Buckle up and enjoy the ride – while the car steers, brakes and accelerates all by itself. A scenario from the distant future? Think again: Researchers at the Volkswagen Group are already
Just imagine that your car can park itself. With no one behind the wheel: in fact, the driver has already got out and is instructing the car by smartphone to look for a space in the parking garage. Once the shopping has been done, the car is summoned back to collect the passengers. Dr. Burkhard Huhnke wouldn’t mind having an assistant like that. As a father of three, he is only too familiar with the complaints from the back seat when the younger passengers feel that the search for a parking space is taking forever again. The 43-year-old engineer is in charge of Volkswagen Group Research’s Electronics Research Lab (ERL) in Silicon Valley, California. One of the main areas on which the research laboratory is working is the autonomous vehicle, i.e. driving without a driver.
“An automatic parking assistant that moves the car safely around a parking garage could be developed for series production before the decade is out,” says Huhnke. He also feels that an automatic motorway pilot is on the cards. Drivers could read, work, or attend to the kids in the back – while the car takes control of the steering. “It’s technically feasible but not yet ready to go into series,” explains Huhnke. What is more, legislators have yet to give the green light. Traffic regulations in the USA and Europe require the driver’s hands to be on the steering wheel. However, automotive industry specialists, traffic experts and lawyers are already sitting down together to establish the conditions that will shape the future of driving.
A glimpse of this future came in October 2010 in the form of “Leonie”, a research vehicle based on a Volkswagen Passat that drove itself a distance of three kilometers on the busy two-lane ring road in Braunschweig. Leonie held its own with the real volume of traffic, merging, changing lanes, turning corners and parking – the lot. A world premiere made possible by laser scanners, radar sensors and satellite navigation. As required, a passenger traveled in the car to intervene if necessary, but there was no need during the test. The vehicle was developed at the Lower Saxony Research Centre for Vehicle Technology (NFF) in Wolfsburg. The NFF is supported by two innovation partners: Braunschweig University of Technology and Volkswagen Group Research.
Pushing limits and maximizing performance – this was the main focus of a completely different type of experiment taken on by ERL director Huhnke and his team in the USA. 18 September 2010, Colorado: An Audi TTS begins its driverless climb up the 4,300-meter Pikes Peak located in the Rocky Mountains. 156 bends over more than 20 kilometers, part of which is unsurfaced switchbacks. Crash barriers? None. A whole year of preparation has gone into this project and Huhnke is suitably on edge. The 265 PS (197 kW) Audi hits the gas and drifts around the bends. The car is being “steered” by a very precise GPS navigation system, which detects when the vehicle deviates even two centimeters from the ideal line. Were anything to go wrong, the car would certainly not survive unscathed. Nonetheless, the Audi remains in lane, copes masterfully with all the bumps, raises a satisfying amount of dust on the gravel road and reaches the peak. The Audi coupé completes the course four times in all – each time free of any hitches. The “Autonomous Audi TTS” is a project initiated by the Volkswagen Group Automotive Innovation Laboratory (VAIL) and overseen by the ERL and Stanford University, also located in Silicon Valley.
“We dared to do something that had never been done before like this: An autonomous trip under extreme conditions,” says Huhnke with pride. “The most important thing for us was not the speed but above all the robustness of the software.” System crashes cannot be allowed to happen during autonomous trips. The new software platform developed for this project proved its worth. Huhnke outlines the next steps: “We will use the software in different types of vehicles and will continue our intensive testing and constant fine tuning”.