Mercedes-Benz head of research and development Ola Kallenius told CarAdvice at CES 2017 that the company is working on having cars with level four autonomy – that is, fully autonomous vehicles that will allow you to get in the car and have it drive you where you want without any intervention – by 2020, but it is expected that these vehicles will be zone restricted in the early years.
“I think the definition difference between level four and level five is really splitting hairs. Level four is a fully autonomous car – full stop. Level five is from the rainforest of Borneo, through the Australian outback, to downtown New York. And before we do the Borneo thing, I’m happy with a level four car that covers 95 per cent of the Earth,” Kallenius said.
“I think we’re going to have area by area to start with, before we get to level five and we have everything from Berlin to the outback of Australia – although the outback of Australia probably is a relatively easy-use case to deal with,” he said.
“So I believe in step-by-step. If I look at what’s on the technological horizon, the new generation of sensors that are already in development now that will be available here in the next few years, the HD maps which will be available for many places in the world before 2020 and then gradually cover the world.
“If I look at the development of the computing power that you need to actually take in all that information, process it and act like a human being – it kind of replaces the course of our own brain and sensors, eyes and ears – I belive that between 2020 and 2025 that we will have an increasing pace in terms of when this technology will be available.
“You can have some cases maybe before 2020 for certain things in a certain context – you can showcase this, so the first few drips will probably come before 2020,” he said of level three versions of autonomous cars, where driver intervention is still necessary. “But between 2020 and 2025, just looking at what’s technologically available from our discussions with our suppliers, I think it’s going to really start to take off.”
So does that mean a level four car will be built without pedals and a steering wheel? Not according to Kallenius.
“A level four car does not have to abolish the steering wheel and the pedals, by the way. You can have a fully autonomous car that you can, by your own choosing, drive yourself as well.
“Some of us like driving – at least I like driving, not all the time, but often,” he said.
Who, then, will be the customers in line for a level four autonomous car? Benz has that figured out, Kallenius reckons.
“So we have two main use case areas from use point,” he said. “One is the robot-taxi, which is an obvious one. All the hailing services around the world today,” he said, referring to cabs, Uber, Lyft and the like, “the autonomous ride already exists. But it’s based upon a human being driving you. As a customer, you’re autonomous already.
“But it’s slightly expensive: if you replace that human with a computer, that would be a much more attractive business case: so if you’re in the hailing business, this is, financially, a hugely interesting case. That one is obvious,” he said.
“Now for personal use: if I buy an S-Class for, I don’t know, 150,000 euro or whatever, if I could pay some thousands of euro more to get a chauffeur that, on a Saturday night maybe I want to go into town with my wife and have a nice dinner and have a glass of wine and I want the car then to drive us home because I don’t want to drive after a glass of wine… Or I’m tired after a long day at work and I actually want the car to drive me home because I don't want to drive myself because my concentration level is not so good… I would buy that.
“That will come eventually, too. Today you can get a driver, if you’re a wealthy person, you can get yourself a driver, but it’s very expensive. If that becomes an option for some thousands of euros or dollars, I think that’s a hugely attractive use case,” Kallenius said.
What about the legalities of drink driving, if you’re not technically driving? That’s something that will need to be discussed in future, when there’s relevant legislation, according to Kallenius.
“I don't want to speculate on that to be totally honest, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole. But if you have a use case where you want the car to drive you, and you don’t want to drive, that will be a hugely attractive use case.”
How humans will cope with the technology is a point that people have brought up on numerous occasions, but Kallenius – Apple iPhone in hand – made a valid point on understanding the technology, and the elasticity of the human brain.
“Some years ago, we would have met, we would have all sat in this room with a Nokia 9210. I had one. It was great. I called people. It took me less than 10 seconds to figure out when the Apple iPhone was presented, that it was better. So let’s not underestimate the customer’s ability to recognise a better use case for them,” he said.
All of those hypothetical usage scenarios, though, are based primarily on convenience. But Kallenius says that safety is an important element to getting autonomous cars on the road.
“Ideally, in this quest, it’ll react much better than a human. The world has roughly 1.2 million people die per year, worldwide, in some kind of traffic-related accident. I believe that number can be drastically reduced – but this will not happen overnight. It’s clear that before we replace one billion cars that exist in the world with 1 billion level-four or level-five cars, that’s a few years out.
“But every car that replaces another car on that journey is going to make the world safer,” he said, almost directly mirroring the statements made by the Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety.
“In terms of the safety, we’re perhaps a bit conservative, because we don’t want to do something that is not responsible, even if the technology could do even more already.
“[Which company] is where [in terms of its development]? It’s hard to tell. But I certainly believe that Mercedes is amongst the leaders.
“It’s important for Mercedes to do it right, and to be in the leading group. This is, in my view, for what our brand stands for, one of the crucial technologies of the future,” he said.