Autonomous driving – Status quo

There are already partially automated cars in accordance with automation Level 3 driving on our roads today. But to get to Level 5, i.e. fully automated driving, there is still quite a way to go. Nevertheless, the first milestones to achieving this are already being implemented – from automated parking through to Level 4 shuttles.

The first highly automated production vehicles that meet international requirements for a Level 3 system and are permitted to drive on public roads are already available on the market. These cars are able to take over the driving – although only on certain routes, for a restricted amount of time and in appropriate traffic situations. The person behind the steering wheel must always be able to take back control of the steering within a matter of seconds as soon as the system demands it.

“I don’t think we’re at the stage where we can have a snooze while the car drives us home after work,” says Uta Klawitter, Head of Central Legal Services and General Counsel at Audi. “For vehicles that are to be used in a private capacity, Europe still lacks technical frameworks for approving Level 4 automation. The earliest we can expect these is in 2024.”

Electric minibuses in scheduled services

If you’re lucky, you can already encounter certain driverless vehicles on some roads today. So-called “People Movers” are indeed already in operation in some cities, but only on a trial basis. For example, between summer 2021 and the end of June 2022, three highly automated e-minibuses were in service on two routes in Berlin. The shuttles, which were made by EasyMile, were able to detect traffic light systems thanks to V2X communication technology, and cross a main road thanks to LiDAR/3D vision systems which enabled them to detect open spaces and objects. By mid-May 2022, more than 20,000 passengers had already experienced what it is like to travel in a driverless vehicle – although, this is not entirely accurate: the shuttles still had a “chaperone” who could stop the minibus in an emergency, avoid potential obstacles and help mobility­impaired passengers.

On-demand transport in the Rhine-Main area

From 2023, the first autonomous on-demand vehicles are set to go into operation in the Rhine-Main area transport network, something that is expected to improve public transport across the region. With an autonomy capability of Level 4, the shuttles will be in operation in Darmstadt and the Offenbach region. People will be able to book them via the central on-demand app of the region’s transport association. “On-demand transportation is a highly attractive service for passengers, and so they offer huge potential for the mobility transition,” says Professor Knut Ringat, Managing Director of the RMV (Rhine-Main Transport Association).

“However, they are only economically viable on a large scale if they are in operation as an autonomous transport solution.”

A car that can park itself

An important milestone on the way to fully automated driving is Automated Valet Parking: the driver gets out of the car, for example at the airport, hands over control of the vehicle to the system via an app, and the car parks itself. For this, the vehicle is guided by smart sensors installed in the car park: camera ­systems in the car park monitor where the car is going and its surroundings, and provide the information required for steering the ­vehicle. This makes getting in and out of the car very convenient for the driver and saves them from having to hunt for a parking space. Furthermore, the individual vehicles can be parked in a much more space-saving manner, meaning that the total available parking area can be used 20 percent more efficiently. Other scenarios are also feasible: the vehicle drives itself through a car wash or to a charging robot, with any incurred costs being billed electronically, and the boot space of the parked car can be used as a parcel station by delivery services. None of these are dreams of the future: at the end of 2022, Bosch and Mercedes-Benz were given approval by the German Federal Office for Motor Traffic to develop such a fully automated parking system in car park P6 at Stuttgart Airport.

Car sharing with remote-­controlled cars

For those who can no longer wait to experience what it is like to drive around in an autonomous car, even within the city, can get a first impression in one of Vay’s vehicles. In this case, it is still a driver controlling the car, not technology, although the driver is not sitting in the car, but is at a teledrive station and driving the car remotely. The world’s first teledriving mobility service was launched for the car in 2022 in Hamburg.

“The electric car sharing fleet enables access to areas on a city’s outskirts that are not yet fully serviced by public transport, and thus offers a fast, convenient alternative to taking your own car, and helps to reduce traffic as well as noise and CO2 emissions,” says Anjes Tjarks, President of the Hamburg Authority for Transport and Mobility Transition.

Users can book a Vay car via an app that arrives within a matter of minutes, driven by a certified teledriver. The user then drives the vehicle themselves to their destination. Once there, they get out without having to park, as the teledriver takes back control of the car and teledrives the ­vehicle to the next customer. As the fully electric fleet will be able to operate at a high capacity, it will be able to reduce the number of vehicles as well as air pollution. The sharing nature of the service will also noticeably reduce road traffic as well as pressure to find a parking space. Alongside its teledriving project, Vay is also working on the gradual roll-out of autonomous driving functions in the system, as soon as this is safe and permissible.

However, Uta Klawitter from Audi says that the technology still has a number of challenges to overcome before we see fully automated vehicles driving through our towns and cities.

“It must be able to ensure that the highly automated driving functionality is seamless and, first and foremost, safe. Only then, and this is the second challenge, will it be accepted and trusted by society.”

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