A good example was portrayed in a recent report in Germany’s FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). It took a dive into Continental’s past only to find…the future (German only and requires registration to read).

Exactly 50 years ago, on September 11 in 1968, the Hanover-based technology company revealed the E-car, an electronically controlled, modified Mercedes 250 that sped round the Contidrom test track at up to 120 kilometers per hour with nobody at the wheel.

As wowed as any onlookers were by this futuristic phenomenon, it was not billed that way at the time: “Something like autonomous driving was beyond our imagination,” retired Continental engineer Herbert Ulsamer (76) who worked on the project, told FAZ. The technology was in fact an innovative solution to increase the company’s tire testing capacity. It was guided around the track via an embedded cable. As for removing the driver; well that was only to eliminate any inaccuracies in the tests. But the technique was met with skepticism by the tire developers for which it had been developed: the project ended by the mid-70s.

Nonetheless, by “wanting to show what was technically possible” Continental had unknowingly delivered the future mobility vision: electric and driverless. „We salute the inventive pioneering engineers who developed a driverless car five decades ago," Continental CEO Elmar Degenhart acknowledged their accomplishments in a press release. In it, the company announced that it will start truly driverless tire testing in Uvalde, Texas. The new testing vehicle is based on Continental’s highway Cruising Chauffeur technology. Under challenging conditions and extreme heat, the self-driving vehicle makes it possible to improve the detection of weak spots in new tire mixtures.

It’s interesting that, 50 years after the legendary Contidrom tests, Continental is striving to realize the vision of automated driving by 2025: still through innovative technological solutions and still amid a certain degree of skepticism. The difference is that this time, autonomous driving is the goal – not just a by-product.

Volvo: My car is my castle

How will we spend our time in the car once cars run autonomously? This is a topic we have been following very closely here on 2025AD. This is why I am both excited and somewhat skeptical about the new autonomous concept car Volvo presented last week.

In Volvo’s vision, a modular interior offers passengers the possibility to switch between bedroom, living room or mobile office. What strikes me most is the way Volvo aims to revolutionize the way we travel by asking: “Why fly when you can be driven?” This is probably one of the biggest fears of airlines and the hospitality industry: that autonomous driving will fundamentally alter short-haul travels, making plane rides and hotel stays obsolete.

So in that regard, Volvo’s concept represents a potentially game-changing idea. So why am I skeptic about it at the same time? Because of the nature of concept cars – they rarely become reality. It is naïve to assume you can simply put features like a bed or a conference table inside a moving car – and people will find comfort in it. Firstly, as long as we will have mixed traffic with conventional cars, safety features like airbags or safety belts will still need to be in place. Secondly, experts predict that the level of motion sickness could be significantly higher in a self-driving car. To be fair, Volvo’s concept isn’t the first one to completely ignore this fact. But I think it’s about time car makers put more thought into how to tackle this issue – instead of raising unrealistic expectations.

Apple crash: the new driverless normal

It’s no surprise that most car accidents involving autonomous vehicles are rear-end collisions. The reason: Human drivers tend to crash into the robot cars because they are confused. “A possible explanation is that these cars don't drive the same way that people do,” software engineer Dr. Phil Koopman told Consumer Affairs last year.

Luckily, when a self-driving Lexus RX 450h was rear-ended by a Nissan Leaf on a Californian highway last week, no one was hurt. Still, the crash spun worldwide media attention because the Lexus belongs to Apple’s secretive self-driving test fleet. It is therefore the first documented accident of a driverless Apple vehicle.

No one at Apple will be happy about the collision. But their car most likely wasn’t at fault for the crash. If it were anyone else but Apple, probably nobody would even be talking about the incident. According to California DMV figures, Apple's crash was the 95th autonomous vehicle collision report in 2018. Other reported crashes in August included vehicles of Waymo, GM, and Toyota. None of those incidents resulted in injury. It is a sign of increasing normalization of the technology that we haven’t even heard of most of them.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

René Tellers,

Editor-in-Chief

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