For almost a century, people have dreamed of the autonomous automobile. Now that vision is becoming a reality. To reach this goal, engineers, designers and developers from the Volkswagen Group are making a crucial contribution toward advancing the emergence of this new technology.
Passersby strolling trough Manhattan in the summer of 1925 were astonished. As a New Yorker in the 1920s, you were already used to quite a bit – but this was something entirely new. A car with no driver made its way through traffic, as if by magic. It was guided by a vehicle driving a few meters behind it. Small electric motors at the wheel, brakes and gas pedal were commanded via radio – with astonishing success. According to the New York Times, however, not everything went smoothly: “The radio car swerved from left to right down Broadway, around the Columbus Circle and south down Fifth Avenue, where it almost drove into two trucks and a milk delivery van, which escaped to safety onto the sidewalk.” Inventor Francis Houdina didn’t achieve much more than a few headlines in the press through his invention.
“Without a doubt, autonomous driving benefits society in terms of environmental protection, demographic change, economics and traffic safety.”
Today, that would be a very different story. The topic of autonomous driving is covered in the media almost daily. Manufacturers are in an all-out race to see who in the world will be first one making the next move toward a fully autonomous vehicle. At the same time, there is more involved than just market shares, as Ulrich Eichhorn, head of Group Research and Development at Volkswagen, explains: “Without a doubt, autonomous driving benefits society in terms of environmental protection, demographic change, economics and traffic safety.”
“Powerful body pillars, distinctive wheel housings and short overhangs give SEDRIC a striking, substantial appearance that radiates safety and reliability.”
At the Geneva Motor Show 2017, the Volkswagen Group premiered the concept car SEDRIC – short for self-driving car. An updated version followed at the International
Motor Show (IAA), where the Audi A8 Aicon was also presented. Both vehicles are electrically operated and designed to comply with level 5 autonomous driving (see page 39). They have neither a steering wheel nor pedals. The latest SEDRIC version is intended to make simple, comfortable, sustainable and safe mobility available for everyone. This is also reflected in its modern yet reserved styling.
The new vehicle architecture – electric drives at the wheels eliminating the need for large engine blocks, the battery disappearing into the floor – opens up entirely new possibilities for passengers and designers alike. But the current SEDRIC is just a taste of a completely new family of vehicles: Sports cars, luxury travel sedans, commercial vehicles and even trucks are set to follow.
With the design of its Aicon, Audi has taken a different approach: The level 5 concept car appears futuristically sporty – a premium sedan of the future. Large glass surfaces span the front and rear, the interior is intended to give passengers the feeling of being in a first-class airplane cabin – including state-of-the-art communications technology. Concerns about range are a thing of the past: The Aicon is designed to drive up to 800 kilometers on one charge.
The SEDRIC family
Roadmap E: A new chapter in the history of Volkswagen
Congestion avoidance also plays an important role in development. Traffic expert Professor Michael Schreckenberg explains that up to 70 percent of roads are overloaded, with congestion being the logical consequence.
“Drivers reduce the distance to the car in front of them because they are concerned about cars cutting in. All it takes is one moment of distraction for you to suddenly need to hit the brakes.” But if everyone were driving the same speed – as is being tested now in platooning trials with trucks from the Volkswagen brands Scania and man – congestion would be reduced. As would the risk of serious accidents.
Automated assistance features
Flashback: Mass motorization in the USA brought with it a growing number of traffic deaths. As a result, engineer Ralph Teetor patented an automatic speed control device in 1945 that was first used under the name “Speedostat” by Chrysler in its Imperial models in 1958. But it wasn’t until decades later that the automated speed control gained widespread use; other automated assistance features followed, such as the lane departure warning system.
The US Department of Defense also added some tailwind to the new traffic technologies. One of the promoters of autonomous driving was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Founded in 1958, the department laid the foundations for a range of innovations – such as the Internet. In order to attract interest for autonomous driving among engineers, the DARPA Challenge was initiated. Teams that were able to complete a 240-kilometer long obstacle course in the Mojave desert would be eligible for the one million dollar prize. No one succeeded in 2004, but in 2005, five vehicles managed the challenge. One of them was a VW Touareg modified by Stanford University. Two years ago, Audi also used a modified Audi A7 to complete an extraordinary drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas. In doing so, the sedan drove autonomously on the highway.
The technical challenges needed to give autonomous driving its breakthrough are immense. First of all, the car has to be taught to “see”. A number of sensors such as radar, ultrasound, lasers and cameras help with this task. Secondly, the car has to know exactly where it is at any given moment. GPS systems aren’t sufficient for this because they register vehicle positions in a range of four meters. On a country road just five meters wide, that is too imprecise.
High-resolution maps can solve that problem. These are supplied by service provider HERE, which was acquired by a consortium consisting of Audi, bmw and Daimler, in 2015 for some 2.5 billion euros. The company supplies maps that are precise down to just a few centimeters and include details such as curbs, traffic circles and other obstacles.
