MR. SCHÖNEBURG, IN THE YEARS TO COME, VEHICLES WILL INCREASINGLY ENABLE AUTONOMOUS DRIVING TO VARYING DEGREES. ARE WE ENTERING A NEW AGE IN SAFETY TECHNOLOGY?
It is not a new age, but most certainly a new chapter in safety technology. We believe that autonomous driving has ushered in an evolution of the various active and passive safety systems. Development itself is never-ending. Take PRE-SAFE®, for example, which Mercedes-Benz introduced about ten years ago in order to interface active and passive safety systems. PRE-SAFE® uses the sensors of active safety systems such as the Electronic Stability Program (ESP®) and Brake Assist to activate passive safety systems. This gives occupants a greater degree of protection in an impending accident. The system uses active safety features to improve passive safety in critical situations. A much-improved version of PRE-SAFE® is now incorporated into almost every Mercedes-Benz series vehicle.
' Developments in the field of safety are always based on the latest state of technology. '
HOW WILL SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES INSPIRE NEW OR IMPROVED SAFETY SYSTEMS?
Developments in the field of safety are always based on the latest state of technology. We will use the sensors of autonomous drive systems to further optimize occupant protection, for example by improving the way restraint systems such as airbags or pyrotechnic belt tensioners are triggered. This will also give rise to entirely new systems. We are refining our PRE-SAFE® strategy with systems we first revealed in the ESF 2009 experimental safety vehicle. One product is the PRE-SAFE® Impulse system found in the new S-Class. In the initial moments of a crash, the safety belt moves the driver and front passenger away from the direction of the collision even before the forward displacement of occupants caused by the impact. This is tantamount to isolating the occupants from the vehicle’s deceleration during the accident. This significantly reduces the risk and severity of injury in the event of a head-on collision. The concept behind this system can be applied to any kind of accident, and as a next step could result in the simplification of side bags, doing without them completely or even switching to a completely different system. This could possibly yield reductions in weight and costs.
ARE THERE ANY SAFETY FEATURES OF PRESENT-DAY VEHICLES THAT WILL BECOME REDUNDANT?
No current safety feature of today’s cars will become redundant in the foreseeable future. After all, our roads will not be filled with nothing but self-driving cars overnight. We will have to live with a very long transitional period in which self-driving vehicles and conventional vehicles will share the roads. I expect that conventional vehicles will even be around forever, for example motorbikes or classic cars. There are also situations in which drivers of self-driving vehicles will want to deactivate some of the systems and drive themselves. Autonomous driving will therefore not reduce the number of safety features in a car, but I think that safety functions will arise that will continue to improve the protection of occupants.
CAN YOU ALREADY IDENTIFY ACCIDENT SITUATIONS IN WHICH AUTONOMOUS DRIVING WOULD BE ADVANTAGEOUS?
Initially, autonomous driving will be possible on well-built roads such as highways, where it is also likely to reduce the number of accidents. This is because driving in one direction without any traffic lights is literally a very predictable situation from the perspective of the technical systems, in which the technology can then also help prevent accidents. However, it will still be some time before self-driving cars are able to cope with ambiguous situations such as driving in cities, or at crossings. It is important to always consider the exact circumstances of an accident. Take the example of a self-driving car travelling on a road with right of way. If a conventional car suddenly turns out of a side road ahead, an accident can hardly be avoided. It could probably be prevented if the scenario were reversed, since the autonomous driving systems would prevent the vehicle from turning into the road without right of way.
WHY ARE HIGHWAYS ALREADY CONSIDERED AS SAFE ROADS?
There are two main reasons. One is that all cars are driving in the same direction. The other is that they are travelling at more or less the same speed, and their velocities relative to each other are therefore low. The severity of an accident is proportional to the difference in the driving speed. If two vehicles are approaching each other on a country road and each is travelling at 60 mph, their speed relative to each other is 120 mph. In this case, all it takes is a small stone and a twitch of the steering wheel to produce a very serious accident.
WHAT OTHER SYSTEMS CAN YOU RESORT TO IN SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES?
The radar systems that are used to scan the vehicle’s surroundings, for example, are exceptionally well-suited to controlling safety systems. One next step will be Car2x – the exchange of information between a vehicle and its surroundings and other vehicles. This could, for example, provide us with information about the other vehicle in an impending collision, such as: What kind of vehicle is it? How heavy is it? These details allow the safety systems to be ideally calibrated to protect the vehicle’s occupants. We refer to this as vehicle classification.
HOW HAS SENSOR TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPED OVER THE YEARS?
Sensor technology is an “enabler” for us, it makes things possible. Sensors feel, see, and communicate. The development of sensor technology initially started with “feeling” sensors, which measured things like acceleration, forces and turn rates in order to configure safety systems accordingly. Next came the “seeing” radar and camera sensors that scan the surroundings, which improve the systems because they can react much earlier, for example to activate braking or reversibly tighten seat belts. The next step of communication via Car2X will enable even more significant improvements.
DOES TECHNOLOGY WORK BETTER AND MORE RELIABLY THAN PEOPLE?
We can’t make such a generalization. People themselves prevent many accidents by driving defensively and responding appropriately in critical situations. However, when accidents do occur, human error is involved in 85 percent of cases. In these situations, technology can prevent or reduce the severity of accidents. In other words: Machines must first become as good at error prevention as people, and scientists and engineers still have to work on this for a while.
WHAT ARE OTHER STRENGTHS OF TECHNOLOGY AND PEOPLE?
It is safe to say that a vehicle’s systems and sensors allow it to respond faster and more precisely than people in many situations, and the vehicle does not get tired. It operates at full capacity around the clock – weather permitting, because just like people, some sensors rely on good visibility. However, in one area people clearly have the upper hand: When driving, they have a sixth sense for critical situations that technology cannot detect. Consider a situation where you are driving in the left lane of the highway, and you see a car sandwiched into a long line of trucks in the right lane. Your sixth sense and your experience as a driver help you determine what the driver of the car will do, and whether there are any signs that the driver could move out of the lane in order to overtake. Is the driver looking in the rear-view mirror? Is the vehicle already edging toward the left-hand lane? We use our sixth sense to look for subtle signs that sensor technology will not be able to detect for the foreseeable future. The technology only looks at the lane you yourself are in. People, on the other hand, assess the situation as a whole. But, I do think that technology is constantly improving in this respect, and could even have a sixth sense of its own someday.
+++ born 1959 in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela +++ Diploma at Technical University Berlin in Aeronautics and Business Administration +++ Ph.D. at Technical University Berlin (topic: Computer-aided Crash Simulations with Simplified Structural Models) +++ Head of the centre for safety and vehicle functions at Daimler since 1999 +++ Winner of the “Paul Pietsch Award” for the innovative anticipatory occupant protection system PRE-SAFE® and the “Pathfinder Award” by the U.S. “Automotive Safety Council”, the American safety association