Future laboratory for autonomous driving.

  • 2. October 2013
  • Autonomous Driving
  • Photos: Stefan Hohloch, Daimler
  • Text: Frank Brandt

In a broad-based acceptance study Daimler researchers sent men and women drivers on a journey into the future of autonomous driving.

The mystery of the future. Throughout the ages, people have concerned themselves with the phenomenon of the world of tomorrow and continue to philosophize about what the future will bring and whether it would be possible to predict it. The answers are few and far between. The future is inevitably connected to fate – it is uncertain and full of riddles. “Predicting the future accurately is not so important; being ready for it is.” This is how the Greek statesman Pericles summarized the issue simply and to the point, formulating a key principle that is guiding explorers and progressive thinkers even today. Their credo: The future can be determined – it is formed, designed and thus also influenced by our present actions.

That is why deliberations about the world of the day after tomorrow are more than just a philosophical issue. For an automotive company like Daimler it is even strategically important since those who stop thinking ahead risk being overtaken. “Research is insurance for the future” – this is what Stuttgarters have believed since the foundation of the Research division 45 years ago. Today, engineers and scientists, sociologists and psychologists still view anticipating the world of tomorrow and the development of technologies that will positively change our mobility as very important tasks. This means looking far ahead and recognizing developments and expectations that are truly important regardless of short-lived trends, moods or fads. This is how the future can be designed.

One of these megatrends is autonomous driving. In only a few years’ time it will be possible to equip vehicles with an intelligent electronic copilot, which temporarily takes over the driver’s role and automatically guides the vehicle along the highway. This technology has already entered practical reality with the state-of-the-art radar- and camera-based driver assistance systems, which Mercedes-Benz is offering in all vehicle classes, and it appears only logical and consistent to develop the systems further and network their sensors so intelligently that they can observe what is happening around the vehicle and steer, brake and accelerate it with the help of a powerful computer.

“The long-standing dream of autonomous driving is gradually becoming a reality,” said Ralf Guido Herrtwich, Head of Driver Assistance and Chassis Systems at Daimler Group Research. “With the new S-Class, which can drive automatically in congested traffic, the evolution has already begun.” But, for a topic as important as this, it would be short-sighted and contrary to the principle of sustainable future planning to concentrate only on the question of technology. Because what is the use of even the most intelligent driver assistance system if the customers are not interested – if they have other preferences and other expectations of their future vehicle? To shed light on these important questions, Daimler places people in the centre of the research project on autonomous driving.

Early 2013: The Stuttgart automotive company invited around 100 men and women drivers to take part in one of the largest studies of the Customer Research Centre (CRC) to date. Their opinions were to provide researchers with information about the acceptance of the vanguard technology and ideas for conceptualization of future assistance systems for the Mercedes-Benz models. The participants in the survey were people from different age groups, customers of different vehicle brands, new drivers and experienced drivers, who are already using driver assistance systems on a regular basis. In this way the researchers formed a thoroughly representative group of participants, with whom they ventured on an extensive journey into the future in the driving simulator of the Mercedes-Benz development centre.

The participants’ journey into the future of the autonomous automobile at the Daimler driving simulator took about three hours.

Just one more thing: How are drivers to evaluate a system that will only be available in a few years’ time? How are they to say today what they will be thinking the day after tomorrow? While designing the concept of the acceptance study, the research team examined these questions because they were the key to success. “We knew that we would only get to hear truly meaningful opinions if we could create a scenario reflecting the world of tomorrow that would enable our test subjects to move half a century forward conceptually,” said Daimler researcher Marianne Reeb in explaining one of the main tasks in the study planning. In other words: The phenomenon of the future would have to be experienced.

The autonomous driving system was »like travelling in an airplane«.


The scientists solved this exciting task through a method called “Information Acceleration,” which was developed by Professor Glen L. Urban at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has already been applied successfully in recent years. The basic principle is termed “Inform and Condition”: With the help of different media such as brochures, the Internet, films, blogs or TV broadcasts customers are to be transported into the world of tomorrow through information in order to enable them to evaluate the object of the respective market study realistically – as it were, through the eyes of a customer of the future. The researchers had already used the MIT methods to analyze the chances of future vehicle models, smartphones, computers, and new financial or online services and had provided valuable information for product development through their findings. Marianne Reeb: “It is a proven method for predicting today what people will be thinking in a few years’ time.”


