Autonomous new world: results of a scientific 360-degree view.
An interdisciplinary question.
Car ethics, questions of liability, testing permit: these are the hotly discussed buzzwords related to autonomous driving to date – but they are now no longer the only ones. After two years of intensive research, the Daimler and Benz Foundation has published its white paper on autonomous driving. 28 scientists from more than 20 different fields have investigated the unanswered questions posed by autonomous driving on the basis of specific application cases. Three future use-case scenarios seem particularly likely: the driverless vehicle as a “highway pilot”, as an autonomous personal replacement for valet parking and as an autonomous vehicle-on-demand. The scientists analysed the opportunities and risks associated with autonomous driving based on these scenarios and came up with many answers – but also with just as many new questions.
“Better utilise potentials”.
“A basis as broad and scientifically sound as this to start the public discussion of autonomous driving is the first of its kind for launching a new technology”, said Thomas Weber in his capacity as President of the Board of Trustees of the Daimler and Benz Foundation during the press conference in Berlin. “The fact that – besides all of the technical aspects – we are also talking about the social and legal implications of a new technology this early and this competently, sets this public discussion apart from the introduction of genetic engineering or nuclear energy. Especially because we are not being ‘overrun’ by autonomous driving, we can better appreciate and utilise its potentials”, Weber added.
One advantage of the research project was its interdisciplinary nature: engineers, geographers as well as urban and development planners worked very closely with psychologists, philosophers and sociologists.
Eckard Minx works on a 360-degree view.
What emerged is a 360-degree view of the opportunities and risks of autonomous driving for the individual, for mobility, for the transport system and for society. And there are also the challenges of the upcoming “time of passage” – the transition from the traditional to the autonomous transport system. “One important finding of the research project was that the question of technology ethics is of an interdisciplinary nature. This is because frequently a technological innovation entails many more changes than its inventors and developers can foresee on their own”, said Eckard Minx, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Daimler and Benz Foundation. Instead of a normal car that requires a human at the wheel, the family in 2030 will – should they be ready for series production and affordable – purchase a driverless car and will then join the traffic on the road while playing cards.
The autonomous car meets its passengers.
Possible. But it is also possible that the way in which we use cars will change completely. Autonomous driving will make car sharing much more appealing: the interlinking of vehicles will improve availability, and ideally the times when cars sit idle or parked will be reduced significantly. In addition, there will no longer be a need to first make it to the “rental car”. The autonomous vehicle will pick up its passengers and, contrary to today’s car sharing, everybody will be able to drive – even the young and old or people with limited mobility. Another question is: will autonomous car sharing increasingly replace public transit? The experts expect that there will be a long period of “side-by-side” coexistence. Nonetheless, a considerable shift in the mobility mix is possible in the long term.
Before possible replacement scenarios can be discussed, it is necessary to determine whether individuals and society at large will accept the new technology. Surveying the image of a technology that for most people doesn’t even exist yet was not an easy task for the researchers.
Ms Lenz and team investigate acceptance.
In order to investigate the acceptance, the team headed by Barbara Lenz evaluated online reader contributions of major national newspapers in Germany and the U.S., and conducted group discussions about the way cars are used today as well as scenarios of how they will be used tomorrow. An online survey complemented the setup of the research. The picture that emerged was clearly mixed. On an objective level, the assessment was clearly positive when it involves the features and consequences of autonomous driving – primarily safety and flexibility. Scepticism only exists with regard to questions of liability, such as for example: who is at fault when there is an accident nonetheless? When it comes to the emotional acceptance of the technology on the other hand, trust and distrust keep each other in check. The only thing that appears to be consistent is that many people express ambivalent opinions. They are undecided – which is not overly surprising because when the touch points with a new technology are purely theoretical, making a decision “for or against” is particularly difficult.
Deep interest on the part of the public.
