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.