It was always a bit like science fiction when automotive experts and large sections of the automotive industry envisioned, not all that long ago, what the future of individual mobility would look like in the not-too-distant future. The car of the future shall drive autonomously, or will at least be automated. Exciting autonomous driving concept cars were presented regularly and in large numbers, and relevant test programmes were rolled out. This has slowed down recently. But the technology is now very advanced and the legal basis is also becoming more concrete.
While autonomous driving is already possible today when it comes to individual functions, such as implementing driving commands, other areas are still considered challenging. Current driver assistance systems can already steer, (lane keeping assistants with steering assistance) brake and accelerate again (distance control/traffic jam assistants). But environment recognition, signal processing, comparisons with road traffic regulations and hazard detection still require (development) time.
The toolkit of powerful sensors is already in place: more and more cameras, lidar and radar sensors are providing ever greater amounts of input data. This requires enormous computing power. And, not least, autonomous driving is largely based on artificial intelligence, which constantly has to make decisions and trade-offs in the driverless car The big challenge here is checking that the system is making the right decisions.
Prof. Dr. Frank Flemisch from the Bonn Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics believes that "the autonomous final stage in all use cases is still very far in the future". The expert expects at least two decades of further intensive research. However, local applications for limited autonomous driving scenarios could become possible earlier, in his opinion.
As things stand today, highly automated driving is already possible, allowing the driver to temporarily turn away from the road. Experts call this Level 3 out of five total levels of automated and autonomous driving, with Level 5 describing true autonomous driving. It will probably be several years before completely driverless vehicles are actually in widespread use on the roads.
Furthermore, until now, the legal framework for autonomous driving has been largely missing and this has slowed the process down. In the summer, however, more than 50 countries agreed on international regulations for autonomous driving at UN level. The new regulations of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN-ECE) create the legal basis for Level 3 autonomous driving. The regulations will come into force in January 2021. However, they still then need to be transferred into each of the countries’ jurisdictions. Japan, for example, has announced that the rules will apply there effective immediately. The EU Commission has promised to implement the regulations promptly.
The UN-ECE regulations are a first step and at least enable a “light version” of autonomous driving: they allow the use of Level 3 lane departure warning systems under certain conditions. They may only be activated on roads where pedestrians and cyclists are prohibited and where the two sides of the road are physically separated. In addition, the system may only be used up to a speed of 60 km/h.
A look at the USA shows how far advanced the technologies for autonomous driving already are. Waymo, a subsidiary of the Google company Alphabet, has now published figures. As part of a large-scale test programme, autonomous Waymo cars covered more than 6.1 million miles, or just under 10 million kilometres, on the road over a period of more than 21 months. The result: only 47 accidents and near-misses. This is a positive signal for the safety aspects of autonomous driving.
Even if the industry has been somewhat restrained recently and big cheers have failed to materialise: autonomous driving is now jumping over hurdle after hurdle. Perhaps a little slower than originally thought, but, for all that, it seems to be doing so all the more consistently.