When Christian Müller wants to explain how artificial intelligence (AI) in autonomous vehicles can make life-or-death decisions, he plays a video. On his computer monitor, a white car appears. Traveling at about 50 kilometers an hour, it’s approaching an intersection and is making a left turn when a man suddenly steps into the crosswalk directly in the vehicle’s path. Instead of braking or swerving, the car remains on course. There’s a crash. Müller keeps a straight face. He already knows the tragic results. “Well, the artificial intelligence wasn’t so smart there,” he says.
The video scene is a simulation, the pedestrian, an avatar modeled on real movement data, and the auto, a projection from the underlying artificial intelligence. Only Müller, the scientist, is flesh and blood. He works at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in Saarbrücken, Germany—nestled in the rolling hills between Luxembourg and Metz, France, on the Saar River—and is doing everything he can to ensure that such accidents happen only in simulations in the future. Müller is investigating how autonomous vehicles behave out on the roads in traffic with AI at the wheel. He is also working with TÜV SÜD and other partners to develop testing methodologies for these types of AI.
On his computer, Müller selects a different AI variant for the autonomous car and starts the scene again. The car again approaches the intersection and again begins to make a left turn. But this time the scene doesn’t end in tragedy. As the pedestrian enters the crosswalk into the vehicle’s path, the car easily swerves out of the way. “I’d be more likely to trust this sort of AI,” Müller says.
The simulation on Müller’s computer monitor is just one of countless situations that self-driving vehicles will have to cope with out in real-world traffic in the future. Yet it demonstrates what will be important no matter the circumstances: Will we trust the machine, its sensors and its enormously complex intelligence—or won’t we?
It’s the question that will determine whether autonomous vehicles will achieve a breakthrough in the coming years. Whether at some point in time there will be cars with sleeping passengers behind the wheel on the autobahns. Whether cars will be looking for their own parking spaces in the future. And whether driverless taxi fleets will be chauffeuring us through city centers any time soon. It is a question whose answer will also determine what the future of our mobility will look like.
THE 5 STEPS of autonomous driving
Figures vs. Feelings
For answers to this question, statistics are a good place to start. Currently, about 80 to 94 percent of all traffic accidents around the world are caused by human error. Autonomous vehicles could reduce this high rate to a minimum, so the expectation–the consulting firm McKinsey, for example, predicts for the USA that the market penetration of highly automated vehicles could enormously reduce fatal accidents by the middle of the century.
On the other hand, many people are deeply skeptical about driverless vehicles. According to a study conducted by the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, two of three respondents believe that a lack of trust in autonomous vehicle technology could complicate its acceptance. Almost as many study participants also expressed fear that hackers could target the extensive software in the vehicles. The German online portal for statistics, Statista, found that the idea of fully automated driving systems generated negative associations in almost half of those surveyed.
On top of all this is people’s overestimation of their abilities. “Almost everyone believes they drive much better than they actually can,” says Andreas Herrmann from the University of St. Gallen. For his book Autonomous Driving: How the Driverless Revolution will Change the World, he set man against machine in a simulator. The results: in the majority of situations, the machine was better. “However, we also saw that the machine reaches its limits in more complicated traffic situations,” Herrmann adds.
These critical situations are the crux of the matter for the future. “If we are to hand over control when driving, we must have enormous trust in the system’s safety and security,” says Global Head Autonomous Driving Dr. Houssem Abdellatif at TÜV SÜD. “That’s why we must work with manufacturers to prove that the technology can guarantee this safety and security.”
This is exactly what scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors have been working on for years. TÜV SÜD is also working on creating solutions in a variety of projects around the world. Together they’ve managed to make the technology safer, more transparent and more verifiable. And, together, they are tackling the next major challenges.
On the task are people like Marius Zöllner, who is working with TÜV SÜD testing self-driving vehicles in real traffic at the Research Center for Informatics (FZI) in Karlsruhe, Germany. Inspectors like Peter Salzberger, who is working for TÜV SÜD in the PEGASUS project to ensure that autonomous vehicles don’t make any driving errors on highways. And Christian Müller, who is unlocking the secrets of artificial intelligence in Saarbrücken.