Leveling Up

If vehicle manufacturers and original equipment suppliers were legally allowed to do what is technically feasible, our roads would already be teeming with self-driving trucks and buses. But before this becomes reality, manufacturers must completely master each level of automation.

Despite the enormous progress made in development, there are currently no autonomous vehicles on public roads. Illustration: Mathis Rekowski / 2 Agents (2)

Despite the enormous progress made in development, there are currently no autonomous vehicles on public roads. Illustration: Mathis Rekowski

The competition surrounding the provision of vehicles with artificial intelligence has been raging for years. Only those that can master the coordination of sensors, cameras and an electric infrastructure will be able to release their trucks, buses and other vehicles out onto the open road. Commercial vehicles with automated driving functions are being trialed around the world. The shooting stars of the industry are Alphabet subsidiary Waymo and start-ups Starsky Robotics and Embark from California, who are all working on technologies to automate vehicles for commercial applications. In Sweden, the start-up Einride has developed an autonomous truck that has done away with the driver’s cab entirely. In Shanghai, the heavy-duty truck “Strolling Dragon” from Suning Logistics has successfully completed highly-automated driving maneuvers both on its logistics campus and on the open highway.

It isn’t just startups that are disrupting the conventional commercial vehicle sector. Both truck manufacturers and original equipment suppliers have been working on automated solutions for years and will be sure to have a heavy say in the development of the mass market. In Sweden, Spain and Singapore for example, autonomous trucks built by Scania and Volvo are seeing action. Indeed, not on public roads, but in mining operations and seaports. Daimler brand Freightliner has been operating automated trucks in Las Vegas and its surrounds for more than three years. In Beijing, the Swabian commercial vehicle brand has been testing highly-automated truck systems in complex traffic scenarios. Progress has been enormous, yet there are still no autonomous vehicles on public roads, operating in everyday situations. Even the most advanced autonomous trucks are still supervised by a driver inside, who is ready to take control back from the computer if the conditions demand it.

The 6 Levels of Automation

The Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined a  staged model to classify a system’s degree of automation.

The Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined a  staged model to classify a system’s degree of automation. Graphics: SAE

These are the 6 Levels of Automation. Graphics: SAE

Room for further development

Both the competition and the challenges are great, and the evolution of autonomous mobility appears to follow the same laws as a computer game: in order to access the highest level, every preceding level must have been mastered beforehand. The tasks get more difficult as the levels progress. One obstacle is the approval to drive on public roads. There are great differences here, not just between competitors, but also in the legal frameworks of different countries. For example, even if permission to trial has already been granted in California, it is still necessary to go through the process again for Beijing and Berlin. In Germany, legislators have created the legal basis for trialing level-three and level-four automated vehicles – which constitute highly- and fully-automated vehicles. This was passed on June 21, 2017 as an amendment to the German Road Traffic Act. Only through this change was the door opened for further development.

MAN has two lorries networked to a platoon in test operation on the A9 motorway. Photo: MAN

MAN has trialed two trucks networked as a platoon on the A9 motorway. Photo: MAN

Current trucks feature assistance systems that avoid collisions and are able to maintain lane discipline and distance from the vehicle in front. These functions only correspond with level-two automated driving. At this level, the driver can temporarily transfer control of driving functions, so long as they maintain supervision and can immediately take back control if necessary. One application for this technology is already in sight. The practice of “platooning” involves an electronically-controlled group of partially-automated trucks, driving in convoy with small distances between them. If the driver in the leading truck applies the brakes, the brakes of the following vehicle are also automatically applied with minimal delay. The success of this approach has been demonstrated by MAN using two vehicles on the Digital Freeway Test Field (DTA) on the A 9 Autobahn between Munich and Nuremberg. While the approach will initially suit real-world applications on German roads – with their heavy traffic and tight network of intersections – the purpose of this trial is to discover how automated trucks can benefit from the intelligent exchange of data in managing difficult driving situations such as overtaking maneuvers and merging.

