Together with his research team and regional partners, Prof. Frank Gauterin is shaping the autonomous future of automobility by testing the vision of autonomous driving.

Practically everyone has experienced it: you get into a car accident through no fault of your own. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, around 2.5 million accidents occur on German roads every year. One of the main reasons for these accidents is human error of the person causing the accident, such as inattention, incorrect driving behavior or inability to react due to acute health problems. Over the years, the automotive industry has developed technical solutions to prevent accidents or at least minimize the consequences of accidents: from seat belts and crumple zones to electronic stability systems and parking sensors to automated brake support or distance control. Despite sophisticated assistance systems, accident statistics have been stagnating for several years, and the number of accidents is not declining any further. This is where technology reaches its limits, because the human behind the wheel remains as an uncertainty factor.

"Instead of relying solely on humans, vehicles – cars, buses, trains and commercial vehicles – will talk to each other. Not only with each other, but also with the entire infrastructure. Such machine communication will ultimately ensure greater road safety, less congestion and more energy-efficient driving." This is the image Prof. Frank Gauterin, head of the Institute of Vehicle Technology at KIT, has in mind for the mobile future. He uses it to describe the basic idea of autonomous driving, in which a vehicle collects data about its surroundings, exchanges it with other automobiles and makes self-determined driving decisions based on the data collection. An unsettling future scenario for some, but an undisputed evolution of mobility for others. This is not just about automated control of a vehicle, it rather means rethinking many areas of everyday life where traffic or transportation plays a role.

"By setting up and operating the Autonomous Driving test field, we can make a significant contribution to the mobility of the future. Mobility needs intelligent, environmentally friendly and social solutions. The region from Karlsruhe to Bruchsal to Heilbronn offers the best conditions for their development."

Ph. D. Frank Mentrup

In local public transport, transportation and delivery or parking services, there are already many ideas on how autonomous, automated driving could be used to improve things. Conceivable examples include autonomous minibuses from the last stop of the regular service to one's own front door, automated overnight parcel delivery or self-initiated refueling of electric cars, if the battery level is low. But what’s the effort about good ideas on paper if you can't try them under real conditions – especially in a subject that many people still refuse to trust. The highways around Karlsruhe, but also the inner-city traffic axes, are known for their high traffic volume and are thus virtually a hotspot for accident risk. In combination with the urban structures of the city, Karlsruhe becomes the place where Prof. Gauterin's ideas go from paper to reality. Together with his research team and regional partners from research, cities and business, the consortium was given the unique opportunity to set up an extensive test field. The region from Karlsruhe to Bruchsal to Heilbronn was selected by the state as a pioneer region for autonomous driving: "In the test field for Autonomous Driving Baden-Wuerttemberg project, we are working together on technical solutions, an intelligent infrastructure and new mobility concepts under real conditions," explains Prof. Gauterin.

The entire test field covers inner-city areas, routes outside the city as well as expressways, tunnel roads and highways in the area from Karlsruhe via Bruchsal to Heilbronn. Once the test field has been successfully set up by 2018, it will also be open as a contact point for established companies and young start-ups - new technologies and business models can be tested on a living system. "The aim is not only to improve and test vehicles, but also to further develop the entire mobility system - from the technical infrastructure to local public transport and new logistics concepts."

However, Prof. Gauterin takes a realistic view: "The switch to automated driving will not take place overnight – It will be a gradual development for which not all technical issues have been resolved yet. With the Karlsruhe test field, however, we have the opportunity to prepare innovations," affirms Prof. Gauterin.

Pioneers in the test field for autonomous driving

Since 2016, the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg has been funding the test field for autonomous driving with 2.5 million euros. The project consortium consists of the cities of Karlsruhe, Bruchsal and Heilbronn as well as the research institutions FZI Forschungszentrum Informatik at KIT (consortium leader), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation (IOSB) and Heilbronn University. The goal of all partners is to have the test field up and running by the end of 2017 and it is being supported by a large number of partners from industry and science in Baden-Wuerttemberg and beyond. The operation with security control center, IT administration, sales, accounting and controlling is made possible by the Karlsruher Verkehrsverbund (KVV) as an external and neutral operating company. The consortium itself and the partners are also contributing their own funds of around 4.2 million euros to the project.


Ph. D. Frank Mentrup has been Lord Mayor of Karlsruhe since 2013. He was very involved in the "Baden-Wuerttemberg Autonomous Driving Test Field" project during the application phase and chalked it up as a personal success leading to Karlsruhe winning the contract agains strong competition.

Dr. Frank Mentrup (Foto: Michael Bohnert)
Dr. Frank Mentrup (Foto: Michael Bohnert)

Ph. D. Mentrup, what personally fascinates you about the future vision of autonomous driving?

Taking your hands off the wheel is, of course, unusual at first. But when Carl Benz, an automotive pioneer from Karlsruhe, registered his first patent motor car in 1886, many people were also skeptical about this noisy and smelly vehicle. Now the development of mobility is once again at an important turning point. Many things are revolutionary new and promise to increase safety, comfort and time savings, but many things still need to be tested and clarified. The Bundesrat and Bundestag are currently discussing a draft law on automated driving. Autopilots have not yet reached the point where a driver is no longer required and all the people in the car are just passengers. In addition, urban traffic also includes streetcars, bicycles and pedestrians. And they all need to be able to feel safe.

