Missing Link: Are We There Yet? Drive autonomously or with assistance


“I’m dog-tired and a bit fancy. Today I’m sitting in the back of my car and the Robo-Assi can drive me home.” Many motorists and quite a few visionaries like Elon Musk have been waiting for more than ten years for the assistance systems in their own cars to finally grow up and function so perfectly that they enable fully autonomous driving according to level 5. We’re so close. Are we? Even a single percent that is lacking in completion would be completely enough to delay the dream of the autonomous car for years.

What is missing: In the fast-paced world of technology, there is often the time to rearrange the many news and backgrounds. At the weekend we want to take it, follow the side paths away from the current, try different perspectives and make nuances audible.

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Nevertheless, there are robotic taxis that transport passengers without a driver and are allowed to do so, even the legal situation in Germany now allows this. They don’t even go to level 5, only to level 4. How is this contradiction explained?

This first of two articles deals with the problems on the way from assistance systems to autonomous driving after level 5. The second article illuminates why the driverless taxi after level 4, which pursues a completely different idea, comes into play so much faster.

“Fully autonomous vehicles that don’t need anyone behind the wheel and can go anywhere will not exist for many, many decades. Perhaps never,” recently suspected Daniel Sperling, founding director of the California Institute of Transportation Studies. The head of accident research at the German Insurance Association (GDV), Siegfried Brockmann, was just as skeptical as the American scientist recently reaffirmed. “The fact that an 85-year-old gets into the car and can be chauffeured from A to B is just as far away today as it was six years ago,” he adds.

But the brakes are also being pushed at the other end of the risk-taking scale. “I didn’t expect it to be that difficult,” said Elon Musk. If the Daniel jet drive of our time, who is known for full-bodied promises and for whom even flights to Mars are not too swear, expresses itself so meekly – must we give up all hope of seeing autonomous driving realized in the next few years?

At least autonomous driving won’t be available for download anywhere anytime soon. It’s more like nuclear fusion – it’s been said for decades that it’s coming soon. But it is still not there.

Critics of this idea have always perceived the fact that one inevitably gets to the AI-controlled level 5 vehicle simply by constantly refining the assistance systems as bad science fiction. Good science fiction succeeds in developing a plausible, comprehensive and coherent vision of the future; with poor science fiction, some futuristic gadgets or ideas often encounter a more or less unchanged environment. There is teleportation, aliens and laser cannons, but the rest of the technical environment has remained the same. Not to mention social changes: people are still working, getting married and mowing the lawn behind the family house. Is it similar to the popular notion of autonomous driving?

In this future scenario, autonomous driving is at level 5 and thus one of the greatest technical challenges facing mankind – the “mother of all AI problems” (Apple-Chef Tim Cook) – completely solved. The algorithmic “best driver in the world”, Waymo’s advertising claim, can go anywhere anytime. But everything around everything has stayed the same: The cars themselves are more or less the same, infrastructures and laws have not changed, and there are also the owners of the cars who “get behind the wheel” and indulge their traditional usage habits, such as going to work, shopping, and vacation.

It’s just as if an industrial robot was working in a small craft business without anything else having changed. In order for its use to make sense, however, the entire company has to be reorganized, because every invention requires profound changes to the environment, otherwise it remains a curious isolated solution or fails completely.

If you think of the extensive changes brought about by the implementation of the automobile 120 years ago, it becomes clear: real upheavals in the infrastructures through to legal regulations and the everyday behavior of people, from carports to commuter flat rates, were necessary in order to deal with the technical artefact To help the automobile achieve its epoch-making breakthrough. The idea that cars will soon be algorithmic, otherwise nothing will change – that’s bad science fiction.

And yet this is the path that automakers in particular have in mind, namely the continuous further development of assistance systems. Incidentally, this philosophy also inspires the step model for autonomous driving in its standard representation.

The step model of autonomous driving: surrogate of continuous development.

(Image: Susann Massutte)

Here it looks rather poor with progress. The products from domestic countries hardly dare to go beyond level 2 (advanced assistance systems), even in the luxury segment signs are read incorrectly or emergency brakes are put on plastic bags. The latest example: Volkswagen announces as part of the “New Auto” vision that the new Bulli will one day drive autonomously. If you take a closer look, Level 2+ is promised – from 2026.

Edge case: you’ll never figure it out!

This is also the case with Tesla, who are ahead with their “autopilot”, at least when it comes to testing. Thanks to the crowd of millions of drivers who train Tesla’s AI for free by using autopilot, Tesla can always deliver new, improved versions, keyword: continuous delivery. This is also the case with the latest update from July 2021, in which inner-city streets can now also be mastered with autopilot. But here, too, Tesla officially warns against hopes that go beyond level 2+ in the usual casual form: “There will be unknown problems so please be paranoid”.

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