Audi, BMW, others frustrated by hurdles slowing launch of self-driving cars

Audi, BMW, others frustrated by hurdles slowing launch of self-driving cars

The Audi A8 has been capable “eyes-off” conditional Level 3 autonomous functionality since its launch in late 2018. Frustration is rising over constricting autonomous driving regulations in Europe, where automakers are still waiting for basic levels of the technology to be approved for sale.

Volkswagen Group’s Audi brand was the first to develop “eyes-off” conditional Level 3 autonomous functionality with the A8 flagship sedan that launched in late 2018. However, the system, called Traffic Jam Pilot, has yet to be approved for sale by regulators.

Daimler is nearing the release of a Mercedes-Benz S class that should offer Level 3 autonomy as soon as it hits the market in 2020, according to executives. (Automation technology is categorized on the SAE International spectrum ranging from Level 0 to Level 5.)

BMW in 2021 is due to debut its iNEXT electric crossover which is expected to be loaded with advanced self-driving features. That is, if engineers such as Alejandro Vukotich can make some headway with Brussels.

The 2017 Automotive News Europe Eurostar led Audi’s autonomous driving program that culminated in the A8’s Traffic Jam Pilot before BMW poached him in January to assist with the iNEXT’s autonomous driving capabilities.

“Take the example of emergency assist, where the car pulls over to the side of the road should the driver become unresponsive. This is better than doing nothing in such an event, but there is no type approval,” Vukotich said.

The only legally safe option for a vehicle in this case is to continue on its trajectory unimpeded regardless of the mayhem that could ensue. Even certain Level 2+ advanced assistance systems that BMW offers in the United States and China, such as hands-off driving at 60 kph, is not allowed in Europe, Vukotich said.
“The legal framework on the requirements for certifying a [Level 3] system for sale in Europe has not been clarified,” he told ANE .

The auto industry’s chief lobbyist is also unhappy with the pace of regulatory progress at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the governing body responsible for setting standards for homologation in much of the world.

“This is a big issue. We need to question whether the approach that Europe has been following until now on homologation for cars is something we can maintain in the future with regards to autonomous vehicles,” said Erik Jonnaert, departing secretary general at ACEA.

At the core of the argument is safety, which is, paradoxically, both hindering and helping the tech. On the one hand, 1.35 million people die around the world in traffic crashes every year: “It’s as if an Airbus A320 with 150 people on board was crashing every hour of every day all year long,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said as a way of putting the need for the technology into perspective.

On the other hand, executives acknowledge that although roughly 90 percent of accidents in Europe are because of human error, an autonomous car not only has to be far better, it needs to be nearly flawless. In March 2018, authorities in Arizona suspended Uber’s ability to test its self-driving cars after one of them hit and killed a woman crossing the street at night. A year later Arizona prosecutors said Uber was not criminally and would not pursue charges, but the incident underlined the risks.

“It has to be 99.999 percent safe,” said Sajjad Khan, the management board member for future technologies including driverless cars at Mercedes-Benz. “I would not give the approval [for an autonomous car] if I was worried that my kids would be playing in the same neighborhood.”

But this isn’t just a matter of regulations such as type approval. Among automakers, the issue of industry standardization is also hotly debated. The reason is simple: limit litigation risks. “The industry underestimated the complexity at the outset,” said Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at chipmaker Nvidia. “More computing, more sensors and more software is required.”

Daimler, BMW, VW, Audi and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles have teamed up with key suppliers such as Aptiv and Continental as well as chipmakers Intel and Infineon to publish an extensive white paper detailing proposals to harmonize aspects of development, testing and validation of autonomous driving technology.

Standards such as ISO 26262 that govern the safety of automotive electric and electronic architectures need to be overhauled.

Part of the problem is that automakers are concerned about their liability in the event of a crash. Negligence by the driver to maintain control of a Level 3 vehicle could contribute to such an event. Therefore, one idea automakers are considering is to focus on robotaxi fleets that may be more sophisticated but are fully operated by the manufacturer itself to ensure each car can be monitored and properly serviced to minimize risks.

That’s why Europe’s automakers are now finally looking at bringing such Level 4+ cars to their home markets for new pilot programs in designated geofenced areas.

“Humans are not predictable. If we were to remove other human road users and their decision-making from the equations it would be a lot easier problem to solve. Therefore, I think we are going to see deployments in places where we can remove that human randomness,” Nvidia’s Shapiro said.

Argo AI, controlled by Ford and Volkswagen jointly, will expand testing next year beyond the its current five U.S. cities to include Europe.

Meanwhile Mercedes’ Khan told ANE that the automaker and partner Robert Bosch are looking to expand beyond their pilot program in San Jose, California. “We also plan to do this in Germany,” said Khan, adding that an announcement to this effect would come “in the very foreseeable future.”

In the industry’s rearview mirror is Krafcik’s Waymo. The nimble, asset-light tech rival stopped Level 3 testing citing safety concerns. Instead Waymo is concentrating on developing a drop-in hardware and software solution that can fully pilot any brand’s vehicle.

Krafcik partnered last year with Jaguar Land Rover to introduce the fifth generation of its so-called “Waymo Driver” into the Jaguar I-Pace, giving variants of the car planned for Waymo’s driverless service all-season sensor capability and a new lidar scanner.

In June, Waymo formed a separate partnership with Renault to bring its driverless vehicles to France. Moving past these pilot programs to actual commercial operation would require a safety driver on board, barring a fundamental change in the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which forms the basis for most vehicle operation laws governing motorists in Europe.

ACEA’s Jonnaert said he was satisfied with the pace of discussions regarding an update to the Vienna Convention to allow driverless vehicles, but he remained very concerned about the more granular aspects of homologation.

Technology tends to be developed faster than detailed regulation. “The risk is that you are always in catch-up mode and it will trigger criticism because some people will say the regulator didn’t do their job,” Jonnaert said.

“We know the [European] Commission wants to move as fast as possible since they, too, are a bit frustrated with the lack of progress at the UNECE. If it does not move fast enough, it’s clear Europe will not wait and start taking action itself.”

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