Autonomous driving – between German angst and hi-tech euphoria

Automated and autonomous driving can lead to long-term improvements in our mobility. Manufacturers, suppliers and start-ups are investing billions in the new technology. But how is it going down with potential users?

Level 5 hype is fading

The driver’s seat and the front passenger’s seat rotate quietly through 180 degrees, while in the middle of the interior a table rises up from the floor and the steering wheel disappears into the dashboard. The side windows mutate into large screens, and the driver enjoys a break and becomes a passenger. The vehicle has taken control. Mobile utopia? The vision of the automotive industry and new players seems to be aligned to precisely this image: in the near future, passenger cars are set to become a key location in our lives, alongside the office and the home, where people can work and sleep. But a large number of technical hurdles will have to be overcome before we arrive at that stage. Level 2+ driver-assistance systems with partially automated driving function are currently the market standard. The first Level 3 congestion assistants also exist which will steer a vehicle automatically in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. Manufacturers and suppliers are busy forging alliances – for example BMW with Intel but also with Daimler and Fiat Chrysler, Daimler with Bosch, and Jaguar Land Rover with Waymo. They are doing so because without partners, even the market leaders will not be able to launch self-driving cars onto the roads. The companies have already spent many billions on developing autonomous driving. Yet the complete transfer of vehicle control from human beings to machines is stagnating. Some OEMs have given up the chase. The optimistic messages about Levels 4 and 5 are quieter than they used to be and the hype is fading out. Experts believe these levels could realistically be introduced by 2025, but others do not expect this to happen until 2030 or later.

High-tech China is enthusiastic

What is more, there is still no valid legal framework – the rights and duties of motorists, manufacturers, the regulating software and the insurance in this mode of operation remain unclarified. And then there is the topic of acceptance. After all, it is up to the electronics (and no longer people) to take the right decisions with the vehicle. Audi recently published a study into the issue of acceptance. A total of 21,000 people from nine countries on three continents were asked about their attitudes to autonomous driving. No matter where the respondents came from, they demonstrated huge interest and curiosity about the topic. Men in particular indicated being open to using self-driving vehicles. However, there are also clear reservations, such as insufficient confidence in the technology and its reliability, data protection concerns, and fear of losing control. It is noticeable that the younger and better educated the respondents, the more positive their attitudes. They are most euphoric about the topic in tech-loving China. Within Europe it’s the Italians and the Spaniards who are especially positive about the technology. By contrast, people in Germany and France are still more cautious, and the picture is similar in the UK and the US.

German angst?

According to a survey by Bitkom, one third of Germans would not like to forego the fun of driving a car themselves. Only 11 percent of them believe there are no disadvantages to autonomous driving. However, three quarters of the German population also perceive advantages. The ones most frequently mentioned are reduced environmental pollution and better traffic flow. Only around one quarter of respondents expects technological progress to improve safety for vehicle occupants. And only 14 per cent believe that they will arrive at their destination more quickly. Several studies show that technical knowledge and in particular individual experience with the technology enhance its acceptance. Experts have proposed ‘living labs,’ for example at the IAA, offering contact with real-life autonomous driving in ways that involve the public and groups of buyers. Furthermore, the intense media coverage of the topic has so far not generated greater acceptance – maybe because of reports of accidents involving automated vehicles. The United States has so far recorded six fatal accidents during trips using systems from Waymo, Uber and Tesla. More than 60 companies are currently trialing their test fleets on public roads in the US.

Robo-taxis – future trend or useless nonsense?

Manufacturers have now separated the development of the freeway pilot, destined for use in private passenger cars, from the development of robo-taxi fleets. One reason for this is that urban traffic is more demanding than driving on the freeway, and another is that the business model “freeway pilot” is too different from the business model “robo-taxi.” After all, autonomous cars are closely tied to car and ridesharing. And the technology will not pay off until it is deployed in driverless fleets. For example in the city centers, robo-taxis or larger people movers could be used instead of private cars. They could be available at any time and without long waiting times, and would ferry their passengers comfortably from door to door. There would be no more irritating searches for a parking spot or high parking charges. The consultancy Deloitte has conducted an extensive study of this new form of mobility, including acceptance by city-dwellers. Around one third of road users would switch to an autonomous fleet vehicle if they did not have to wait more than ten minutes for it. The figure is around 40 per cent among school students and senior citizens, but only just over one quarter of car-drivers in work. On the other hand, a survey by the consulting firm AlixPartners revealed that 50 per cent of Germans would be prepared to do without a car of their own, while in China the figure is over 80 per cent.

Robert Habeck in the driverless robo-taxi at the IAA 2019 – Copyright: Continental AG

According to the Deloitte study, general expectations that self-driving vehicles will reduce congestion will not be fulfilled. The number of registered vehicles will indeed fall, but the high utilization of robo-taxis and robo-shuttles will increase the volume of urban traffic. And as services increase, so their costs will fall, resulting in competition with local public transport. Today providers such as Uber and Lyft are not being used as an alternative to one’s own car, but as an alternative to public transport, bicycles or walking. An analysis by the VDI concludes that the fleets will improve the quality of life in towns and cities. Around 40 per cent of respondents are hoping more for a high to very high potential for saving time. One thing is clear: there isn’t just one study and one truth. But the topic of autonomous driving is certainly “moving” people all over the world.

(Stagephoto © Audi AG)

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