Autonomous cars "for everyone" as early as 2023? Now VW and Bosch are getting serious
I n the race to catch up with driverless cars, Volkswagen joins forces with supplier giant Bosch. Developers from the two companies are to write software that will make "partially and highly automated driving suitable for the masses and available to everyone," according to a joint announcement.
As early as next year, the first parts of the programs will be used in VW Group vehicles. The goal, he said, is to provide "functions for vehicles of all Group brands that allow drivers to explicitly take their hands off the steering wheel at times".
Strategically, the new partnership is of enormous importance for Volkswagen. The group is lagging behind not only premium suppliers such as Mercedes-Benz and electric car market leader Tesla in assistance systems, but also mass-market rivals such as General Motors.
VW, Tesla, Ford and Co.
The new software is expected to bring "so-called Level 2 ‘hands-free’ systems, for city, country and highway" to cars, plus a system "where the vehicle takes over the complete driving task on the highway". Mercedes will deliver such technology in its new S-Class later this year, after the manufacturer was the first to obtain road approval for it in Germany shortly before Christmas.
Bosch and VW plan to make their software platform for semi-autonomous driving available to other automakers. The development will reportedly involve a combined total of more than 1,000 experts from the two companies, mainly from Wolfsburg, Ingolstadt and Stuttgart.
Dirk Hilgenberg, head of VW’s software subsidiary Cariad, even sees the partnership as a signal for the industrial location: "Automated driving is a key future field for our industry. Through our cooperation, we will jointly strengthen Germany as a location for innovation," he said.
In fact, the greater part of the development of autonomous vehicle systems is currently taking place in the USA and China. There’s not only a whole "ecosystem" of startups working on the technology there, but also more government support. In Chinese cities, for example, test routes for autonomous driving cars are equipped with the appropriate infrastructure, and in the U.S., individual states allow extensive testing of the cars on the roads.
General Motors subsidiary Cruise is testing autonomous driving cabs in California without a driver in the city. The company is one of the pioneers of autonomous driving, but also helps the parent company with semi-autonomous functions.
Next year, GM CEO Mary Barra announced at the CES technology trade show earlier this year that the company plans to introduce a "hands-free" system in production vehicles that will work on all roads in the U.S. and Canada. Those using such an assistant, however, still need to keep their eyes on the road – and will be warned by the car if they stray too long.
Intermediate step to fully self-driving car
It’s an intermediate step toward a completely self-driving car. "We expect Cruise to be the first to enable autonomous driving on a large scale," Barra said. "We aim to deliver our first autonomous vehicles for private customers in the middle of this decade."
Tesla also wants to hand over the wheel completely to the computer. Thousands of customers of Elon Musk’s company in the U.S. use the "Full-Self-Driving" software, which is being permanently improved. Videos on the Internet show them, on the one hand, in situations where the cars safely navigate through heavy traffic in the city or on the highway.
On the other hand, there are videos of the vehicles causing accidents or drivers struggling to avoid a collision. A fierce dispute has erupted in the U.S. over this type of system development with normal customers in regular road traffic. The California DMV is currently examining whether Tesla vehicles should be monitored more closely in light of the risks involved.
Traditional automakers test their systems with professional drivers or beyond public roads and sell them in production vehicles only after they have been approved by authorities. Bosch and VW explicitly point to their decades of experience also in the area of vehicle system approval. "We can also offer the resulting solutions to our other customers and thus set new standards," says Bosch CEO Markus Heyn, who heads the group’s automotive business.
Figures from the Federal Motor Transport Authority
The risk-averse approach makes development at VW, Mercedes and BMW slower than at Tesla. The U.S. competitor also has a head start because it has been working for years with a unified software system for the entire car – and because it collects massive amounts of data from its customers’ vehicles.
Volkswagen is only now starting to do this, even though video and position data are one of the most important foundations for automated systems. "For the development of automated driving, the best school is real road traffic. With the help of one of the largest connected vehicle fleets in the world, we are gaining a huge database to take automated driving systems to the next level," says Mathias Pillin, who heads the Bosch Cross-Domain Computing Solutions division. Real traffic data in real time is to be incorporated into the development. The system gets smarter with every kilometer.
Manufacturers like Tesla have already fed their software with data from many millions of kilometers driven. In the U.S., the few Tesla fans the company offers its "full self-driving" system to for testing pay 12.000 dollars. Others would like to pay for it and are complaining to Elon Musk on Twitter that the Tesla algorithm doesn’t allow them to use it yet.
Consultants believe that billions can be earned from autonomous driving in the future. Jurgen Reers, a partner at Accenture, estimates that the entire market with "digital business models," which includes assistance systems, will be worth 1.5 trillion euros worldwide by 2030.
Auto industry could face tremendous growth
If this is true, then the industry is in for tremendous growth in this area. Car manufacturers who do not have the development capacity themselves would have to buy in the system. At Bosch and Cariad – or at new competitors such as Intel subsidiary Mobileye or chip manufacturer Qualcomm.
In addition to traditional suppliers and car manufacturers, many tech companies are working on software for the car of the future. "New business models are emerging in the auto industry, with a full focus on software. In the future, 90 percent of innovations will come from software," says Reers.