The quest to make autonomous cars a reality is on, and how it will turn out is pretty fathomable. The future is limitless and this means, we could see a whole fleet of automated taxis that can possibly revolutionize the whole concept of public service. People could subscribe to car companies and use an app to call up their autonomous pods, or even buy your own drive and let the car work its magic!
Then again, all of these scenarios could play out, and Mercedes-Benz is taking a two-pronged approach to autonomous cars in the near future, with another approach planned for later.
In a recent interview with Mercedes-Benz, chief research and development officer Ola Källenius, was kind enough to shed some light on the automaker’s plans for the autonomous future.
Before we move into the details of Källenius’ interview, here’s a little heads up on the levels of autonomy in its order. Levels 0 and 1 are now way past their timeline, so they aren’t important. Level 2 cars are the ones that we see on road today. A Level 2 car for starters, boasts of a system that can take control of the car in limited situations. Although a driver must always be at the realm, ready to constantly back up the system in case there’s a failure or when the system can’t handle a typical Catch 22 situation.
A Level 3 car is supported by an “automated driving system” that can handle all driving operations in limited situations. The substantial difference here is that, the vehicles are able to monitor the driving environment around them. It still needs a driver to take over control mostly, to intervene if things go wrong. Audi has revealed that, the next A8 will offer a Level 3 autonomy.
A Level 4 car is something that can drive on its own barring certain situations. It may have driver controls for a human to take over, but are not considered to be a necessity. The autonomous cars that Ford wants to lay down on the road by 2021 are considered to be mostly Level 4 vehicles. In finer terms Level 4 cars are described as having – “driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene“. Put more simply, if something goes wrong, the car can handle it by itself.
A Level 5 car drives itself at all times- in all conditions, including bad weather and even on dirt roads. It has full automation and vehicles don’t need any pedals, steering wheels or controls for a human to take control.
At present, Mercedes is working on Level 3 and Level 4/5 cars at the same time.
S-Class to go Level 3
The latest 2018 model of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the E-Class for that matter, are dubbed as Level 2 autonomous cars. Källenius considers the S-Class to be a “Level 2 plus” model and says “if we would take the inhibitors out, then it could do Level 3 in many, many, many driving situations.”
Källenius defines a Level 3 car as such: “You can, in general terms say that the Level 3 is a system by which you can let the car drive and you can look the other way and you are not responsible for a certain use-case but not all the time. That technology, we believe, will come and we are working on it.”
However, whats obstructing the development of both Level 3 and Level 4/5 cars are the different regulations that are being levied upon, by the various World Regulatory Forums. “The regulatory environment is still very heterogeneous both on Level 3/Level 4 and Level 5. At the moment, we are in discussions with authorities literally around the world to nail that down and try to create as a homogeneous set of requirements as possible because, for consistency reasons and also engineering reasons, the closer those regulatory frameworks are, the better,” Källenius explained.
Once the regulatory environment is coherent, Mercedes needs to align and re-frame the technology so as to make it safe and user friendly. “You would have to add some more on the sensing side and you would also have to add what we think would be the only responsible way of doing it, redundant braking and redundant steering,” Källenius said. “The sensing technologies of the future is a blend of cameras, lidars, and radars. Those three layers of sensing basically replaces the eyes and the ears of the human being. It needs to be able to see and hear whatever the human being sees and hears,” he noted.
Once the company feels it has leveled up the technology to its highest standards, Mercedes will release a Level 3 S-Class. “We are working intensely on that and that is not that far away,” Källenius said optimistically.
Full autonomy replaces drivers with robot taxis
Källenius explains that a Level 4/5 car is more or less a robot car that can drive by itself. He says Mercedes is concentrating on the taxi market for this type of car simply due to cost. Although, the biggest underlying threat here is drivers get replaced by the cars themselves implying more loss of jobs.
“It is phenomenally expensive to do this and the number of sensors you have to put on the car, the computing part and so on, is in tens of thousands of dollars once you get it into production. Where do you have a business case for something like that? You have it in a robot taxi scenario, where you can take a city or part of a city and say, ‘OK, I am going to put 100, 200, 300, 1000, whatever robot taxis into this area,‘ because the amortization comes through not paying the driver. If you think about what the driver earns per year, depending on how many hours that car is in operation, that easily get into the tens of thousands of dollars, so you can have a very quick amortization on a Level 4 or Level 5,” he explained.
What are the barriers to Level 4/5 technology? Much to our surprise, Källenius says it’s not the infrastructure. “Since you cannot expect the whole world to equip itself with infrastructure to support the first generation of autonomous cars, our approach is the car has to do it on its own. One thing, though, which is absolutely crucial is that you need an HD map, a high-definition map,” he said. Mercedes, along with BMW and Audi acquired Nokia’s HERE mapping company in 2015. Källenius says that entity is developing HD maps right now.
The timing for Level 4/5? Källenius says 2020-2025 to start, and that Mercedes will grow it through its own mobility services arm car2go or through a mobility services partner.
A third prong and an advantage
Further down the road, Källenius sees a third possible vision for the company: “You will then have robot taxis in cities and you will have a sophisticated Level 3 system that could be a highway pilot or other use-cases in parallel. Eventually, technologically, these come together…at the point where, we, through economies of scaling and clever engineering, have brought the cost down to a point where it can be an attractive option.”
How does that play out? According to Källenius, when you go buy a new S-class, or a high-end E-Class, you will be able to choose a computer-driver option.
Källenius feels Mercedes-Benz is in in the driver’s seat with autonomous cars and expects lots of success with this model. “We are working on all three [strategies]. We think that an advantage for Mercedes is that through quick proliferation through our different models, on the Level 2 plus and the Level 3, we very quickly get into the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions [of autonomous vehicles]. Whereas many other brands that don’t have the position or pricing segment cannot get there as quickly. So we will push both strands at the same time. That is our strategy.“