Driverless Cars To Be Tested in German 'Rust-Belt' City

The German city of Wuppertal seeks to spark an economic rebirth as a hub for autonomous "robot" cars.

by Ulrike Hofsaehs, dpa, Hamburg, Germany / August 27, 2015

(TNS) -- The city of Wuppertal in Germany's Rust Belt of old-era industrial towns has been chosen to test the driverless car of the future on regular city roads among pedestrians.

Wuppertal is a far cry from California or Nevada, where Google has been putting its automated cars through their paces.

The birthplace of Friedrich Engels, a father of Marxist political theory, and Friedrich Bayer, who founded the huge Bayer pharmaceuticals group, lies in what was once Germany's industrial heartland.

Its main claim to fame is Germany's only city-wide monorail public transport system. Wuppertal has seen much decline and is in desperate need of rebirth.

Robot cars will soon be in action along a 17-kilometre "test track" in Wuppertal, the first of its kind in the country. The zone along public highway 418 offers a host of driving situations. There are fast stretches, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.

Other road users need not be alarmed, however. An engineer will be on board any robot car that tries out here. He or she can instantly override all the automatic systems to bring the car back under human control.

Wuppertal was not simply picked out of a hat for the project: US car component-maker Delphi has a big factory in the city employing 700 people. The firm pitched for a test highway in its own backyard and Wuppertal authorities agreed.

Several sections of autobahn highway in Germany have already been designated for use by robot cars, but Wuppertal is the only section of regular mixed-use road to get the thumbs-up. Test runs will begin next year.

Delphi is keen to convince sceptics that the project using robot cars packed with high-tech electrical and guidance equipment poses no hazards.

"We are talking about vehicles with a specially trained engineer at the wheel," said Delphi spokesman Thomas Aurich.

Delphi has long lamented the lack of a test track in Wuppertal and automated systems have until now been flown to North America for testing and customer demonstration.

The United States has so far been at the forefront of automated car testing. For the past five years Google has been despatching various robot cars on journeys across California and Nevada.

The egg-shaped, two-seat, driverless prototype also tools around the company's home town of Mountain View.

German carmakers Audi and Mercedes-Benz have been using US roads as well to gain experience with their automated vehicles. Leaders of Germany's automotive industry insist they will not let internet giant Google get a lead on technology which could revolutionize personal transport within less than a decade.

Delphi has already sent one of its product-equipped autonomous cars on a journey across North America and now it is Germany's turn to play guinea pig.

Roads in Europe are very different from those in America where motorists are accustomed to wide boulevards and broad intersections. German streets are narrower, the junctions are harder to negotiate and traffic density is higher.

How will robot cars cope with the conditions?

Wuppertal mayor Peter Jung is keen to allay any public fears: "I reckon the majority of drivers on the road will not even notice that an autonomous car is out there among them." The risk of collisions is minute, says the politician.

It is true that Google's driverless cars have been involved in around a dozen low-speed shunts down the years, although not one of these was the robot's fault, the firm claims. Most of the accidents occurred when cars driven by ordinary road-users hit the rear ends of Google prototypes after failing to brake properly, often at junctions.

The test vehicles to be used in Wuppertal are rolling research laboratories stuffed full of cameras, sensors and radar distance scanners. The car's computer must decide in a fraction of a second how to avoid an obstacle, brake or accelerate.

The trickiest situations include taking action when a pedestrian steps off the pavement and onto the road.

Industry gurus do not expect to see automated cars on the roads in any numbers until at least 2020. The technical aspects are challenging, yet they pale when compared to the legal obstacles. No one is sure how insurance companies can provide cover for vehicles whose owners are not liable for the manner in which they drive.

Road regulations will almost certainly need to be rewritten worldwide before robot cars could go into general use.

For police in Wuppertal the issue is straightforward. If an autonomous car on highway 218 gets involved in an accident, responsibility will be down to the engineer in the driver's seat, whether or not he has his hands on the steering wheel.

©2015 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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