Assistance systems and other aids: Milestones in the history of automobiles
1925: Driverless car
Inventor Francis Houdina uses radio control to steer a Chandler through Manhattan. Accidents are narrowly avoided.
1945: Cruise Control
Ralph Teetor invents the speed control device used in vehicles beginning in 1958
1951: Development of the Airbag
Walter Linderer is a pioneer in the development oft he airbag. The engineer registers a patent for his invention in 1951 in Munich.
1958: Three-point seat belt
Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invents the three-point seat belt in 1958. No other vehicle accessory has saved so many lives.
1967: Remote control
Engineers from Ohio State University work on a remote-controlled car. An electronic system is to take over all control functions.
1977: Autonomous car
The Japanese engineering firm Tsukuba invents the first autonomous vehicle. It follows road markings and drives 30 kilometers an hour.
1978: Anti-blocking system
Bosch introduces its production-capable anti-blocking system. The Stuttgart-based company registers the term „ABS“ as a legally-protected copyright.
1980: Robotic cars in the military
The German Bundeswehr builds robotic cars in partnership with expert Ernst Dickmanns in 1980.
1989: Showtime for Futura
The VW Futura fascinates celebrities and the public at the German TV show „Wetten, dass…?“. The research vehicle is ahead of its time: It can park itself and drives electrically.
Volkswagen conducts early experiments with a start-stop system. The new technology is used for the first time in the Golf Ecomatic.
1994: 100 km autonomous
Robotic cars from the EU-sponsored Eureka-Prometheus project drive 1,000 kilometers in regular traffic on the highway to Paris.
1995: No hands across America
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University drive 4,500 kilometers through the USA in their autonomous van, operating only the gas pedal and breaks themselves.
1996: ESP for compact cars
Volkswagen establishes ESP in the compact class for the first time. Today, the anti-skid system is considered one of the most important safety systems.
2000: Adaptive cruise control
The system developed by Bosch, adaptive cruise control (ACC), begins series production.
2004: Grand challenge
Darpa organizes another Grand Challenge. Four cars complete the race. Stanford University wins with a modified VW Touareg.
2005: Darpa begins
Darpa takes place for the first time – a race for autonomous vehicles through the desert sponsored by the US military. No vehicle reaches the finish line.
2009: Google builds a car
Google begins working on a project for an autonomous vehicle. They are supported by engineers from the winning teams of the darpa Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge.
2010: 16,000 autonomous kilometers
A team from the University of Parma drives 16,000 kilometers in a convoy of autonomous vehicles to Shanghai. The trip takes 100 days.
2013: 500,000 mile record trip
Four years after starting their project, Google breaks the 500,000 mile record of autonomous driving in California road traffic.
2017: Sedric rolls out
At the Geneva Motor Show, Volkswagen premieres a concept vehicle for level 5 automated driving. The company presents an updated version at the International Motor Show IAA.
1.25 million lives could be saved annually
The actual driving of autonomous cars is carried out by the control unit and the software. Programmers face considerable demands, confirms Audi ceo Rupert Stadler: “For us, the customer is not a beta-user on whom we test updates. You might be able to do that with the operating system of a smartphone, but not with a car. We are dealing with safety-relevant issues and we are required to guarantee safety.”
The new Audi A8, the first production vehicle to reach a higher level of driving automation, documents this standard. It is already capable of assuming full control of the wheel on highways at speeds up to 60 kilometers per hour. The software is capable of even more – but this can’t yet be shown out of legal reasons.
The advantages of autonomous driving are obvious, especially on a rather monotonous highway drive, as pointed out by Michael Fausten, who is responsible for development at supplier Bosch: “We can avoid congestion, since automated vehicles don’t slow down to stare at cars stranded on the shoulder. And they don't constantly switch lanes.” He continues on, counting the benefits: “We save time that we can use productively. We save fuel, up to 40 percent in fact, when all of the vehicles are automated and follow in the slipstream of the car in front.”
For Johann Jungwirth, Chief Digital Officer at Volkswagen, there is another critical point: “What would you say if I told you today that we could save the lives of up to 1.25 million people every year? That’s how many people die each year in road traffic.” And how will this be possible? Because self-driving cars react in milliseconds. Because they aren’t distracted, don't drink alcohol and are never sleepy. It is made possible by artificial intelligence, exponentially growing processor speeds and real-time networking all working together.
Volkswagen already has the next steps in sight. After conquering the highway, the country road will follow, and then the city. Johann Jungwirth estimates that the first autonomous vehicles will roll through our cities by 2021 – cars that are electric, safe and eco-friendly. In all likelihood, New Yorkers really will see self-driving cars on Broadway, more than 100 years after Francis Houdina.