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Watch movies while driving? That's how far autonomous driving really is

Reading or watching a film in stop-and-go traffic? This is not only allowed as a passenger or on the back seat, but also behind the steering wheel if the car has the appropriate technical equipment.

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Watch movies while driving? That's how far autonomous driving really is

Reading or watching a film in stop-and-go traffic? This is not only allowed as a passenger or on the back seat, but also behind the steering wheel if the car has the appropriate technical equipment.

This is possible, for example, in the current S-Class from Mercedes: It drives "highly automated" at level 3 - according to the relevant classification of the organization SAE International.

This means that the driver can hand over the steering wheel and responsibility to the car, but must be able to take over the task of driving again at short notice if the system requests it. BMW offers Level 2 in the new 7 Series. The car drives itself, but one person behind the wheel remains responsible for monitoring the traffic situation.

As far as automated driving is concerned, such cars are technological beacons. But will we all soon be being driven around in our own cars? Or will it become a problem when more and more automated cars are still being driven by people?

It will initially take at least another ten years for Level 3 driving assistants to become established, says Professor Markus Lienkamp from the Chair of Vehicle Technology at the Technical University of Munich (TUM).

“The sensors and cameras alone cost between 3,000 and 4,000 euros, the selling price of the traffic jam pilot as an option is around 6,000 euros. From a purely economic point of view, this will not pay off for compact and small cars in the next few years,” says Lienkamp.

Andreas Rigling, who heads the test center for active vehicle safety at ADAC, does not expect a breakthrough for Level 3 vehicles anytime soon: "Only when these assistance systems work absolutely safely at speeds of around 130 km/h will they be used as a rule and not as before the exception."

Theoretically, speeds of up to 130 km/h have been permitted at Level 3 since the beginning of the year, but the manufacturers still lack approval for the higher speed. The cars on the market currently drive automated at a maximum of 60 kilometers per hour.

Automated driving in Germany has so far been limited to certain traffic situations on the Autobahn, such as traffic jams. In the USA, some states allow the operation of autonomous vehicles on the road.

Other EU countries, on the other hand, still require a responsible driver in every vehicle. According to Level 2 Rigling, this could become a challenge: there is a risk that drivers will rely too much on assistance systems, even though they remain fully responsible at all times. In addition, there is no real advantage, since the driver must continue to look at the road.

Jan Becker is also an expert in autonomous driving. He teaches on this topic at Stanford University and has developed operating software for automated cars with his company Apex.AI.

He sees the traffic jam assistant as more of a comfort feature: "It's not really necessary." An authority will therefore not generally prescribe the system, unlike ABS or ESP. This will not serve to spread it quickly either.

Due to the complex technology, retrofitting seems to be only a theoretical option. "The effort is far too high," says Professor Lienkamp. It is technically possible to equip existing vehicles accordingly. But it is hopeless. Redundant "safety-relevant systems" would have to be retrofitted for the steering, brakes and control units.

Automated driving does not seem to have any great benefit for private cars anyway. Lienkamp says: "From an economic point of view, automated driving makes more sense for robotic vehicles, public buses or trucks." In other words, for commercial vehicles that are in operation for many hours a day.

But even if automated vehicles should prevail, Andreas Rigling estimates that they will probably never be completely alone: ​​"There will always be mixed traffic on the streets, if only because of oldtimers."

According to Professor Lienkamp, ​​the fact that humans and machines interpret the traffic rules differently could become a fundamental problem: "Natural human driving often deviates from the traffic rules."

Computer-controlled cars are more precise. But what can also be an advantage: For example, in stop-and-go traffic, a computer system would close gaps more quickly and thus counteract traffic jams.

So-called Car-to-X communication promises more harmony. Cars and traffic systems, such as traffic lights, can share information about traffic and road conditions with each other. And drivers or systems react accordingly.

But it will be years before everything works smoothly and the right infrastructure is in place. “The automotive industry has not yet committed itself to any standard. It has not yet been decided whether the communication will later take place via WLAN or 5G," complains Professor Lienkamp.

For highly automated vehicles, this doesn't matter at first: they have to be so sure that they can get by on their own - autonomously.

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