“The world has changed.” This is the opening sentence of the three-minute movie which the participants watched at the start of the Daimler acceptance study. The movie transported them to the time around the year 2020 and showed everyday life where a great deal runs automatically and is even more densely networked than today. According to the core message of the visionary film, everything will be simpler, more stress-free and more comfortable. Including driving a car.

Through this “Future Conditioning” the researchers painted a picture of the future, which the test subjects could detail further through their own research. At the click of a mouse, a computer provided them with further news from the future: Newspaper reports about possible events from politics and the economy in the year 2020, interviews with experts, websites of government agencies and organizations, and blogs with experience reports by imaginary contemporaries.

Of course, the focus of the information offering was on the topic of “Car Driving in the Future,” which was presented mostly through reports about driverless vehicles. “Overall, we had compiled more than a dozen information points for the test subjects to click on. Autonomous driving was also presented under a critical light through accident reports and comparison tests of different driver assistance systems,” said Project Manager Christin Sütterlin from the Customer Research Centre.

With this information offering, the test subjects were well prepared for the future and subsequently experienced the decisive phase of the acceptance test, in which they expanded their knowledge of driving in the future through their own practical experiences: The Mercedes-Benz in the driving simulator could well be a reality around the year 2020 – a sedan that drives autonomously on the highway. “The test participants were able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to use the new technology or not,” reported Bernhard Morys, Head of the testing operations in the driving simulator. “Those who wanted to drive autonomously could activate the system while driving in the right lane and were subsequently chauffeured along the highway at 130 km/h. Those who wanted to drive faster had to take over the steering wheel and were able to accelerate up to 160 km/h in the left lane.”

Naturally, the majority of the drivers switched to autopilot only a short time later and did not want to drive themselves. That did not surprise the research team. The desire to let go of the steering wheel for a time and to do something else points to a trend that has already been observed by experts for some time. “We can see that young people would rather concentrate on other things besides driving in the car. This applies mainly during long, monotonous trips, in congested traffic or on stretches of road that are travelled on a daily basis,” explained Daimler researcher Marianne Reeb.


But what would drivers occupy themselves with while their car chauffeurs them on the highway? In order to clarify this, the test car in the driving simulator was equipped with an online system, which brought music, email, videos, news or Internet services into the car at the touch of a screen – a comprehensive infotainment program that is not available to drivers at present because they would be overly distracted from the surrounding traffic. “The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. More than half of the test subjects said that they had a good and secure feeling while using the new information and entertainment offering,” reported Christin Sütterlin, thus providing an early glimpse into areas where autonomous driving can provide customer benefits.

Driving manually after turning off the autonomous systems was »much too stressful«


In the course of the study, the researchers repeatedly asked the test subjects questions and informed themselves about their opinions concerning the new technology. This shed light on a meaningful change in sentiment, which confirms the success of the MIT method of “Information Acceleration.” While the majority of test subjects were rather sceptical at the beginning of the study and evaluated the systems as an “expensive toy” that would probably take away very little of the driver’s responsibility, this attitude had changed significantly after the virtual journey into the future. “The acceptance of autonomous driving improved significantly as the information and actual experience with the system increased,” said Christin Sütterlin summarizing the result. Specifically: At the end of the study, around 50% of test subjects described themselves as fans of autonomous driving and demonstrated a high level of purchasing propensity for this system. Another 31% were strongly interested and would like to use such technology as standard equipment. Thus, the combined acceptance for autonomous driving was over 80%. “We were surprised by this outcome,” said customer research specialist Sütterlin. “It shows that we are on the right track and are developing an important technology for the vehicle of the future.”


According to the test subjects, the most important argument in favour of autonomous driving is the great relief to the driver. Nearly 70% of those who took the test emphasized this advantage. The majority also said that the new technology would offer tangible support in stressful situations or on routine trips and would allow the time spent in the car to be meaningfully used. One participant stated literally that he had travelled “as in an airplane” and had found the time at the end of the drive when he had to steer himself as “much too stressful.” The safety gains were also acknowledged and positively evaluated by over 50% of drivers because, in their opinion, there would be fewer accidents through human error. And, finally, many of the participants also introduced buzz words like ecology and economic efficiency into the discussion. They felt that autonomous driving would be particularly economical and of benefit to the environment.


But, of course, there were also critical voices. Some participants felt an increased need to be in control during the autonomous drive and were concerned whether the vehicle would do everything correctly. Some saw a risk that a secondary activity would distract and subsequently prevent them from intervening in due time if the system requested them to take over control of the vehicle themselves. Almost one in four test drivers thought that, in this respect, a gradual preliminary warning strategy would be needed, thus confirming a task that Daimler engineers are already working on.