The picture is entirely different when the respondents can experience the technology first-hand. Daimler has conducted a large-scale acceptance study and put test persons at the wheel of an autonomously driving Mercedes-Benz in the driving simulator. The initial scepticism disappeared after the virtual test drive: at the end, 50 percent regarded themselves as fans of autonomous driving. Another 31 percent expressed a strong interest. Overall the study reveals that to date the general public does not yet have sound information about autonomous driving.
Both the media as well as the recipients are currently at odds over what autonomous driving actually is, what to expect from the technology, what it is capable of and what its limitations are.
Same rights for all.
As it turns out, when it comes to acceptance there is still quite a bit of work left to do. One factor for success will also be the intelligent transition to fully autonomous traffic. If you were the Secretary of Transportation and Infrastructure – how would you implement autonomous driving on the roads? Would you create special “autonomous lanes”? Would you allow the robot cars to use bus lanes or the emergency lane on the highway? And where would you start? In small niches – on inner-city parking lots – or only on the highway at first? Should freight transport be the first to operate autonomously? The scientists have analysed all of these questions and have come to the conclusion that a mature infrastructure cannot provide special lanes.
Allowing the new robots priority use of bus or emergency lanes while conventional vehicles are stuck in traffic cannot be a solution. Only if the robot cars take part in the normal flow of traffic and have the same rights and obligations as all other road users will their acceptance in society gradually increase.
Traffic will be way more efficient.
In the early stages of the transition period, autonomous vehicles will be more likely to add to the number of vehicles on the road rather than replace conventional ones, not least due to the higher cost. What effect will this have on the load on our infrastructure? The experts say that autonomous driving will make our traffic significantly more efficient. That is because autonomous vehicles that cooperate with each other will considerably stabilise the flow of traffic and lower the probability of traffic jams. How much more efficient the transport system will actually be is only a projection at this time – albeit one that is impressive: the scientists expect that autonomous driving could nearly double the capacity of the infrastructure. And that is important because an expansion of the infrastructure is a subject to tight limits not only in densely populated Germany, but throughout all of Europe.
When travel time is no longer relevant.
Closely tied to a changed mobility and a more efficient use of the infrastructure is also the question of how the residential environment will change. A more efficient use of vehicles could result in fewer of them being needed in the long run. Does this mean that there will again be more parking space in the city centres? And will more public urban spaces spring up that city dwellers can use? Does this consequently lead to even more people moving to the city centres than in the past? “Exactly the opposite could be the case: currently people are out and about for an hour and 19 minutes on average – 40 minutes of it in a car”, said Barbara Lenz, responsible in the core team of the research project for the topic of “social and individual acceptance”.
But what if they wouldn’t mind even a commute of an hour and a half in future because they can make such good use of the time spent in an autonomous vehicle? “The new technology could lead to a new wave of suburbanisation where people live not just 20, but instead 100 kilometres from the conurbation because the length of the commute is no longer of any consequence”, added Lenz.
Radically changing conventions.
Communication – symbolic, verbal and non-verbal – is an important component of our transport system. In the past, traffic signs, hand signals and words ensured an interaction between people. What form of communication will be able to meet the requirements of the perception of people and machines? Will the vehicle recognise the hand signal of the pedestrian and will every pedestrian in every culture interpret the signal of an autonomous vehicle in the same way – for example, a raised hand as a signal to stop? And what chance of being understood will traffic police still have in the future?
Some day – maybe in 2050 –, once we have arrived in the fully autonomous world, the question will arise: do we still need the keep-right rule or a speed limit if autonomously and rationally driving vehicles calculate the best mode for each situation anyway? Sooner or later we will have to radically change long-upheld traffic conventions and adapt the traffic regulations we know to the new road users.
© Daimler and Benz Foundation/Oestergaard
The funding project “Villa Ladenburg”.
The bottom line is that from a comprehensive scientific point of view, autonomous driving will entail far more changes than it seems at first – while offering all sorts of opportunities. The Villa Ladenburg Project funded by the Daimler and Benz Foundation has created a solid basis for setting the right course in the public discourse at an early stage – for a truly brave new autonomous world. If you would like to learn more, the white paper of the Daimler and Benz Foundation can be downloaded here.