THE CONTIDROME, GERMANY – We’re going to need a new verb. Tuesday night, I became the first American journalist (and we became the second publication overall, after a German magazine) to get behind the wheel of a Continental AG automated development car. It was one of two black U.S.-spec Volkswagen Passats on hand, its badges covered because the automotive tire and technology company supplies to all major automakers and simply picked the brand as a handy autonomous guinea pig.
Continental’s stereo camera, housed inside the windshield header, just above the rearview mirror, is a key component in the limited autonomy system available in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-class soon to go on sale in Europe and in North America later this year. Continental also uses four 24-gigahertz short-range radars and one 77-gigahertz long-range radar to make the autonomous system work, says advanced engineering chief Alfred Eckert.
Actually, my short drive on the Continental test track just outside of Hanover did begin with a drive. Pull forward the adaptive-cruise-control (ACC) stalk and three small indicator lights glow on the center-stack display to tell you that the autopilot is ready. One half of the infotainment display shows a real camera view. The other half, closer to the driver, depicts in lime green the part of the road on which the car can safely drive. Solid objects such as trees, construction barriers, and curbs are deep blue. I steer through a couple of turns on the test track, and then I reach a part of the track where both the centerline and the edge of the road are striped. When the car reaches this point, I feel torque being applied to the steering wheel as the already-enabled autopilot automatically kicks in and steers through these relatively sharp turns. Tap up on the cruise stalk and the car maintains speed, and it brakes autonomously, like adaptive-cruise-control systems that have been on the market for several years.
Now I can relax. Which is to say, pull up my right knee and take my hands off of the wheel. The car handles the twisty test track perfectly, although with uncharacteristic caution, I’ve set the ACC at 42 kph, or just 26 mph. It’s designed to work from 0 to 130 kph (81 mph). Thomas Lingenau, who is with Conti’s electronics software advanced engineering systems and technology department, is riding shotgun and warns that the system is still experimental. My hands are never far from the wheel. Because I’ve asked for, and have been granted, this special access, I don’t want to be the guy who beaches the car on the lawn.
The drive is too short to get me into full relaxation mode, although it's easy to see that it could happen. At one point I spend three or four seconds adjusting the rearview mirror for the photographer in the back seat. Fiddling with the radio, making a phone call, texting, or even reading would be no problem. If an auto journalist writes a car review while he or she is “driving” the car, is it still a car review?
I signal, which momentarily disengages the autonomy, then I brake for a left turn. The system quickly finds the road’s defining lines again and automatically re-engages autopilot. Lingenau says the car may not handle part of a sweeping 180-degree left-hander coming up, and sure enough, I have to grab the wheel and make a quick correction to keep it on the blacktop.
An eighth of a mile ahead, there’s a 30-kph speed-limit sign. The camera reads it, and the ACC brakes the car to bring its speed down by 12 kph. After the last correction, I’ve exercised no limbs in the steering/braking of this car. It enters an S-shaped fifty meters or so of construction, delineated by striped vertical paddles about four feet tall. The car handles it alone until I’m about halfway through, at the left-hand part of the curve, when it jukes right, and I quickly correct it. But the autonomous system starts up again on its own.
A bit farther, the construction zone straightens out and ends, and there’s a BMW 3-series inching along ahead, simulating stop-and-go traffic. My Passat’s ACC stops the car, then lets it inch along behind the BMW. This is one of three scenarios in which Continental sees autopilot cars proving their worth. The company says “partially autonomous” cars like this Passat will be ready for the market in 2016. They’ll make your drive easier on long, straight, boring highways and freeways, through slow construction zones, and in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic. More sophisticated “highly autonomous” cars will be ready by 2020, and we’ll see “fully autonomous” cars, including those that can run in vehicle trains, by about 2025.
“With big benefits to customers, there could be very fast penetration in the market,” Eckert says.
Continental’s system is ridiculously logical and easy to use, especially if you’ve had any experience with ACC and lane-departure control. Any enthusiast would appreciate its virtues in a traffic jam or when crossing vast swathes of I-80. Conti is perhaps the most involved and inarguably the most forthright company experimenting with autonomous technology. It has provided many of the sensors that Google has used for its five-year-old testing program.
Conti isn’t entertaining the possibility that full autonomy will make driving as we know it a thing of the past. Like Daimler chief Dieter Zetsche, who at the 2014 S-class launch likened driving in rush-hour traffic to waiting in a ski-lift line, Conti says you’ll always be able to switch off the autonomy and enjoy the drive once you escape the traffic jam.
On the other hand, Eckert says “you need automatic transmissions or automatic gearshifts” to make fully autonomous cars viable, and “if you need to equip all cars with full automatics, this will be the last nail in the coffin of fully manual transmissions.”
Do we still call it “driving”?