When will the first autonomous car be seen in Karlsruhe's cityscape?

They are already on the road. The FZI Research Center for Information Technology has been testing assistance systems here for many years that support parking or master routine situations independently, for example. With its three autonomously driving vehicles, the FZI is now among the world leaders in research. But of course there is always a safety driver on board. Incidentally, this also applies to all vehicles being tested in the test field area by research institutions or companies. Vehicles with autopilot for everyone – from Tesla or Mercedes, for example – have been on the market since last year and are already on our roads. That's why it's important to clarify as soon as possible at the federal level how the interaction between the driver and highly or fully automated driving functions needs to be regulated. Who or what is ultimately responsible? The issues of safety, legal framework and data protection are of course also on our minds as we set up the test field.

What did your support look like during the application phase? What levers did you set in motion with the approval of the local council?

In the region of Karlsruhe, numerous research institutions and companies have long been working on solutions for environmentally friendly, fast and safe mobility. These were ideal conditions for taking part in the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry of Finance and Economics' call for bids to set up a test field for connected and automated driving. I was very pleased that we were able to bring all the players – including those from Bruchsal and Heilbronn – to the table in the very first month of the tender and thus form a consortium of applicants as early as the beginning of 2016. As mayor of Karlsruhe, it was also important for me to involve our local council. In April of last year – shortly before we submitted our application – it agreed that the city would provide a total of 190,000 euros for the project. Karlsruhe is supporting the development of the test field by providing special equipment for traffic light systems, personnel resources and the expansion of the free KA-WLAN Internet service. In addition, as a co-partner of the Karlsruhe Transport Association, we are ensuring the operation of the test field by assuming any deficit as well as the liability risk for the runtime guarantee of five years. In the course of the application, all of us – including representatives of the research institutes, the KVV and me as the head of the city – went to Stuttgart to present our project to the ministry. Successfully, because we were able to convince them with our ideas.

From your point ofview, what opportunities does the test field open up for the entire Karlsruhe region, or even for the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg?

The establishment and operation of the Autonomous Driving Test Field Baden-Wuerttemberg makes an important contribution to the further development of mobility. After all, digitization opens up many opportunities to make mobility more environmentally friendly, faster and safer. This is crucial for the future of our cities and regions. Companies and research institutions can test future-oriented technologies and services related to connected and automated driving on the test field in a technology-open and company-independent manner. We are focusing not only on private transport, but also on buses and commercial vehicles such as street cleaning and delivery services. After all, autonomous driving should not lead to more individual traffic but to more public transport and contribute to a positive environmental balance. In addition, small and medium-sized enterprises will also benefit from the test field and the establishment of companies from the mobility and ICT sectors will be favored.

What could concrete applications of such automated solutions look like that would bring citizens even more quality of life, for example in local public transport or logistics?

It would be fascinating if, in the not too distant future, we could use our smartphones to decide how to get from A to B in the fastest and most environmentally friendly way: Whether by self-driving electric car from the sharing pool, by autonomous public transport shuttle, by rental bike and streetcar, or by an intelligent combination of different means of transport. An app books and bills, networked autonomous vehicles of all kinds warn each other of collisions and control systems guarantee compliance with traffic rules. In addition, autonomously driving transport systems could deliver food and goods around the clock. So ideally, automated solutions will help us to have more free time in the future, to get around more safely, to be more flexible and also to be able to look after ourselves more easily.


Autonomous driving – a term that is currently becoming a technology trend in the automotive sector. But what does it actually mean? When does a vehicle become autonomous or automated? Which tasks does the vehicle perform independently? What role do humans still play behind the wheel? Experts from ministries and working groups addressed these pressing questions as a result of the increasing autonomization in vehicle construction. By consensus, six levels* of automated driving functions can be summarized, from driver-controlled to complete autonomy of the automobile.

*Source: Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI), Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt), ADAC e. V.


Prof. Gauterin has been working at KIT since 2006 and has since led the Institute of Vehicle Systems Technology (FAST) as well as the Institute's Chair of Vehicle Technology. In addition, he is speaker of the KIT Mobility Systems Center and of the Karlsruhe Mobility Systems Profile Region.

Born in Pforzheim, he studied physics at the University of Muenster and finally obtained his Ph. D. at the University of Oldenburg. After five years as a research associate at the Westphalian Wilhelms University of Muenster, Prof. Gauterin gained valuable experience in industry for more than 15 years. He passed through various positions in research and development at Continental AG, a large, internationally active automotive supplier. Most recently, he was director in the area of noise and vibration comfort and traffic noise with locations in Germany, the USA and Malaysia.

His path led him back to science when he was appointed Prof. of Automotive Engineering at KIT in 2006. His work focuses on the optimal automated operation of vehicles.

Prof. Gauterin is involved in several associations and groups in the context of automotive engineering, such as the Scientific Society for Automotive and Engine Technology (WKM), the working group "Vehicle and Traffic Engineering" of the VDI or the German Society for Acoustics e.V. (DEGA), and as an advisory board member of the state agency e-mobil BW GmbH.

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