The new freedom

27.01.2020 | Text Hendrik Lakeberg | Photo Rocket & Wink

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How automated driving could change our lives.

Will we only drive ourselves in future if we really want to? In the first part of our series on automated driving, we explain why this technology is one of the most important innovations of our time. And what Mercedes-Benz is doing to help shape it.

Groundbreaking technology that could change our lives to an unprecedented extent. We will feel its effects in the tiny details of everyday life as well as in the big issues of the day, such as transport infrastructure, life in the city, and the economy. The expectations, indeed the hopes that go with automated driving, are enormous.

And it is already well advanced in its development. Cars manoeuvring themselves through the world on their own, while we lean back inside and turn our thoughts to something other than the traffic – this is within reach.

Digital transformation

There are still some hurdles to overcome – technological, of course, but also legal questions surrounding liability and ethics. For example, how do you evaluate possible wrongdoing in other road users? In other words: how does a computer-controlled vehicle become a careful, responsible road user?

Uwe Keller, head of Autonomous Driving at Mercedes-Benz AG, nevertheless sounds sure of his ground when he says: “We are working to bring the technology to production readiness in the near future.” The competition has been fired up for a while now as digital companies such as Google and Apple are directly competing with traditional car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz.

In an effort to drive development forward as comprehensively and speedily as possible, Mercedes-Benz is working closely with suppliers, but also with universities and even competitors such as BMW. After all, automated driving heralds a fundamental change in mobility. “We are setting new boundaries with the project in terms of software development,” explains Keller.

“Our work on automated driving is a testament to the transformation that companies like Mercedes-Benz AG are currently undergoing. Although we are still a company whose reputation is rooted in classical mechanical engineering, at the same time we are turning more and more into a software developer.”

Because alongside meticulously constructed and designed vehicles, digital technologies, algorithms, neural networks and data collections are integral elements in making automated driving part of everyday life.    

A colourful illustration of an orange road with two cars. Above the cars there are people floating in the air while reading or working on a computer.

We will all be passengers

Let’s take a step back: When we talk about automated driving, what exactly are we talking about? Consensus has been reached in Europe and the USA on six levels. The higher the figure, the more advanced the degree of vehicle automation. A good example of this is a self-driving car in the city (level 4/5). You order this via app, except there is no driver in the vehicle picking us up. It steers through the traffic independently, bringing us easily and comfortably to our destination. On short trips just as well as over long distances.

The gift of time

The advantages of automated driving are self-evident, not only for short-term mobility needs in a foreign city, but also for private owners: for instance, we then do not need to focus on the traffic in stop-start traffic in town or driving on holiday. When they put their Mercedes-Benz into automated mode sometime in the future, drivers become passengers – with all the opportunities that this role opens up: we may have the possibility to work in the car, turn the seats around and talk face to face with friends or family, potentially shop online, watch films or take our pick from the best restaurants that our destination has to offer. Eventually, the car lets us out right in front of the restaurant, and we may be able to leave it to look for a parking space while we go ahead and order our food.

One of the most compelling arguments for automated driving is: it gives us the gift of time. And with this comes a new freedom. However, this freedom comes not only from being able to do as we wish with our time on the journey, but also because our mobility is becoming even more flexible. 

Complex tasks

The technology is set to bring more safety for all road users. When vehicles are driving automated and communicating with each other, fewer accidents will occur – at least, that’s the expectation. After all, the number one source of error in traffic is that of humans.

Even so, the human brain manages complex tasks, the solution of which even the most intelligent algorithms have yet to master. “We are factoring in a very wide range of scenarios,” says Mercedes-Benz expert Uwe Keller, “playing through all permutations of possible decisions. What does the computer have to consider in which situation?”

Seamless interaction is crucial: how the sensors on the car perceive the environment, general traffic data, past experience, factors such as the weather, the time of day – the list is long. Lately, though, progress has been rapid. “When I look at what’s possible today, it’s incredible. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have dreamed of this,” says Keller enthusiastically.

Today, assistance systems for drivers of Mercedes-Benz vehicles are already part of everyday life – and this is the second level of automation. Under the supervision of the driver, the Active Parking Assist parks the car, and the Active Stop-and-Go Assist supports at monotonous stop-and-go traffic. The potential for series production applications is ever increasing.

An orange road with traffic lights and a zebra crossing. Several people exit a futuristic looking car, a man pushes a buggy.

Worldwide development

No wonder that the world’s largest corporations are investing enormous sums in these developments – and, in the same way as Mercedes-Benz is doing in Germany, the USA, China and India, they are moving the technology forward with a wide variety of partners.

It is about different areas of application and different expectations. People’s demands are multifaceted and diverse – whether it’s about traffic regulations, cultural customs or the users’ habits. The same applies to the level of acceptance of automated driving: in many Asian countries, for example, new technologies are much more readily embraced than in Europe.

At Mercedes-Benz, the first application examples are expected before the mid 2020s – meaning the ones that have made it beyond the testing phase. At the end of 2019 in San José, Mercedes-Benz started the first field test of a fully automated driving service that works without the use of pedals or a steering wheel.

There, the company is testing exactly what we have described above: the user calls their vehicle by app. Except that this vehicle is driving itself. There is still a security driver behind the wheel, though, to intervene in case of emergency, and an expert who explains the technology to passengers.

Hand signals and eye contact

These are the essentials for a brand like Mercedes-Benz when it comes to making innovations fit for everyday use. What do customers – every one of us – expect from a car without a driver? Do we need a voice that welcomes us? Do we prefer to talk to the vehicle, or do we want to interact via screens or buttons?

“Today, a taxi driver deals with many situations using eye contact or hand signals,” says Thomas Hengstermann, head of Autonomous Services at Daimler Mobility AG and responsible for transforming the technology into actual products and services. “The driver might ask the guest: Have you fastened your seat belt? How are you today? Are we ready to set off? What this means for us then is: how can we build up people’s trust so that an automated trip becomes a fulfilling all-round experience?”

It is not yet clear how customers will receive the technology offered by all the different suppliers. At Mercedes-Benz, though, we naturally strive for quality and the highest possible safety standards – familiar qualities that have always been inextricably linked with the brand. The same standards which will also distinguish an automatedly driven Mercedes-Benz.

“We are taking it slowly,” says Thomas Hengstermann. “But our timetable has been set.”

THE SIX STAGES OF AUTOMATED DRIVING

Automation level 0:
The car is driven by the driver.

Automation level 1:
Assistance systems such as DISTRONIC proximity control support the driver.

Automation level 2:
Functions such as Active Parking Assist or Active Stop-and-Go Assist enable partial automation.

Automation level 3:
The vehicle carries out automated actions such as indicating, changing lanes and keeping in lane. The driver is asked to take over if necessary.

Automation level 4:
With this full level of automation, the vehicle operates automatically in certain situations (e.g. in a car park or in particular districts). From a technical standpoint, the driver does not necessarily need to take action.

Automation level 5:
The driverless vehicle does not require a driver at all. Passengers can focus on other things than traffic.

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