The Concord Naval Weapons Station north of San Francisco has a turbulent history. During World War II, a ship exploded at the arms storage depot, killing hundreds and leading to a controversial mutiny trial.
During the 1980s, the folk singer Joan Baez and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson demonstrated outside the station against President Ronald Reagan and U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Today, a Mercedes is speeding along the vast tract of land, where more than three square miles are closed to the public. It looks like a ghost town, but the streets, traffic lights and buildings are intact – ideal conditions to test self-driving cars “in breakneck situations,” explains Axel Gem, head of Mercedes’ research on autonomous vehicles. The Stuttgart-based company already has two self-driving cars driving the real streets of California.
While Germany is caught up in hashing out the legalities of self-driving cars, many Americans consider it a done deal. The states of Arizona, California, Florida and Michigan already permit cars driven by cameras, radar and sensors on highways or city streets. There are only a few preconditions: The driver must be able to intervene in an emergency, and the vehicle must be insured for $5 million.
What still looks like science fiction will soon be reality.
It is fitting that California-based Tesla, the pioneer of electric cars, introduced a new version of its luxury sedan in Palo Alto this week – with a bigger engine, four-wheel drive and some self-driving systems. “We are the leaders,” said Tesla founder Elon Musk, who has already shaken up the industry with its battery-run vehicles.
Next year he plans to market a model that can independently guide itself over “90 percent of driven miles.” What still looks like science fiction will soon be reality. Companies such as Tesla and Google are pushing the transformation forward quickly on their home turf – and established manufacturers such as Audi and Mercedes have no choice but to go west.
Two weeks ago in California, Audi, Mercedes and Google received permission to maneuver down public streets with self-driving cars. Audi and Mercedes have two cars each. Google together with Lexus is putting 25 SUVs on the road.
How serious the Germans are is demonstrated by the fact that the head of Daimler himself, Dieter Zetsche, delivered the keynote address last January at the International CES electronics and technology trade show in Las Vegas. Earlier it was only IT specialists, video-game players and mobile telephone managers who participated. Now attendance at CES is mandatory for carmakers.
The Germans don’t consider themselves to be behind in the race. At the Mercedes Benz Research and Development Center in Sunnyvale, Calif., Daimler is experimenting with the new technologies. Ever since 1996, it has maintained an office there – first as a listening post in the technical wonderland of Silicon Valley, and now to work with software firms headquartered there. Daimler is collaborating with Google through the thermostat manufacturer Nest, whose technology is included in the infotainment system in new Mercedes cars. In the C-class, the driver can use Apple’s iPhone to navigate or post on social networks such as Facebook.
The Germans don’t consider themselves to be behind in the race.
“(It is) a great challenge to integrate technological transformation, with its rapid pace of change, into a car that is intended to last a minimum of 10 years,” said Herbert Kohler, head of Daimler’s E-Drive & Future Mobility division at Sindelfingen near Stuttgart. “We could of course be quicker, but safety must always be the priority. That’s why we cannot simply put into practice what is technically possible in some areas.”
Indeed, technology still has its limits. For example, snow or heavy rain can disrupt self-driving software, which does not yet, for instance, recognize potholes. If the Sun is low on the horizon, it can blind the cameras. New street signs not indicated on the map or temporary construction sites can confuse the systems.
But for Chris Urmson, director of Google’s automotive team, these problems can be solved. When his now 11-year-old son turns 16 and can get his driver’s license, self-driving technology should be ready to go into mass production, he said. “That is my personal deadline,” said Mr. Urmson.
The large German auto parts suppliers – Bosch, Continental and ZF – are also profiting from the move to automatic driving. Robot cars are stuffed with sensors, chips and control systems. Bosch builds all three components itself and is the only auto parts maker testing its own vehicle on public roads in Germany.
Continental is also involved. It provides the camera technology for Daimler’s experimental vehicle, which during the 2013 IAA auto show drove on its own for about 55 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim. And Tesla’s electronic steering is built by ZF Lenksysteme.
“We could of course be quicker, but safety must always be the priority. ”
Auto parts specialists are confident about their future, and don’t see electric-car manufacturers and Internet giants as a threat. “I consider Tesla and Google to be customers of Bosch,” said Volkmar Denner, chief executive of Bosch, during a recent interview with Handelsblatt.
No figures are available concerning the suppliers’ share in the new technology. But Bosch, the world’s largest auto-parts maker, was involved in self-driving cars that both Google and Tesla recently introduced.
All developments in driver-assistance systems are considered steps along the way to automated driving. Daimler built its own traffic-jam assistant in the new S-class, relying on sensors from Bosch and Continental. In early 2015, a car manufacturer will for the first time include a traffic-jam assistant built entirely by Bosch. It will be able to keep the car at a safe distance from the vehicle in front at speeds of up to 60 kmh (35 mph). At the same time, Bosch will make fully automated parking possible: The driver will be able to stand next to the vehicle and guide it with a smartphone.
Things will really get exciting in 2018, when automated, high-speed driving becomes possible by a highway pilot that can take over steering and braking.
It will be far into the next decade before automatic pilots are allowed in inner cities, and many questions about laws and insurance must first be resolved. But the self-driving race will ultimately be won by electronics and especially by the best software – so auto-parts suppliers are in fast pursuit along that road.