The participants’ journey into the future of the automobile took about three hours. Three hours in which their interest, enthusiasm and acceptance for the future system improved continuously from one test phase to the next. But the researchers were still not satisfied. They know from experience that the euphoria frequently subsides once the test subjects return to their daily routine and have thought about their experiences for a while. To take this into consideration, two weeks later, the customer research team contacted the participants in the acceptance study and again queried their opinions on autonomous driving. “While the results indicated a slight decrease in the level of acceptance, the attitude of the participants continued to be largely positive, and the interest in this kind of driver assistance system during the subsequent survey was still significantly above the values we had established at the start of the study,” reported customer researcher Christin Sütterlin, adding: “This establishes that autonomous driving is not a ‘flash-in-the-pan’ innovation.”



The Mercedes-Benz driving simulator


The driving simulator is playing an increasingly important role in the development of modern driving safety and assistance systems. The installation in the Mercedes-Benz Development Centre in Sindelfingen, which is among the most state-of-the-art and most powerful driving simulators in the automobile industry, consists of a cabin mounted on six movable supports that can simulate all movements and driving manoeuvres of a vehicle realistically thanks to its fast and powerful mechanism. The interior of the cabin houses a complete Mercedes-Benz, in which the test driver is seated. A 360-degree projection images road traffic realistically and also incorporates pedestrians and oncoming traffic into the virtual world. The illusion of driving becomes perfect through the restoring force of the steering wheel in different situations or the screeching of tires during a fast drive around a curve. Hazards in road traffic, such as sheet ice or side wind, can also be simulated along with all reactions of the vehicle.


During the test drive through virtual reality the computer calculates the driving behaviour of the vehicle 1,000 times per second and sends the corresponding commands to the electrical components. It is able to move the installation transversely at a maximum speed of ten meters per second (36 km/h) up to twelve meters, which also enables simulating dynamic double lane changes, for example. With this “real life” simulation, the system can be used not only as a research laboratory but also as a multi-functional test bench, on which the systems and components of future vehicles are already tested and optimized in the early development stages. After inputting extensive vehicle data, a driving dynamics program computes the reactions of the respective vehicle types in real time. This enables safe testing of control, safety and assistance systems up to the physical limits of the vehicle.



Information acceleration


How do we know today what people will be thinking tomorrow? How do we find out what expectations customers will have and which products they will prefer? These were the questions that occupied a team of researchers from the Sloan School of Management at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA in the 1990s. The scientists led by Professor Glen L. Urban had recognized the increasingly strong interest of industrial companies in accurate predictions about future customer reactions. While corporate groups regularly conduct surveys and invite selected customers to product or prototype presentations, such surveys have one serious shortcoming: They can only reflect opinions from the present that can quickly change in the course of product development, which frequently takes several years to complete. What is missing is a far-sighted vision which also takes into consideration the lifestyles, attitudes and moods of people in the future.


Professor Urban developed a method which he calls “Information Acceleration.” The principle of the method is simple: If customers are provided today with the information they will receive tomorrow, they can evaluate a new model or a new technology more realistically than with the traditional methods of market research. In other words: The important thing is to accelerate the information provided to customers and transport it into the future conceptually. With the comprehensive knowledge about the new product and the news from the world of the day after tomorrow, Professor Urban creates a solid basis for surveying customers’ opinions. Thus, they report – as it were – from the future, evaluate new developments in a different context and in a different environment than today.



The “Villa Ladenburg” project


As the automobiles of the future begin to drive autonomously, this will lead to changes not only in the driving behaviour of individual drivers but also, for example, in drivers’ working and living habits and legal requirements. But how can general acceptance for this be created? What are the social, psychological, legal and economic aspects associated with autonomous driving? These are some of the issues which the interdisciplinary research project “Villa Ladenburg” has been examining since the fall of 2012 as part of its analysis of the overall social effects of autonomous driving. The project – with a core team of four research scientists and a group of twenty experts from different specialist units – is being funded with a total of two million euros by the Daimler and Benz Foundation, which has been engaged in supporting research activities in various scientific disciplines since 1986.The expert team of the “Villa Ladenburg” project covers a broad range of expertise: In addition to experts from numerous German universities, staff members of Stanford University and California State University in the USA are also involved. The final project report presenting the researchers’ assessments of the social future of autonomous driving is to be submitted at the end of 2014 and will be made available to the general public at that time.

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