Checking your emails, watching a film or even snoozing while driving? This scenario is becoming more and more realistic thanks to modern technology and new laws. But developers are already thinking further ahead.
It’s rush hour in the German city of Düsseldorf and the traffic is getting heavier.
But while other drivers look increasingly frustrated, the man in the brand-new Mercedes is completely relaxed.
Even though he’s in the driver’s seat he isn’t afraid to look at his smartphone. In fact he’s not even holding the wheel or keeping a constant eye on the road.
That’s because his S-Class luxury sedan is equipped with the Drive Pilot autonomous driving system.
“For the first time in Germany, this system, which will soon also be used in the EQS, makes it technically possible and legally permissible to take your hands off the steering wheel and your eyes off the road,” says Mercedes project manager Gregor Kugelmann.
There are still restrictions in Germany though. The autonomous driving system can only be used on motorways and only up to a certain speed, and the human driver has to be ready to take over control at any moment.
Autonomous driving has received wider acceptance in the US. There cars from manufacturers such as Tesla and Cadillac come with cruise control which allows you to take your hands off the wheel or even look after the kids in the back seat during long journeys on major roads.
Kugelmann says that Mercedes is fully committed to the Drive Pilot system and assumes responsibility for it, but also carefully regulates its use.
For example, not only must the traffic conditions be right, but also the visibility for the radar, lidar and ultrasonic sensors, and cameras that the system uses.
In the event of rain or darkness, the Drive Pilot immediately hands over to the driver.
Because the driver has to be ready to take over at any moment, they are permanently monitored by a camera. If they close their eyes or try to climb out of the driving seat, the autopilot will stop working.
Companies are also working hard to develop systems that do not require a driver at all. These would be vehicles such as robot cabs, shuttles or unmanned courier transporters.
The goal is to improve urban traffic flow by achieving better utilisation of each vehicle.
“After all, most of the time our cars are just standing around in the city,” says Citroën general manager Vincent Cobée.
Citroën and the Urban Collectif consortium have developed a concept of autonomous taxis based on “Skates”, spherical-wheeled electric platforms with radar and lidar sensors onto which different service pods can be fitted. One of the pod types would essentially be a gym on wheels.
Hyundai subsidiary Mobis presented an automated transport system with large and small robo-vehicles at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January.
According to the Koreans’ vision, these vehicles will soon be whirring through the streets and even the hallways of houses.
This may all sound utopian and futuristic, but in China the future has already arrived. “There, you can already see the first robot cars on the road,” says automotive economist Ferdinand Dudenhöffer.
AutoX in Shenzhen has autonomous cabs driving on an area of 168 square kilometres while in Beijing, Baidu Apollo and Pony.ai have licenses to launch 67 driverless shuttle vehicles.
Chinese vehicle manufacturer Zeekr presented a pretty realistic robo-taxi for Google subsidiary Waymo at the CES. Alongside these developments, the performance of key components such as lidar sensors has been improving while their cost decreases.
It looks like the robot car revolution, long promised, may finally be on the way. Even mass manufacturers like General Motors have announced autonomous cars for everyone by the middle of the decade. – dpa