The ZF Innovation Truck – built by the original automotive parts supplier from Friedrichshafen – is also standing by with its special talent for communication. In addition to state-of-the-art assistance systems, the technological flagship has on-board artificial intelligence, which can network with a range of sensors and cameras in a depot. The driver can park the partially-automated truck in the yard and exit the vehicle. All subsequent tasks, such as starting up, maneuvering and positioning in the loading bay, engaging a swap-body and returning to the original parking location are then taken care of autonomously. Even outside of the public sphere, the driverless truck is already demonstrating the power and potential applications of the new technology. In real-world applications, the system would allow the driver to take a break earlier, and avoid losing valuable time for the job on the road. Before the highest level of automation can be attained, and the entire road network conquered, there are two huge hurdles to overcome: an internationally-applicable legal framework, and a one-hundred-percent reliable data network.

ZF Innovation Truck demonstrates the possibilities of an automated depot. By means of communication with various sensors, logistical processes run autonomously. Photo: ZF

ZF Innovation Truck demonstrates the possibilities of an automated depot. Through the communication with various sensors, logistical processes are performed autonomously. Photo: ZF

3 Questions for Frank Leimbach, Head of Technical Affairs at DEKRA

Dipl.-Ing. Frank Leimbach, Head of Corporate Representation Technical Affairs at DEKRA. Photo: DEKRA

Dipl.-Ing. Frank Leimbach, Head of Technical Affairs at DEKRA. Photo: DEKRA

Electronic driver assistance systems represent a large step in the development of automated vehicles. What role is DEKRA playing?

DEKRA sits on a variety of select committees, including for the United Nations (UNECE). Topics here include autonomous driving and cyber security. We act as a consultant for international legislators. […]

What does the increase in automation mean for vehicle inspections?

Even highly-automated vehicles have mechanical components. […] These will still be closely examined by the test engineer. In addition, the electronics that enable autonomous driving will also be rigorously tested. […] The usage of information from the vehicle will therefore increase in value. We will assess far more data from the vehicle than we have to date. […] Due to future wireless software update possibilities, many more variants will be created, and in shorter time periods. This means that access to the data will be indispensable for regular inspections.

Will there be new concepts for the ­general inspection? What is the situation with type approvals?

The type approval ensures that only tested and approved systems and vehicles are permitted out on the open road. A vehicle that the manufacturer presents one day can be an entirely different one the next, if new, safety-relevant functions are installed via a software update. The general inspection ensures that traffic safety is maintained throughout the vehicle’s operational life. Increased cyber security demands in the future will mean that hardware will need to be upgraded or replaced after just a few years, and therefore also require new certification. […]

Find the complete interview here.


Overview of Autonomous Vehicle Legislation

The 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic decrees that a human must always be in control of the vehicle. The usage of self-driving vehicles is illegal almost everywhere, if without explicit permission from the state. Regulations vary internationally, however, more and more countries are issuing approvals to trial autonomous driving technology on public roads.

Overview of Autonomous Vehicle Legislation. Photo: Agenten - Mathis Rekowski

Overview of Autonomous Vehicle Legislation. Photo: Mathis Rekowski

Arizona: Governor Ducey gave the green light for cars without drivers to operate on public roads in 2018.
California: In 2018, DMV allowed fully autonomous vehicles with no driver to operate on its public roads.
China: Shanghai issued its first self-driving licenses in 2018.
Germany: Parliament passed a law last May that allows companies to test self-driving cars on public roads.
Netherlands: Council of Ministers first approved driverless vehicle road testing in 2015.
New Zealand: The country has no specific legal requirements for cars to have drivers.
Singapore: Passed legislation recognizing motor vehicles don’t require a human driver.
South Korea: The K-City is the largest town model ever built for self-driving car experimentation.
Sweden: Last December, Volvo launched its Drive Me project, which provided self-driving cars to a ­number of people.
UK: The government passed a bill to draw up liability and insurance policies for autonomous vehicles.
US: 33 states accommodate self-driving vehicles on public roads.

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