The next step in autonomous driving

Cars can already park themselves today - but what comes next? Automated highway driving or the possibility of taking a nap at the wheel? What does German legislation look like and what do the users want?

Taking your hands off the wheel on the highway?

“When will we be driving autonomously?” This question is probably one of the most discussed in the mobility industry in recent years. There are several reasons why it is debated again and again. First of all, it is a question that will affect us all sooner or later, as autonomous driving will change our mobility in the long term through increased safety and availability. Secondly, the undertone of the answer to this question has changed from euphoric to realistic in recent months. With more and more test vehicles and pilot projects on the roads, but still no widespread availability, it is becoming clear that implementing autonomous driving is not quite as easy as was announced in the initial enthusiasm – and that’s okay. After all, autonomous driving is not about going from 0 to 100, i.e. from no support functions at all to the autonomous vehicle; it is rather a gradual development towards autonomy.

At which point in this development are we at? What has recently been developed? A look at the current situation.

The status quo: Which level of automation are we currently at?

The development towards a fully autonomous vehicle is divided into 5 Levels describing the stages from no assistance (Level 0), through driver assistance systems (Level 2) and conditional automation (Level 3) to full autonomy (Level 5). The majority of modern cars already have assistance functions that correspond to Level 2. These include lane- and distance-keeping assistants or adaptive cruise control. Level 2 is defined by the fact that vehicles can control both the speed and their direction of travel independently, i.e. they can accelerate and steer without human intervention. Today, vehicles can already control small maneuvers themselves, for example when parking or in stop-and-go traffic. Accordingly, these functions are also permitted on German roads. Do the legal requirements go beyond this?

Five Levels of automation

Are vehicles even allowed to drive autonomously on German roads? The legal requirements

It is a fact that the major automobile manufacturers have already announced they are working on Level-3 functions, i.e. applications for conditional autonomy on predefined route sections, or have already integrated them in individual models. Moreover, the legal situation in Germany is already prepared for these scenarios: Road traffic regulations stipulate that automated driving functions are permitted in cars, but that the driver still has legal control over the vehicle. Although he may transfer control of the vehicle to the system under certain conditions and turn to other activities, he must always be able and ready to intervene and take control again.

This adaptation of the regulations was the first step, now the United Nations Economic Commission of Europe (UNECE) is also following up by introducing international rules for automated driving at Level 3: As of January 2021, such functions will be permitted on roads that are closed to pedestrians and cyclists. Another important aspect of this regulation was to formulate more precise specifications for the transfer of control from the vehicle back to the driver. For instance, it was decided that entertainment programs must be stopped automatically when a change of control is imminent and that vehicles must stop automatically in case the driver does not react.

With this new regulation, OEMs now have a clear guideline for the further development of autonomous driving functions.

Do users want autonomous driving functions?

Even if the technical and legal conditions are in place, the technology will only have a lasting disruptive effect if it is accepted by consumers. So where do they stand on autonomous vehicles?

The decisive factor for the acceptance of autonomous vehicles by the population is the safety of the automated driving functions. Studies from recent years clearly show that there is still a great deal of skepticism among consumers. This is not only due to the fact that the media coverage of autonomous test vehicles has focused heavily on the few fatal accidents that have occurred – these reports do not necessarily boost confidence in the safety of autonomous vehicles. Further reservations about autonomous driving are based on consumer concerns about loss of independence and data security. Consumers also fear for the pleasure of driving but could imagine giving control to the vehicle on motorway journeys, i.e. longer, tiring stretches.

The legal and social requirements have thus been clarified. So what could the next step in automated driving look like?

Autonomous driving comes in 5 levels

A possible next step: Automated highway driving at Level 3

While the functions in Level 2 are still supportive of the driver, Level 3 already allows independent driving of the car on certain sections of the journey. A glance at the world’s city centers quickly reveals that this next step towards autonomy will initially be difficult to implement in cities characterized by complex traffic situations. Driving on the highway, on the other hand, seems to be more feasible: There are no pedestrians, cyclists, or other less protected road users who could cross the road unannounced, no cross and oncoming traffic, no turning, no traffic lights. Instead, the vehicle only (in the best case) needs to drive evenly straight ahead and change lanes occasionally.

Speaks in favor: Time-saving on long distances

Besides, even the biggest driving enthusiast quickly realizes that automating highway journeys would be a great enrichment. Since the driver is also allowed to turn away from the traffic in this mode, Level 3 on highways goes hand in hand with significantly more efficient use of time. Especially for people who travel a lot within Germany on business, the added value is hard to deny.

Remains to be solved: Transfer of control between driver and vehicle

However, Level 3 does present some challenges, especially regarding the transfer of control between car and driver. The driver is only allowed to engage in other activities to the extent that he or she is still able to take control of the vehicle, for example in complex traffic situations.

This transfer of control poses two major challenges:

  1. The vehicle must be able to detect situations that exceed its technical capabilities at an early stage so that the driver can be informed in good time of the need to take over.
  2. The time required to get back from “hands-off mode” to “driver mode” can vary greatly from one driver to another: Naturally, people react at different speeds and, in addition, they occupy themselves differently in “hands-off mode”.

Maybe skip to fully automated driving right away?

Due to the challenges in the safe transfer of control between man and machine, there are also considerations to skip Level 3 and concentrate on the development of fully automated vehicles according to Level 4. Here, the vehicle controls complete journeys on the highway as well as in city traffic predominantly independently. Drivers can also devote themselves to other activities for longer periods of time, such as working, keeping the children busy in the back seat, or even sleeping.

Now you might ask yourself what is to come in Level 5 when Level 4 already consists of the automation of entire journeys. The big difference between the two highest levels of automation is that in Level 4, the driver can still take control of the vehicle – either because he wants to drive himself or because situations arise in which the vehicle cannot guarantee unlimited safety as long as it is driving itself. In Level 5, full autonomy, there will be no steering wheel or pedals, so the human driver will no longer be able to control the vehicle.

From Level 3 onwards, the car drives partially on it own.

Driving pleasure for those who want to

This means that in Level 4 the driver no longer has to keep a constant eye on the traffic situation, but must remain fit to drive in order to take control of the vehicle if necessary. In the event that the vehicle signals that it can no longer steer in the given situation, but the driver does not react, the car will head for a location where it can stop safely so as not to pose a danger to the occupants or other road users.

Level 4 therefore offers drivers the option of switching off the autonomous driving functions at any time and driving the car themselves as usual. In this way, driving pleasure is retained, but the driver can be relieved to the maximum if desired and if necessary.

The next step in autonomous driving?

The scenarios of futuristic cities, through which glass vehicles float completely autonomously, will not necessarily become reality in the next few years. However, it was already predictable at the beginning of the great hype about autonomous driving that the technology would not be implemented within five years. There are many factors involved in the development of this new type of vehicle, and it takes time to ensure that all functions are available.

It, therefore, remains to be seen which automated functions will come onto the road next – and where. So the autonomous vehicle is not going to be abandoned so quickly – despite all the pessimism. 

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