Company has ‘no intention of stepping aside’ and letting tech companies take over the car market of the future, says Daimler’s autonomous driving lead engineer
Mercedes of course has the longest history of any automaker in the world, having built the first ever car in 1879, when Carl Benz created the “Motorwagen”.
It might look like a fancy tricycle, but the Motorwagen was the first wheeled vehicle to feature a gasoline engine – a one-cylinder two-stroke unit which generated 0.75 horsepower, or 0.55 of a kilowatt.
Most cars these days have around 80 to 90 horsepower.
Benz patented his “vehicle powered by a gas engine” in 1886, and the rest is auto history.
The Benz Patent Motorwagen made its first long-distance journey in 1888, when it was driven from Mannheim to Pforzheim, in Germany, by Benz himself, with his wife, Bertha, and two sons as passengers.
The route is now part of Mercedes-Benz company history, and is sometimes referred to as the “Bertha Benz Route”.
I am the passenger, and I ride and I ride
More than a century after the Benz gas-powered tricycle, the world idles on the precipice of a new age in which humans could all become passengers, with artificial intelligence as the driver.
Even before the driverless cars make their much-heralded appearance en masse, advanced autonomous driving systems are already taking over the driving tasks of many new cars.
All major automakers are always in a fierce competition with each other, but now a whole new field of play has been opened up by autonomous technology, and the top marques are falling over themselves to persuade the public that they have the most advanced driver assistance systems.
And in this exclusive interview, Professor Dr Ralf Herrtwich, lead engineer on autonomous driving for Daimler, says it is his company which has the most advanced automation technology, “probably”.
The massive interest and hype surrounding AI-driven fully autonomous vehicles might make one believe that driverless car culture is an inevitability, particularly with reports that Beverly Hills, probably the most famous posh neighbourhood in the US, is to introduce driverless cars for public transport.
Singapore and other parts of the world are also integrating driverless cars into their public transit systems. But, in a way, none of that counts because public transportation has a reasonably established history with autonomous vehicles.
In the UK, for example, the financial district of London has had driverless light railway trains since 1987. Other metropolitan cities around the world also have fully automated vehicles, and governments are increasingly encouraging the development of intelligent transport systems.
But a centrally controlled public transport system, no matter how intelligent – featuring trains on rails or buses on set routes, perhaps aided by bus-only lanes – is one thing; a driverless car that can go anywhere in any direction at any time is another thing entirely. And it’s not just a question of whether the driverless car can move around well enough by itself, it’s also the issue of the hundreds of vehicles and other potential hazards that it would have to navigate on more or less every journey.
As one roboticist puts it, “It’s not a trivial matter.”
If you build it, they will come
Some surveys suggest that while many technologists believe driverless or fully autonomous vehicles are inevitable, the public isn’t convinced, with many questioning whether AI really will be safer than human drivers, as their proponents say they will be.
Moreover, local and national governments and regulators are struggling to define clear and consistent legal frameworks for driverless cars.
Therefore, some people think that, while there will definitely be higher levels of autonomous technology in cars, fully autonomous cars might never actually happen.
We asked Professor Herrtwich for his thoughts.
Herrtwich’s official title is director of driver assistance and chassis systems. He creates self-driving cars for Mercedes-Benz. In 2013, his team made an S-Class re-enact the world’s first overland drive, covering the historic 65-miles Bertha Benz Route autonomously in regular traffic.
On whether fully autonomous driverless cars will be part of our eventual history, Herttwich says: “Obviously no one has a crystal ball in which the future is clear to see. The only way to predict the future is to actually build it yourself. And that is what we are trying to do when it comes to autonomous driving.
“We follow our vision step by step by adding more and more automation as we progress with our models. Eventually we do want to build fully self-driving cars that might look like our research vehicle the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion.”
Infinite loops within the space-time continuum
In the past, it might have surprised some to discover that Herrtwich is a computer scientist by education, and held management positions at IBM and several telecommunications companies, given that he’s now lead engineer at Daimler.
But it’s all about the zeros and ones these days – the binaries, the values, the arguments, the if-then statements, and the do-this-that-and-the-other loops. And Herrtwich knows plenty about those, which might explain his confidence in fully autonomous cars and Mercedes’ place in the race to build mass-production models.
“We are totally committed to this goal and strongly believe that we will reach it in the not-too-distant future,” says Herrtwich, whose expertise includes telematics and in-car infotainment systems.
“Even though there might be certain weather situations or extremely remote areas where self-driving features will not be available initially, such cases will occur less and less over time.
