For years, automakers in Germany have been accused of missing out on trends. However, when it comes to autonomous driving, it seems that legislation is the only thing stopping them from becoming worldwide innovation leaders.
Automated driving will happen. Faster than many people think, as it is forecast to start at the beginning of the next decade. In Germany, automakers are not only well equipped for the change, they are actively promoting it. A recent short report from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) shows that not only do almost three quarters of all premium vehicles worldwide come from Germany, but since 2010, German companies have registered 52 percent of the patents for driverless cars.
Among the top 10, six companies are based in Germany – four manufacturers and two components suppliers (table). Google is in tenth place. Among the established car builders, almost 47 percent of the worldwide patents are held by German companies and when it comes to components suppliers, this is an astonishing 75 percent. Bosch alone has almost one thousand patents, three times more than US electric car maker Tesla. But the foreign competition is catching up. Especially Ford.
Among other things, the high share of premium vehicles produced in Germany is responsible for the high level of innovation. After all, customers in the higher price segments are prepared to pay for driver assistance systems, semi-autonomous, and automated driving. Besides, strong brands have a competitive advantage as regards developing autonomous vehicles.
For example, Audi will begin serial production of the first model with level 3 autonomous driving. Drivers will be able to focus on things other than steering, such as checking e-mails or changing the music – but not sleeping. Drivers must be ready to take the wheel when told to do so by the system’s acoustic or optical prompts.
BMW and Daimler currently have level 2 systems. However, level 3 hardware is installed in vehicles from other manufacturers. There is still a huge difference between being able to and being allowed to operate a self-driving vehicle.
Level 3 automated driving in serial production
Audi calls its system the Audi AI traffic jam pilot (AI for artificial intelligence). When the driver presses the “AI button” in the central console, the vehicle does everything itself, as long as the vehicle’s speed does not exceed 60 km/h. When traffic is very slow, the A8 even drives along the edge of the road to allow rescue vehicles to pass if necessary. This also distinguishes it from many human drivers.
The system functions on all highways and two-lane roads with a median strip. It does not work on normal country roads or in city traffic. And if you want to drive faster, you have to steer yourself. Audi AI includes a range of intelligent assistance systems, such as for automatic parking.
Hardware mix from all around the world
For the first time, a central driver assistance controller (zFAS) beneath the driver’s seat of the Audi A8 permanently computes an image of the surroundings by merging the sensor data. The tasks of the module, produced by Delphi, are shared by a Nvidia Tegra K1, an EyeQ3 from Intel subsidiary Mobileye, the Cyclone-V-FPGA from Intel subsidiary Altera, and an Aurix from Infineon. Another Intel subsidiary, Wind River, supplies the real-time operating system VxWorks. In other words, there is a lot of “Intel inside” in the world’s first level 3 vehicle. And the knowledge that Intel can work with Nvidia.
The concerted action is also necessary as the zFAS has to process data from many different sources (picture). Apart from mid-range radar, ultrasound sensors, and 360 degree cameras, the car also has a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) system on board for optical distance and speed measurement of static and dynamic objects. In the Audi A8, for the first time, the “images” are processed on the basis of deep learning (deep neural network, DNN).
For the market launch, the traffic jam pilot of the A8 will not be able to use its “hands and feet”, as automated driving level 3 is currently not permitted anywhere in the world. Therefore, the “hidden treasures” in the A8 will only be put into serial production gradually before they all arrive on the road from 2020 onwards – according to the German Federal Ministry of Transport. In other words, for Audi its “Vorsprung durch Technik” or advancement through technology may have melted away before the traffic jam pilot is actually allowed to drive a car in a traffic jam.