„The cars of the future must above all be driverless, electric and safe. By accelerating its groupwide electric offensive, Volkswagen has set the stage for transforming drive technology. The challenges of autonomous driving and artificial intelligence are the subject of an interview in “Welt am Sonntag” with CEO Herbert Diess, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier (CDU) and Daimler chief Dieter Zetsche. “It goes without saying that we will see various types of driverless cars on our streets soon. Great advances are being made in the necessary technology,” Diess says. Here are the key messages.
Change is coming gradually
Initially, autonomous cars could be on the road under controlled conditions such as on highways and in specific zones, expects Diess. Great advances are being made in the necessary technology, but there is still a lot of hard work ahead for the industry. “A lot also depends on what authorities in each location approve. That will look different in China, the United States and Europe.”
Safety is paramount
Human error is among the top reasons for traffic accidents. In Herbert Diess’ view, self-driving cars must perform 100 to 1,000 times better than humans to gain societal acceptance. “A ratio of ten-to-one is nowhere near good enough. We have approximately 3,200 traffic fatalities in Germany each year. It would be a disaster if we had even 320 deaths due to driverless cars.”
The race is on
Waymo, a subsidiary of Google, has achieved a one-to-two-year lead in key technologies such as artificial intelligence. “But we are determined to catch up. The game is not over yet,” emphasizes Herbert Diess. Volkswagen is working on autonomous driving in Munich, the US West Coast and soon in China as well. The Volkswagen Group is investing around EUR 44 billion by 2023 in the paradigm shift toward electric mobility and fully networked, self-driving cars. Partnerships play an important role in this transformation. For example, Volkswagen is joining Mobileye and Champion Motors to develop the first ride-hailing service with driverless cars in Israel starting in 2019. In addition, Volkswagen is also a new partner in the Chinese technology platform Apollo. The consortium founded by Internet company Baidu develops technologies for autonomous driving.
Europe at a disadvantage
Germany lacks heavy-weight software companies and semi-conductor manufacturers, Diess says. It’s different in the United States and China: “There are high-tech companies there, major software developers, that possess the necessary capital for technologies like autonomous driving.” These firms often work together. For this reason, the Volkswagen chief is pleased that the German federal government aims to actively promote the development of artificial intelligence.
Volkswagen: more than just hardware
Herbert Diess states clearly that Volkswagen will be a key player in the software required for self-driving cars as well: “It’s the ‘brain’ of a driverless car, so these have to be our own systems.” The conditions for this are good. According to Diess, “A vehicle already contains a huge amount of programming. We are already experts.” In the future, likely starting in 2020, cars will independently download updates from the cloud. “We have to obtain the technologies for this in China or from the US West Coast if we don't have the capacity ourselves.”
Driving experience still important
Thanks to renewable energies, driving will soon be completely emissions-free, and autonomous driving will make it safer. “On the other hand, cities are becoming ever more crowded. That’s why we will spend more time in cars,” explains Diess. People can use their time in self-driving cars differently than they do when driving today, for example, to communicate with friends or to get work done. For this reason, people will continue to value comfort and outstanding design, the CEO expects. According to Diess, “You will want a car to yourself that provides you with private space and comfort.”