“The reason why we believe so strongly in the concept of cars like the F 015 is simple: time and space will become the luxury goods of the future and such a car offers just that – time to do other things while getting from A to B all within the comfort of your own personal space.”
Probably the best larder in the world
If you don’t have to drive the car of the future, you might want to use it as a larder. Keep a mini-fridge in there to keep your drinks cool and enjoy a little snack while you read something on your iPad. Driverless cars could become the most expensive refridgerators in the world, enabling a revolution in picnicking, and keep you cool at the same time.
In the future, everyone can have a chauffeur-driven car without the expense of employing a chauffeur – not a human one anyway.
But for now, when it comes to chauffeur-driven cars, one of the most popular choices of wheels is the Mercedes Maybach, which cost upwards of $150,000 each. If you’ve got that kind of money, maybe you can afford a human chauffeur. But then, perhaps you don’t want to compromise on your privacy by having anyone else in the car at all.
The ka-ching and AI
Mercedes has demonstrated both autonomous cars and autonomous trucks in recent years. From an outsider’s point of view, it looks like the entire company is undergoing a massive transformation in the way it thinks about cars – from previously thinking of a human driver as being central when designing and building a vehicle, to currently thinking of the computer or AI as being central.
We asked Herrtwich to describe what changes are occurring at Mercedes in this respect. Is there a change of mindset happening at Mercedes, and possibly adjustments in the design and development processes, with computing becoming much more significant?
Herrtwich says: “Digital transformation at Mercedes-Benz is not something that lies ahead of us – it is something that we have actively pursued now for years and years.
“We installed probably the most advanced automation features in a production car ever, the Drive Pilot in our new E-Class. This is just the tip of the iceberg to show that we have no intention at all to just step aside and let others lead in automotive innovation.
“We have been able to do this for 130 years now. But only because we realized that our successes of the past are in no way a guarantee for our success in the future. And because we made it our habit to constantly challenge our approaches and to look for the next big thing rather than to continue with what we did before.
“Much of our thrust towards self-driving vehicles and new mobility approaches comes from this. And with it goes an investment in software development and artificial intelligence that you probably will not find at any other OEM [original equipment manufacturer].”
The ultimate driving ambition
It is commonly known that the computing power contained within mass-produced cars even in the 1980s surpassed the computing power required to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. But Herrtwich shares a joke that the reason for this is quite simple.
“A former colleague of mine who was instrumental in setting up our software development processes at Mercedes-Benz years ago used to make the joke that obviously we need more computing power in cars today than it took to get to the moon because Apollo did not have electric windows.”
But seriously, does Mercedes feel a little bit behind the times, playing catch-up in this new race towards the new moon of autonomy? Meaning, when it comes to computer and AI systems, people might tend to think of Silicon Valley, in the US, and the great tech giants, not so much the German industrial conglomerates.
Herrtwich disagrees. “What many people do not realize is that while building cars still may be a mainly mechanical process, developing cars is not – neither by its tools, nor by much of its content.
“Both at OEMs and suppliers, software engineering and coding constitute a huge and ever-growing portion of the work. In our autonomous cars, the algorithms that turn sensor signals into a smooth ride are programmed in-house – and they make all the difference.
“But what makes them extra special are two things,” he says.
“First, we apply everything that we learnt and know about functional safety and reliability to our software development efforts, making sure that we implement features in a way that hold no unpleasant surprises for our customers.
“After all, they want the safest and most comfortable vehicle that money can buy.
“Second, we fine-tune the combination of software and vehicle hardware so that the resulting product becomes the perfect blend of all engineering disciplines – so much more than just a piece of code on an arbitrary platform.”
We choose to do the other things
Maybe the tech giants of Silicon Valley are ahead of everyone when it comes to developing software – which would not be surprising since it’s their main activity.
But the mechanics of making a car – the hardware, the engineering, the physical automaking – is something the engineers of Allemagne have been doing for a long time.
It was an engineer at industrial robot maker Yaskwawa, Tetsuo Mori, who first coined the phrase “mechatronics”, to describe a newly emerging field of technology which combined mechanics with electronics.
The word was initially patented by Yaskawa, but the company subsequently released it to public usage, and now mechatronics means a variety of things including computer engineering.
And mechatronics might be the word that becomes increasingly the most appropriate to use, as car companies on the one side and computer technology companies on the other both meet in the middle to create the driverless car of the future.
Is mechanics more important than computing? Perhaps it’s a pointless question since both function together in a car even today, and will increasingly do so in the future, when we can all choose to go to the moon and do the other things because each and every one of us will have a driverless Maybach that can take us to our nearest interstellar transport hub, where we can catch the next robotic spacecraft to the Sea of Tranquility, just so we can have a picnic.