The Frightening Low Ambition Level of German Carmakers in Regards to Autonomous Driving

if you believe German media, then the German automotive world is not so much going through an earthquake because of the Diesel scandal, but because of the newly announced collaboration between Daimler and BMW. Last week the two German OEM heavyweights announced to collaborate in mobility services, and today that they will collaborate in developing technology for highly automated driving.

Michael Hafner, head of development for drive technologies and automated driving at Mercedes Benz explained morea bout that in his blog post (in German). And the choice of words is already revealing.

We are planing to develop together with BMW the next generation for driving assist systems as well as systems that allow highly automated driving on the highway and automated parking functions.

Driver assist systems are – according to the SAE – Level 3 vehicles. The vehicle still expects that a driver is present in the car and can take control at any moment. The word “highly automated driving” indicates that nothing more than a driver assist system on steroids is the goal.

Silicon Valley on the contrary, where today 62 companies have a license to test autonomous vehicles on all public roads with over 400 vehicles – U.S. wide even around 1,200 vehicles – decided to leapfrog Level 3. As it turned out, Level 3 poses requirements to a driver that cannot be fulfilled. Tests and studies revealed that with Level 3 the vehicle systems need to give the driver at least 10 or even more than 20 seconds ahead the warning to take over, so that a human can fully understand the traffic context and take action. With so much start time a vehicle should be able to deal with a situation by itself.

That’s why companies such as Waymo, GM Cruise, Zoox and others decided to ignore Level 3 and fully target Level 4. German manufacturers on the other hand think that Level 3 is nothing else than a step toward Level 4. But that’s like improving the candle, while others build the electric light bulb. Or, in another example, they build the ladder to the Moon, instead off the rocket. Why? Because with a familiar technology such as a ladder, the engineers see progress, while developing a rocket from scratch is not showing any palpable progress for quite some time. But at the end those will win the race who built the rocket.

Building the ladder to the Moon VERSUS Building the Rocket

This explains the large gap that German manufacturers have in regards to autonomous car technologies when compared to Silicon Valley companies. And they don’t even realize that. How else can you explain that VW-CEO Herbert Diess estimates the gap towards Waymo being “between one and two years,” while reality is at least by five years. The often narrated fairy tale of German Wunderwaffen under development – that kind off secretly developed technology that will save them – is just not true if you start poking at it.

How large the gap is can be seen from the latest Disengagement Report from California. The gap is so large that we would expect to see the horror in the faces of German auto manager. While Waymo cars have to hand back control to a safety driver every 17,847 kilometers on average, Mercedes’ vehicles have to do that every 2.3 kilometers. And we are talking about driving in city traffic. The Germans can’t even go a street block or two without the interference of a driver. How sad is this?

We are reaching a situation, where the gap between the leading companies (e.g. everyone with an average disengagement rate above 1,000 miles) becomes so large – and the gap is exponential and not linear – that a regulator will face the decision to – in regards to responsibility to the population – to restrict the continued development of this technology to the e.g. five most advanced companies and have everyone else license the leaders’ technologies.

Also the development by the German industry is pretty halfheartedly pursued. While Waymo launched the world’s first commercial robotaxi-fleet and a dozen of other fleets is testing with passengers in Mountain View, San Francisco, San Jose, Florida, Pittsburgh, Chandler, Phoenix and other towns, no beep from the Germans. Not a single test fleet is on the road in Germany. Daimler is aiming to start a test fleet in San Jose in the second half off 2019. And VW mentioned up to five test fleets starting 2021(!) Waymo at that point is aiming to operate up to 82,000 robotaxis. So far Mercedes is driving in Sunnyvale 0 the location of the Mercedes-Benz Research North America – approximately twice a week the same circular course on its “test route.” Notice the choice of words, indicating the ambition level: not “test area,” but “test route.”

it’s not very helpful that the German industry is lulling themselves in deep sleep. Forecasts of the Fraunhofer Institut on self-driving cars are frighteningly uninspired and far from what is on the roads today. But what do you expect from an industry that’s underlying a self-selecting process? Who’s working at Daimler, BMW, and Co.? People who love driving and who cannot imagine that others may not like driving or even hate it. With this the motivation to build driverless cars is very low.

And that fact is visible for everyone else. It’s already more than embarrassing when at one of the most important technology conferences in that space – The CES in Las Vegas – Daimler has been pulling off for years the same PR-stunt: an autonomous concept vehicles drives remotely controlled the Las Vegas Strip up 100 meters and back 100 meters. Even the journalists ferried in those cars cannot hide their surprise about what Daimler is trying to sell them. And they even have the chutzpah to reveal the CLA Coupe – a combustion engine car – as the big highlight of their show appearance. And that all while other companies are shuttling conference attendees between the hotels and conference venues in their real autonomous cars

With the collaboration between Daimler and BMW – as was the collaboration at the same topic between Daimler and Bosch – we see nothing else than two dead horses pulling a defect coach. Here are not A-players joining A-players, but C-players joining forces. If BMW or Daimler really were serious about developing autonomous cars, they’d work with the Waymos of this world. But that would mean to show some humility and admit that they are lagging far behind in those new automotive technologies. But if we look at the behavior of German carmakers three years after the Diesel scandal broke, then we see that humility is a behavior that’s not even a word existing in their dictionary. And that’s also to blame on the big auto bosses who can’t relate to that and to the new technologies.

We have to admit that we (the Germans) already lost those new technologies. Electric vehicles is such other topic, where we are hopelessly behind, and where we’ll see the reckoning right in front off our eyes with the arrival of Tesla’s Model 3 to Germany. The sales numbers on the U.S. for the past half year already gave a foreboding of what is going to happen. It hurts to see how our pride becomes irrelevant. Not because we are idiots or incompetent, but because we didn’t have the will and right mindset. For years we only heard ridicule about the production quality of Tesla’s vehicles, or hesitating autonomous vehicles or accidents with the Autopilot. But now we see hectic activities. We have completely underestimated what is happening. No shit!

If just they would set now the right steps, but what are they doing? The C-players are signing a Memorandum of Understanding. Translated: we actually do nothing.

Just to illustrate the points, here is a compilation of my videos on autonomous cars that I keep encountering in Silicon Valley (rain or shine, day and night).

This article was also published in German.

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