According to media reports, the German government today, February 10, 2021, passed a law that will enable the use of autonomous cars and buses in defined zones nationwide. In the future, autonomous shuttle buses and autonomous freight transports will thus be allowed to operate on short distances in regular service, which apply to fully automated level four driving. However, a safety driver must still be on board to intervene in an emergency. Until now, autonomous cars were only permitted with special permits and only on non-public traffic areas, such as the buses that drive on the Charité railroad tracks in Berlin.
Will this catapult Germany to the forefront of autonomous driving? At least that is the impression one hears from experts. Germany is the first country to pass such a law, they say. But is that sufficient? At least that seemed to be the tenor of the speakers who discussed this rage at a TÜV Clubhouse session on “Autonomous driving in Germany?” on February 2.
Similar opinions are heard when technical experts are asked, pointing to the number of patents on autonomous driving in which German manufacturers and suppliers are leading the way.
Or to put it another way: is it enough to put up a soccer stadium and have the best referee who has internalized the rules of the game the best in order to become soccer world champion? Certainly not, because in order to become world champions, we need first and foremost soccer players, and not just one, but many soccer teams that compete against each other in leagues in many thousands of matches to determine the best teams. The best players from the best teams then form the national soccer team, which then has to compete against international rivals first in qualifying rounds and then in the actual World Cup finals.
So we don’t just need a law and patents, we also need autonomous cars from many different manufacturers that reel off millions of kilometers in public. After all, we know that you don’t become the best soccer player if you only play at the training ground day in and day out. Just as the best airplane cannot be developed purely in the flight channel, but must fly it for many hours in reality in different weather and conditions.
So how has it looked in Germany so far? Who has seen autonomous cars in the wild in Germany? On the autobahn? On the highway? In German city centers? With passengers heading to the supermarket for a purchase or to the gym for a workout?
Or asked the other way around: which German companies are we aware of that are developing autonomous cars? Daimler, BMW, Bosch and VW immediately come to mind, and we’ve certainly read something about them somewhere. For example, recently about a Bosch-Daimler collaboration that showed a self-parking S-Class in a Stuttgart garage.
Many of the developments here seem to be with startups, especially American startups. For example, VW jointly invested in Argo.AI after VW pulled out of Aurora Innovation. Daimler and BMW cancelled their partnership, and Daimler then not only bought autonomous truck developer Torc Robotics, but also partnered with chipmaker NVIDIA to at least have the electronics hardware for autonomous driving.
Which German startup can we name that is developing complete technology for self-driving cars? Hmmm? I can only name one: Kopernikus Auto. Only one, and in the country that invented the car and has the most important car industry in the world.
The difference becomes clear when we look at the situation in the USA, and especially in California. Currently, 56 companies have a license to test autonomous cars on all public roads throughout California. In fact, six companies are already allowed to drive – on restricted public roadways – without a safety driver. In fact, California has already licensed one company (Nuro) to even perform driverless commercial driving on public roads. As a result, there are already around 800 autonomous test and production vehicles driving on the roads there today. Of course, almost all OEMs and major suppliers have such a test license, but that also means that around 40 startups are developing autonomous cars. Again, as a reminder, how many are there in Germany, the number one automotive country that invented the car? That should already make us break out in a cold sweat, but even more so when we look at the publicly known performance data of autonomous cars. More on that in a moment.
First, a little roundup of these vehicles I keep encountering on the roads.
And those are just the encounters with autonomous cars in California. In the U.S., more than half the states have enacted similar regulations. Some – like Texas – didn’t even need to, because they don’t even require anyone to sit inside a moving car. Arizona even already has a fully driverless robot taxi fleet from Waymo on the road. Cars drive there as cabs that pick up passengers without a driver. A total of 1,400 autonomous experimental and series-production vehicles are currently driving on public roads throughout the USA.
And these vehicles reel off millions of miles every year. We even know the exact numbers for California, because every year a so-called Disengagement Report has to be sent by every licensed company to the California Transportation Authority. The one for last year was released this Tuesday. And the numbers are impressive. If you look at just the top two from the list of 29 reporting companies and compare them to BMW and Daimler (VW did not test in California in 2020), the results are sobering. Not only have Waymo and GM Cruise each reeled off more than one million miles of driving in autonomous test mode, they have very few disengagements. Waymo and Cruise come to almost 48,000 kilometers and almost 46,000 kilometers of autonomous driving, respectively, before a safety driver has to intervene; at BMW, a safety driver has to do so every 65 kilometers, and at Mercedes, even every 41 kilometers.
|Manufacturer||Kilometers||Disengagements||Kilometers per Disengagement|
Mercedes and BMW are far behind in 17th and 19th place with this result (the full list and more details can be found here). Now, one may object that these numbers only represent the tests in California, and test drives in other states and other countries are not included. And that’s true. It’s just that we don’t know the numbers from other regions because there is currently no requirement to publish them. But in fact, these figures show us something else: there are hardly any reports of public sightings of vehicles from German manufacturers from other regions. I know this because, on the one hand, I hang around in the relevant forums where this topic is discussed and forum members from all over the world post snapshots of such vehicles, and on the other hand, many of my readers send me pictures from German-speaking regions. But these come so sparsely that the conclusion must be that the activities of German manufacturers are just as sparse.
This also has nothing to do with the “better marketing” of American (or Chinese) manufacturers. If the cars are clearly visible driving around in public, I don’t need marketing. These test drives are marketing enough. Neither can we become soccer world champions by always playing only at the training ground, nor build the perfect airplane only in the wind tunnel, nor be a leader in the development of autonomous cars if they are only developed on the test track and on the simulator.
So not only does the U.S. already have plenty of self-driving technology in development, but it’s even in commercial use. And state laws make it possible, too. Even an overarching federal law, created by the National Highway & Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT), is already before both chambers of the U.S. Congress, and DoT Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg is also an advocate for autonomous cars. Not only is a federal law thus more of a formality, but other agencies such as the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) have already provided for the approval of commercial robotaxi fleets.
In other words, the U.S. has not only set up the stadium and the referee, but has an entire league operation going for years, where we have already crowned champions several times and new up-and-comers have done sensationally.
It is an important step for Germany that this federal law has been passed. But we now have to start playing our part. And we are starting at the very bottom; there can be no talk at all of the top position.
This article has also been published in German.