What are the innovation drivers on the way to autonomous driving? And what is the strategy of Mercedes-Benz Cars on the way to series production? A conversation with Dr Michael Hafner, 46, Head of Automated Driving and Active Safety at Mercedes-Benz.
Dr Hafner, hardly a week goes by without some new report that the car industry or an IT company is testing automated cars or trucks on the public roads. One might gain the impression that the first automated cars will be in the showrooms fairly soon.
Is that mistaken?
Dr Michael Hafner: It is if you interpret "automated"' to mean that the car can completely dispense with a driver. But we are approaching this goal more purposefully and faster than many people suspect. Back in 2013, our journey on the historical Bertha Benz route from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE already showed that fully automated driving in urban and inter-city traffic is possible with near-production technology. However, the preconditions for bringing automated driving functions onto the roads on a large scale go well beyond technical development, and include resolving legal issues in particular. One thing is clear: from the autumn, the new S-Class will be able to support its driver considerably better than all systems which have been available to date.
So what are the innovation drivers for new, automated driving functions such as those making their debut in the new S-Class – new cameras and improved sensors?
On the one hand it is the hardware improvements – for example higher-performance cameras with a longer range – and on the other it is the ever more intelligent combination of individual systems, which we refer to as sensor fusion. Another factor is our accumulated experience in the field of automated driving – particularly with regard to programming the software for the assistance functions from which customers are now able to benefit. We have always done this work in house, as a result of which we are able to implement new ideas very quickly. As a pioneer in automotive safety, Mercedes-Benz also conducts more intensive research in this field than any other automobile brand. And as part of the Daimler group, we also benefit from the development know-how and operational experience of the three commercial vehicle divisions - Daimler Trucks, Daimler Buses and Mercedes-Benz Vans. After all, autonomous driving will not just revolutionise car traffic, but mobility as a whole, and naturally our commercial vehicle colleagues are also on the case. Think of the Mercedes-Benz Future Bus presented in 2016, for example, which can drive at up to 70 km/h on a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route, stop inch-perfect at bus stops and traffic lights, move off automatically and brake in response to obstacles or pedestrians in the road.
Let us talk about how assistance systems are received by customers. How do you ensure that customers are happy to trust in the "assistants" without any reservations?
Particularly with regard to the development of assistance systems, we adhere to our strategy of only introducing innovations when they are mature and can benefit our customers. With a valid safety concept and comprehensive trials ahead of the market launch, we have always been able to convince our customers of our systems' maturity. The feedback which we have received from many customers also confirms that we are designing our automated driving functions along the right lines. With the new driving assistance generation we are now introducing in the facelifted S-Class, autonomous driving is becoming yet more tangible. The scope of automated driving functions has been expanded in line with practical needs and now provides further enhanced, tangible customer benefits on virtually all types of road.
Innovations must not be an end in themselves, but rather make good sense for the customer.
So the number of use cases for automated driving functions in the new S-Class has increased?
Yes. Take the new, route-based speed control function, for example. Ahead of bends, T-junctions, roundabouts, toll booths and exit roads, the vehicle is now able to reduce the speed in anticipatory mode by reference to the COMAND Online map data. Innovations must not be an end in themselves, but rather make good sense for the customer. And their user-friendliness is often also decisive when it comes to acceptance. In the new driving assistance generation, the progress made here is reflected in the extended, even more intuitive status displays in the instrument cluster and on the head-up display, for example.
So many smaller steps are being taken, but Mercedes-Benz is not losing sight of its vision of autonomous driving, is it?
No, quite the contrary: the new corporate strategy CASE, one of the pillars of which is "Autonomous", underlines the central importance of this aspect. We are continuing to pursue our vision of accident-free driving, and this ambitious aim can only be achieved through many smaller steps, culminating in the autonomously driving car.
As Head of the Automated Driving and Active Safety unit at Mercedes-Benz Cars, Dr. Michael E. Hafneris responsible for the development of future driving functions on the way to autonomous driving. Dr Hafner studied electrical engineering and industrial information technology at the University of Karlsruhe, then gained his doctorate in automation technology at the Technical University in Darmstadt. After joining Daimler in 2002, he held managerial positions for onboard diagnosis and emissions certification before taking on the role of assistant to the Board of Management member for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development (RD). From 2010 to 2013 he headed the development of E/E brake control and suspension systems, before becoming Head of Driving Assistance Systems and Active Safety. Since October 2016 he has also been responsible for all development activities for fully-automated driving.