The researchers from Berlin's Free University took nervous journalists for a ride in the Volkswagen Passat – a distant relative of the Beetle Herbie – at the weekend, calmly keeping their hands off the steering wheel.
The car – called ‘Made in Germany' but known as the MiG – successfully negotiated its way along a 20-kilometre route through central Berlin traffic, including around 46 traffic lights and some of the biggest, busiest roundabouts in the city.
“We have had the permission since June and have taken multiple drives since then – we've driven more than 1,000 kilometres in the inner city traffic and on the city's autobahn,” Tinosch Ganjineh, head of the AntoNOMOS project which developed the MiG, told The Local.
It is the first vehicle to receive permission from the city authorities to drive on public roads without a driver.
To get this, the research team worked with safety standards authority TÜV Nord Group, which required a human to be in the driving seat at all times – just for emergencies.
Yet although either Ganjineh or Daniel Göhring from the FU were in the car, the computer was responsible for driving: steering, overtaking, recognizing and responding to traffic situations and safely reaching its goal.
MiG's computer is controlled by the Drive-by-Wire system operating the brake, accelerator and steering wheel, which can be taken over at any time by the person monitoring the wheel.
Laser scanners, radar and video cameras are used to see other cars and pedestrians while special software analyses the data, recognizes traffic situations and generates the necessary driving instructions.
The research team has worked on the MiG since 2007, starting at the university and then finding various sponsors to get the car driving itself around private property such as disused airports and factory grounds until after a one-and-a-half-year process, they got permission for test drives in real Berlin traffic.
“This is another step towards the mobility of the future,” said Dr. Raúl Rojas, FU professor of artificial intelligence and supervisor of the AutoNOMOS project.
Autonomous cars could be plausible on a wide-scale basis in 20 to 30 years, according to Ganjineh, and ideally, all automobiles would be outfitted with the computer programming within 40 years as technology costs decrease and public acceptance rises.
The research and successful test drives are not only pertinent to technology developments but will also lead to increased traffic safety, Ganjineh said.
According to the World Health Organisation, 1.2 million people die each year from traffic-related accidents, while an additional 20 to 50 million are injured.
The best solution, according to Ganjineh, is “to combine the person with the computer.”
He cited the death of a 23-year-old man who was hit by a car when he ran into the road while fleeing attackers in a central Berlin metro station at the weekend.
Such fatalities, he said, could be prevented through the introduction of the autonomous computer system.
“The computer is much faster than a person (in reacting),” Ganjineh said.
He also said that long-distance trips on the autobahn could be made safer and less strenuous by introducing autonomous driving technology.
Scientists at the FU call MiG the “green car” of the future and see it as a prototype for autonomous taxis and car-sharing programmes that will help reduce the overall impact of personal transportation.