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It’s an urban jungle out there for driverless cars

Not so fast: Driverless vehicles find clearly defined roads such as freeways a breeze, but autonomous systems for crowded, unpredictable city streets are still some years away, says Mercedes chief Dieter Zetsche.

Mercedes-Benz chief says city slog still a challenge for autonomous vehicles

Mercedes-Benz logo11 Apr 2016

By RON HAMMERTON in NICE

CROWDED downtown city roads are the most challenging place to achieve full autonomous driving, according Daimler AG chairman and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars Dieter Zetsche.

Speaking to Australian journalists at the global media launch of the new S-Class Cabriolet in France, Mr Zetsche said open freeways and clearly defined areas such as housing estates were relatively easy places to achieve full driverless car travel.

He said that while Mercedes-Benz was committed to achieving accident-free driving from its cars within a decade, safely navigating crowded city streets could take years to master.

“On freeways, this (autonomous driving) is a relatively easy task,” he said.

“We will soon – perhaps first with trucks – make it possible.

“Certainly the downtown area is the most complex and challenging, even though speeds are lower. There, (driverless cars) without restriction is certain (to take) a little more time.”

Mr Zetsche said some forms of autonomous driving should be ready by the end of the decade and that his company was taking two parallel routes in the development of self-driving cars.

One was evolutionary, with Mercedes-Benz fitting successively more sophisticated driving assistance systems such as lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control to its cars, he said.

“The other way is to go full autonomous, but not everywhere at all times, in very defined areas,” he said.

Mr Zetsche gave an example where drivers could get rid of their home garages and park their cars at a nearby central location.

“When you leave your house and push your smart phone button, your car arrives fully autonomously, but in a very defined environment,” he said.

“In these initial steps I definitely see (them happening) towards the end of this decade.”

But he cautioned that taking the step to “everywhere, anytime” autonomous driving would take “quite a time gap”.

Mr Zetsche said car companies needed to be careful to manage expectations and fears associated with such new technologies.

He said that on one hand, governments around the world “seem to be in a competition to have a test run of autonomous vehicles”.

On the other, many drivers were suspicious of autonomous driving, concerned that the fun aspect of driving would be taken away and that cars would become “like a shuttle bus”.

“What is surprising to me is, especially in Germany, when you talk about new technologies, 90 per cent of the people talk about the risks and the downsides and the problem it can create,” he said.

Mr Zetsche said that to be fully accepted, autonomous vehicles would need to be capable of “reducing accidents by a factor of 10 or something like that”.

He said that despite the effort Mercedes-Benz was putting into autonomous vehicle technologies, the research and development spend on developing environmentally friendly vehicles – especially electric vehicles – was much bigger.

Mr Zetsche said it was important that Daimler be a technology leader, but in the digital age, that meant changes in the way the company does business.

The company has even rated the tech savvy levels of employees on five levels from “smart phone user” to “tech wiz kid” as part of a plan to better embrace the race to more intelligent cars.

Mr Zetsche joked that he and his fellow board members were definitely not “digital natives”.

In some cases, Daimler is recruiting outsiders to help with this task, while other workers within the company were being trained in these tech fields.

Mr Zetsche said the legal consequences of autonomous cars – and any accidents that might arise – was another area that still needed clarification, along with standardisation of rules.

In Germany, recent Daimler trials have included autonomous trucks on autobahns.

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