Right of way for the robot cabs

What is commonplace on some U.S. highways will soon be seen more often on German roads: self-driving cars. Autonomous driving is also the focus of the ITS World Congress, which begins today in Hamburg.

It doesn't exactly look pretty from the outside. But Valeo's autonomous car has everything it needs to get through traffic without a driver: a series of sensors mounted on the vehicle's exterior. And inside, several cameras broadcast what's happening in front of and behind the vehicle. Slowly, the Valeo robot cab rolls away. Soon, the first camera sends a red signal: a red light. The car brakes slowly.

The robotaxi leaves the Munich exhibition grounds - and gradually picks up speed. Then it slows down again: a car ahead has to turn off. The next traffic light is approaching, and once again the inconspicuous concept vehicle brakes early. Now comes the most difficult task: the slip road to the highway. It's after-hours traffic, the Valeo vehicle struggles to find a gap. The driver has to intervene and turn the steering wheel so that the vehicle can merge before the emergency brake is applied. "Well," says the Valeo manager in charge, "not everything is perfect yet.

Jerky test drive with the autonomous Valeo test vehicle.

Driving on Munich's city ring road goes smoothly. Vehicles overtaking or driving ahead are detected well. The car keeps a long safe distance. There are no startling moments on the return journey. The exit from the autobahn works just as smoothly as the re-entry onto the Stadtring. This time there is less traffic. After 20 minutes, the autonomous car arrives back at the Munich exhibition center without any scrapes.

Valeo's test drive shows how far autonomous driving has already advanced in Germany. Several automakers and suppliers are currently testing a variety of robotaxis, fully equipped with cameras, radar and lidar sensors. The first self-driving vehicles could soon enter regular operation.

Sixt launches robot cab service in Munich in 2022

Munich is likely to become a pioneer. Next year will see the European premiere there: car rental company Sixt and Intel subsidiary Mobileye want to put the first fleet of self-driving cars on the road in 2022. The Munich project is the first commercial robotaxi service from a technology provider and a mobility service provider, Sixt and Mobileye emphasize.

Initially, 25 autonomously driving e-cars from the Chinese company Nio will be on the road throughout Munich. They can be booked via apps. A chauffeur sits in the car, but only has to intervene in an emergency. "As soon as the vehicle gets its license, it will also be on the road driverless," promises Mobileye manager Johann Jungwirth. By the end of 2022, he believes, empty cars could be shuttling back and forth between the airport and downtown Munich as if controlled by a ghost.

VW plans autonomous fleet in Hamburg

In other German cities, it will take longer for the first commercial robot cabs to roll through the streets. VW is planning a fleet of autonomous cars to be deployed by mobility service provider MOIA in 2025. The Wolfsburg-based company recently unveiled the prototype of this, the ID.Buzz electric bull, at the IAA motor show. "Autonomous driving will change our industry like nothing before," VW CEO Herbert Diess said at the Munich auto show. In comparison, he said, the transition to e-cars has been downright game-changing.

Now that the "big techs" have pushed autonomous driving in the U.S. and China, German automakers are also sensing a billion-dollar business. VW boss Diess recently predicted that mobility services could account for 15 percent of sales as early as 2030. The consulting firm PwC sees a market potential of 500 billion dollars for robotaxi services in the future. The ride in the robotaxi could be charged by subscription or by the hour.

Car managers like those at VW are raving about the "democratization of mobility." Disabled people and elderly people who are no longer fit to drive could also use a robotaxi in the future. People who are born now will no longer need a driver's license later, the industry quips.

"Renaissance of the car"

Self-driving cars will "totally change our lives," says automotive expert Ferdinand Dudenhöffer of the Center Automotive Research (CAR). "We will experience a renaissance of the car," he predicts.

There is still a long way to go before that happens. For the time being, automakers are still testing the robotaxis of tomorrow - in close cooperation with Silicon Valley. Daimler is cooperating with Nvidia, and VW is working with the U.S. start-up Argo AI and running pilot projects in several U.S. cities. VW and Argo AI are tinkering with a global system for robotaxis, according to Argo founder Brian Salesky.

Law makes Germany a pioneer

Technology-shy Germany, of all countries, could help self-driving cars make a breakthrough. In July, the Bundestag passed a law on autonomous driving that is considered particularly progressive. Germany is the only country that allows Level 3 and even Level 4 systems under certain conditions. In the U.S., only individual states have so far forged ahead and allow robotaxis on selected routes. In China, too, autonomous driving is only possible in individual metropolitan areas. However, cities such as Shenzhen have long since gone one step further and have robot cabs in regular operation without a driver at the wheel.

It is therefore no wonder that a Chinese car is now being used in Munich for the first commercial German robotaxi project. The first mid-range vehicles with robotic drivers are not expected to hit the market for another four to five years - for prices starting at 35,000 euros. VW is planning a Level 4 electric sedan for 2026 under the "Trinity" project.