Autonomous Driving

Autonomous or self-driving vehicles are being increasingly treated as a trailblazing technology of the future. The question is, what does »autonomous« really mean, and what will it take to make autonomous driving safe and efficient?

5 levels of autonomous driving

Most new automobiles are already automated in certain areas, beginning with standard-equipment driver assistance systems (DAS). In the future however, we will see completely autonomous vehicles on the streets.

Autonomous vehicles are usually separated into five levels based on the Society of Automotive Engineers classification system:

  • Level 1 driver assistance: This already includes automobiles with conventional cruise control systems.
  • Level 2 partial automation: The vehicle can change lanes or brake on its own in situations defined by the manufacturer. Parking assistants are also part of level 2 functions.
  • Level 3 conditional automation: Highly-automated vehicles can overtake, brake and accelerate on their own depending on the traffic situation. During this time, drivers can even read the newspaper, although they still have to be able to take control of the vehicle again if the system issues an alarm.
  • Level 4 high automation: At this level, the vehicle takes over all driving functions. This includes tasks such as entering a highway, activating turn signals and overtaking. At this level, drivers can even sleep while the vehicle operates autonomously.
  • Level 5 full automation: With autonomous vehicles, the passenger assumes no driving tasks and has no opportunity to intercede in the driving situation. The vehicle handles extremely complex driving situations such as autonomously traversing an intersection. These vehicles can also operate without passengers.

Current status: How much autonomy is permitted on our roads at the moment?

To date, Germany has allowed only level 2 (partial automation) assistants. Considerable hurdles exist between level 2 and level 3. On one hand, faulty autonomous system behavior raises new legal questions. On the other hand, beginning with level 3 the system must be capable of monitoring the driving environment on its own and reacting to any changes. Extensive research is still required before this condition can be reliably satisfied. 

Chancen und Risiken: Autonome Fahrzeuge lassen sich vielseitig einsetzen

Die Einsatzgebiete automatisierter oder autonomer Fahrzeuge sind vielfältig. Im Personenverkehr sind zwei Szenarien denkbar:

  • shared autonomy durch automatisierte oder autonome Taxis und Busse und
  • owned autonomy in Form von privat genutzten autonomen Autos.

Neben dem Personenverkehr wird das autonome Fahren auch viele weitere Wirtschaftszweige prägen. In der Landwirtschaft können autonome Fahrzeuge und Maschinen den Personalbedarf senken und die Effizienz steigern.

In der Industrie können autonome Trucks beispielsweise bei Frachthäfen oder in Minen gefährliche oder monotone Aufgaben übernehmen. Autonome Lastwagen können in Konvoys auf Autobahnen Waren effizienter und ohne Fahrer von A nach B transportieren.

Neben den erwähnten rechtlichen Fragen ist ein besonders entscheidender Punkt die Verlässlichkeit der Systeme. Im Straßenverkehr geht es um Menschenleben. Nur wenn autonome Fahrzeuge fehlerfrei funktionieren, können die großen Potentiale des autonomen Fahrens genutzt werden.

Dependable cognitive systems for autonomous driving

When it comes to autonomous driving, the greatest challenge involves generating and processing information, and then reacting accordingly.

Today, autonomous vehicles function reasonably well in test situations since the conditions are severely restricted and thus easy to manage. A key issue however is how to design autonomous vehicles so that they operate dependably even in difficult environments, such as normal road traffic.

If the system is not in a position to create a precise model of the driving situation in bad weather conditions for instance, the vehicle cannot be allowed to continue to operate. The system must be able to monitor itself and evaluate its own state and level of dependability while continuing to operate under these restrictions.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Cognitive Systems IKS offers solutions that permit autonomous vehicles to function dependably, in spite of difficult conditions or errors, thus ensuring that no one is exposed to danger. The goal is to create a thoroughly verified, intelligent software architecture for the automobile - a so-called resilient cognitive system.