Self-driving Cars and German Innovation

As we’ve written about here previously, an era of self-driving vehicles is dawning, in large part, due to innovations being made in Germany where the automotive industry–a key driver of the economy–is set to lead the biggest revolution in motoring since Karl Benz.

Locating your car via your phone, creating pick-up and drop-off points using an app, and the idea of whether humans should be allowed to drive at all, are all questions which are being debated in Germany. However, the introduction of highly-automated vehicles, in which the driver no longer needs to continuously monitor the system but must be ready to take over at all times, is only a couple of years away.

German manufacturers, components suppliers and research institutes are spearheading the change. Technological innovations generally take place in the premium car business, and 40 percent of all vehicles in that segment worldwide are made in Germany, making it the world’s manufacturing hub for premium cars. That’s why Germany is regarded as Europe’s largest market for connected cars. By 2020, every second newly assembled car will be equipped with connected car technology, and the share will be as high as 90 percent in leading markets such as Germany. The market for connected software is expected to quadruple by 2020 to an estimated EUR 113 billion.

“I’m convinced that the German industry will be very good at handling the transition to advanced automation because it has the highest technological competence worldwide,” says Andreas Tschiesner, head of McKinsey’s automotive practice in Germany. “So the next 10 to 15 years will play into the hands of the German automotive industry.”

There remain, however, plenty of issues to be resolved.

“It will take decades before self-driving cars are used regularly in the same way conventional cars are driven today,” says Professor Hermann Winner of Technische Universität Darmstadt, former developer of high-tech automotive components at the Bosch group and member of the Daimler and Benz Foundation’s Villa Ladenburg research project into autonomous driving.

Electronic systems have yet to be taught to handle situations such as the human interaction aspect to everyday driving; one driver gesturing to another to let him enter a lane, or flashing headlights as a warning. It is also still difficult for driver assistance systems to distinguish between a bag, cardboard box or a pram in the road, which means the car may perform an emergency stop in each case, possibly giving rise to accidents.

Poor weather conditions are a further problem. Heavy rain or snowflakes, for example, could block or confuse sensors. And there’s the ethical dilemma that drivers face in certain situations, so how would a computer react when confronted with a split-second choice between colliding with another vehicle rather than hitting a pedestrian?

Believe it or not, a modern car has a more complex software code than the Space Shuttle did. Most driver assistance systems were developed in Germany. Mindful of the huge importance of the automotive industry, which employs almost 800,000 people in Germany, the government is backing the shift towards self-driving cars. In addition, big automakers and components suppliers such as Bosch and Continental plan to invest a combined 16 to 18 billion euros in research and development in this area over the next three to four years, according to the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). The German automotive industry’s annual R&D budget accounts for a third of the total industrial research spending.

Photo credit: http://www.colourbox.com. Material used in the preparation of this article has been drawn from Germany Trade & Invest (GTAI).

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