Europe needs to press on with autonomous driving and work through safety issues to avoid being left behind by the U.S and China, despite changing priorities caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a panel of industry executives told viewers of the latest Automotive News Europe Congress Conversations.
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Problems at Volkswagen Group ranging from production to software and its diesel-emissions cheating scandal illustrate how far down the list of concerns autonomous driving has fallen among automakers, Karl Obermair, director of future mobility at German testing company TÜV Rheinland told the panel.
"They have a lot of problems,” he said. “I strongly believe traditional automakers have their management attention focused on many other topics."
The danger he said is that they are "losing ground and traction compared to the new kids on the block" in autonomous driving.
Volvo hasn’t paused development of autonomous driving technology, Volvo Cars Chief Technology Officer Henrik Green told the panel. The company has promised the technology will be present in one-third of its vehicles sold in 2025. "We need to transform our company, even at this time, so we are really leaning forward with autonomous drive development," he said.
Green went on to say that in terms of progress China is leading Europe and the U.S. in terms of putting in infrastructure to make autonomous driving safer.
Europe is behind both China and the U.S., Obermair said, with the U.S. probably having the "quickest package" for flexible legislation.
"I'm not too critical because from a political point of view democracy takes a lot of time," he said. "It's much easier in a country like China to change legislation."
News that the European Union will adopt a new United Nations regulation on Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) that allows Level 3 automated driving on designated highways, coming in force in January 2021, was welcomed by Mircea Gradu, senior vice president of product and quality at Velodyne Lidar, a maker of autonomous sensor systems.
"It's cautious and prudent, and starts with speed," Gradu said. "Everything relates to speed in terms of required reaction." The regulation sets a maximum speed of 60 kph and forbids its use on roads where cyclists and pedestrians are allowed.
Volvo's Green said it was a “good first step” but emphasized there is still a long way to go. "We have to lead development and work with authorities to create legislation," he said.
One way to create trust and ensure vehicle are only equipped with the safest systems is to allow third-party testing facilities to access the software, despite possible resistance from automakers, Obermair said.
"From the carmakers’ perspective this data and their algorithms are like the holy grail. They have made huge investments the software," he said. "We ask for regulations to enable third-party players to have full access to this system."
For Level 3, lack of trust was less of an issue than putting too much trust in systems, especially when the car needs to hand back control, Green said.
"We will have a trust issue among certain groups, but I don't see that as a big business problem," the CTO said. "But we can 'over-trust' after using a system multiple times and that can be a safety problem so that has to be 100 percent mitigated."