"We always want to be two steps ahead"

The topic "traffic safety" has an overarching goal at Daimler: accident-free driving. Someone who has been ensuring the successful development of modern assistance systems for years is Dr. Michael Hafner. We spoke to the Head of Automated Driving about driving pleasure, his personal motivation and the connection between safety and sustainability.

Dr. Hafner, you have been leading the "Driving Technologies and Automated Driving" division since 2014. Provocatively asked: Don't you want to do something different for a change?

I answer with a counter-question: Could there ever be a better job? In fact, I have always had the chance to do something different in the past, because my field of work has constantly evolved. The topic of "autonomous driving" is extremely complex and incredibly multi-layered: in technical, social, legal and ethical terms. I work according to the credo: As long as the task is challenging me -– and it still does -– and as long as I don't run out of ideas, I can and want to make a difference in my job.

How has automated driving developed in recent years?

Basically, many current assistance systems are based on earlier developments such as ABS and ESP. In the meantime, of course, these have developed significantly. Today our cars brake automatically, they support us in steering and react attentively in dangerous situations. We have reached a whole new level of driving safety.

And what else do you want to achieve?

In relation to safety, our vision is clear: accident-free driving. Our goal is to have no more accidents on the road. Of course, this is a vision, but it motivates us incredibly to approach this goal. We are analyzing accident statistics very closely and see that the causes of accidents are very varied. Conversely, this means that for each individual cause of an accident, there is also a great variety of potential solutions for preventing. We are working on this every day and we are on the right track.

What about unique selling propositions, so-called USPs, which demonstrate technological advantage? Do you pursue them as well?

There are very few technologies that can represent a USP in the long run. This can be well explained by the example of ESP: We were the inventors of ESP. About 20 years later, it is a legal requirement in every car. So, for a while it was one of our USPs, today it is a valuable contribution to more safety in every car. It will be similar with automated driving. The most important thing is that we always come up with new, smart ideas. Fortunately, we have a very creative and great team. We always want to be one or two steps ahead within these complex systems and that's how we generate -– at least temporarily -– USPs.

When you think about autonomous driving, you automatically think of test vehicles on extensive desert highways. How does automated driving contribute to more traffic safety in inner-city areas?

In addition to motorways, our safety systems also work in urban environments. We attach great importance to the fact that our systems are designed to work where the accident rate is highest. In fact, urban scenarios are a key focus of our work. With the new S-Class, we are also introducing automated brake assistance functions that are specifically designed for dangerous situations where cyclists are involved. The system can initiate automatic emergency braking maneuvers when turning, or if a cyclist in front of the vehicle cuts into the lane. The aim is to reduce real accidents -– especially in cities.

As soon as other road users, such as cyclists or pedestrians, are involved, discussions about ethical and safety-related conflicts arise again. When will these be resolved?

In most countries of the world, and Germany is one of them, conscious decisions that weigh up different lives are prohibited by law. Such a question simply does not arise. And that gives us a clear approach. It is not a question of deciding for or against human life, but either of avoiding an accident -– and, -– if it cannot be avoided, -– of reducing the severity of the accident to a minimum.

Let's be honest: Does autonomous driving mean that the fun of driving disappear?

You won't believe it, I hear this question often (laughs). My first answer is that our systems can be switched on and off. So the customer has the sovereignty and the last word on the extent to which the systems are activated or not. So there is no paternalism. The driver decides on driving pleasure and support. In situations such as traffic jams or long journeys, where the driver loses concentration over time, it is then a great help and a plus in safety that the systems are available.

Do you prefer to drive yourself or by autopilot?

Both, of course! I like driving a car very much. I also have fun doing it. There are situations in which I consciously drive without activated systems. But there are at least as many situations in which I appreciate the support and enjoy using it.

Accident-free driving, this vision is part of our sustainable business strategy. How do sustainability and traffic safety fit together?

For me, it fits perfectly. By definition, traffic that is not safe cannot be sustainable. With a high level of traffic safety, we are making a very important contribution to sustainable mobility. Moreover, our vehicles are forward-looking. The car with sensors sees its surroundings better overall than humans do and can act more far-sighted in many situations. Forward-looking driving saves resources and contributes to climate protection. So, we are also making a valuable contributions on this end.

Please complete...

I believe that with automated driving, in 20 years the driving license...
"…will less frequently be handed in to the authorities."

For me, the biggest milestone in traffic safety is...
"...the development of ABS and ESP as the "mothers" of the assistance systems on which many of our functions are still based today."

If you would not work for Daimler, then you would be at...
"...a university where I would do research and teach, preparing students for the challenges of the day after tomorrow."

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