A closer look at the current state of research around autonomous driving reveals that some visions are no longer stuck in the distant future. The spirit of innovation is driving creative minds around the world to find ever new ways to get one step closer to driverless cars. The question of when the first of these vehicles will drive through our cities, possibly revolutionizing urban mobility, remains exciting.
The six levels of autonomization
Autonomous vehicles are categorized into 6 levels according to the SAE International Standard J3016. This enables both the objectification of the various systems and the definition of a legal framework. Level 0 starts with predominantly manually controlled vehicles, which may already have assistance sequences such as warning aids or emergency brakes installed.
The driving assistance level reached in Level 1 relates to more comprehensive areas such as acceleration and braking. Thus, the system takes over a certain degree of control, but within a very limited scope and under constant observation of the driver. Partial automation in level 2 already takes on somewhat more complex tasks. In addition to longitudinal control (acceleration and braking), lateral control - i.e., steering the vehicle - is added. For these first three levels, however, it should be noted that the driving environment must be monitored from the cockpit at all times.
From level 3, conditional automation, the vehicle must be able to monitor both the state of the person driving and their environment. In certain regular situations, due to the type of road, weather conditions or speed, attention can be briefly withdrawn from the traffic situation. Precise monitoring of the environment is required for the high level of automation in Level 4. As a rule, the system already serves as a fallback level, so that manual intervention by the driver is only necessary in very rare cases, for example in heavy snowfall.
Level 5 is where full automation comes into play. The vehicle acts completely autonomously and basically needs neither a steering wheel nor a brake or gas pedal. The driver's cab becomes purely a lounge. At present, however, both the legal framework and the technical possibilities are not yet up to the task of making Level 4 and 5 vehicles accessible to the public.
The German draft law
At the end of March this year, the German Bundestag and Bundesrat first considered a draft law that would make Germany the first country in the world to allow the use of a vehicle complying with Level 4 of the SAE standard. This is expected to be passed before the end of mid-2021. With the passing of the law, research and development of autonomous driving systems in Germany would be given a huge boost and could be part of regular operations as early as 2022. The law specifies both the areas of use - shuttle transport, people movers, etc. - and concrete requirements for the vehicle and the "supervisor". Among other things, it specifies the technical requirements for the construction of the vehicles, the approval procedure, the duties of the responsible person, data processing and the subsequent activation of autonomous driving functions. As a pioneer, German legislation must be adapted to international developments in this area in the future.
The current status
A number of market-leading companies around the world are researching systems to enable autonomous driving. The competition for Level 4 and 5 keeps the industry in a constant drive for innovation.
One of the leading companies in this area of research is Aptiv. The Jersey-based company has 12 technology centers and 124 production facilities worldwide. As a joint venture with Hyundai Motor Group, Aptiv developed the "Motional" autonomous vehicle in 2020, reaching Level 4 of the SAE standard. The technology is expected to be available to robotaxi providers and fleet operators from 2022. The overarching goal of making mobility safer, greener and 'connected' extends down to the individual site level. The explicit motivation is to benefit from a wide range of regional and global competencies. One of the Aptiv technology centers is also located in the city of Wuppertal. In close cooperation with the University of Wuppertal and the automotiveland.nrw cluster, innovative ideas of global quality are developed at the regional level. Within this framework, the bergisch.smart.mobility concept for the Bergisches Land region was developed, which explicitly integrates the advantages of autonomous vehicles into a holistic mobility context with public transport and bicycle/pedestrian traffic.
Waymo, the subsidiary of Google, is also one of the leading companies in the field of software development. With approximately 550,000 miles traveled, requiring only 21 interventions, it boasts an impressively low error rate in the area of safety. The goal is to reach Level 5 to deliver the operating system for robotaxis in the future. These are already in use in a suburb of Phoenix in the US state of Arizona, but still need to be supervised.
Car manufacturer Tesla has already been equipping all new vehicles with the hardware that enables the activation of a Level 5 autonomous driving system since October 2016. Since October 2020, the beta version of the Full Self-Driving mode has been available in the US, which achieves SAE Level 2. A video published on YouTube (insert link)* shows a test drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where intervention was required only once within approximately 600km.
The German cooperation between Daimler AG and Bosch GmbH is particularly concerned with the development of autonomous driving systems in an urban context. These are intended to contribute to an improved traffic situation in cities in conjunction with the public transport network. By focusing on car sharing and robotaxi services, the aim is also to achieve Level 4 and 5 of the SAE standard.