In terms of automated driving technology development, Volkswagen has been ostensibly behind the curve. That is, lagging behind other brands from the Volkswagen Group at least. To date, Audi has been the dominant VW Group brand in self-driving tech testing.
That’s about to change, however. VW announced this week that it has begun testing a fleet of five e-Golf electric cars equipped with self-driving technology on the streets of Hamburg, Germany.
Outfitted with 14 cameras, 11 laser scanners, seven radars, and several ultrasonic sensors, the all-electric e-Golfs are driving on a three-kilometer-long test route through the streets of Hamburg. This new test track represents the first time that the VW brand has tested Level 4 automated driving systems in real traffic conditions.
While on the test route, which is set to be expanded to nine kilometers by 2020, the e-Golfs’ artificial intelligence systems identify cars, bicyclists, pedestrians, and other objects and reacts to them appropriately — hopefully without throwing any false alarms. In doing so, the cars onboard computers mounted in the trunk, which are the computing-power equivalent of 15 laptops, process five gigabytes of data per minute.
This is just part of the testing, however. Autonomous cars will need to rely on their onboard sensors to handle driving duties. They will also need to communicate with one another and city infrastructure — traffic lights, for example.
To aid in VW’s self-driving tech development, Hamburg is installing vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and infrastructure-to-vehicle (I2V) sensors along the nine-kilometer route. What’s more, the municipality hopes it will distinguish itself as a model for connected cities of the future.
Volkswagen will take the lessons learned and data gathered in Hamburg and share the information across the Volkswagen Group, which is working to hone all levels of automated driving, up to Level 5.
Importantly, VW has specially trained drivers behind the wheel of the self-driving e-Golfs in the case need to take control of the vehicle.
It’s good news that VW is engaging in its own self-driving technology development. However, this story works to highlight for me a factor of the automated driving future that I worry a lot of consumers forget: cost.
By that I mean, these cars won’t be cheap. If drivers worry that new cars are expensive now, just wait until they have 14 cameras, 11 laser scanners, seven radars, and several ultrasonic sensors, and 15 laptops bolted to them.
Furthermore, for cars to be really safe and effective at autonomy, as VW is demonstrating in Hamburg, they will need to communicate. Simply having a camera or two that sometimes recognizes red lights, like a system that Tesla is reportedly working on. Sun, dust, snow, debris, etc. can obstruct cameras. Self-driving cars will need to have multiple redundant systems that ensure safe operation in traffic.
I’m not trying to bum people out with cost analyses, however. Instead, I think that while sensor costs will inevitably come down, a lot of autonomous cars are going to be prohibitively expensive for people to purchase and own outright. This lends to the rise of vehicle subscriptions, car sharing, and ride hailing.
Imagine you subscribe to VW for $150 a month and an autonomous e-Golf takes you to and from work every day. During the time you’re at work, it is out driving strangers to their destinations, in an Uber-like scenario. These funds aren’t going to you, though. They’re going to VW, which uses that income to offset the cost of the vehicle, its sensors, and expensive batteries, etc.
And this automaker and customer cost consideration doesn’t even begin to touch on the infrastructure costs that will inevitably need to be shouldered by municipalities around the world. The U.S. is having trouble paying for repairs on its existing infrastructure. Wait until self-driving cars require the implementation of billions of I2V sensors.
All of this is to say that, yes, self-driving cars are going to be great. They’ll be safe and efficient. They won’t be cheap, though.