Jensen Huang, Nvidia’s CEO said he expected to see the first fully autonomous cars in 4 years. Ford, on the other hand, said this were to happen even earlier. Not wanting to take sides, we decided to have a little chat with Stefan Klaenhardt, an ESG representative. Mr. Klaenhardt is very opinionated on the topic. He starts by saying that the groundwork has already been laid and the possibility is certainly there, but he cannot help but ask the question about the end-result. He muses how a lot of the drivers actually enjoy being behind the wheel and even though autonomous cars may help take the boredom out of insufferable traffic jams, he, personally, cannot see himself giving away control on the open road and losing part of the magic in the process. More importantly, Mr. Klaenhardt feels that the current technology for autonomous driving is not up to par and cannot efficiently cope with nature-induced challenges. The faults stand out when terrible traffic conditions due to the weather come into play and he believes only in 10 to 15 years will the cars be outfitted with smart-enough sensors.
“You have the snow on the road; you have sensors and detectors that couldn’t identify the road signs. Then, all the sensors will fail.”
This begs another question. 10 or 15 years ago, autonomous cars were a thing of the distant future. We ask what made this technology possible today, to which Mr. Klaenhardt replies it is all due to the breakthrough in the field of sensor fusion. Everything is not only smaller but also more efficient, aided by the groundbreaking progress in the artificial intelligence and the algorithm complexity. He recalls his recent lecture, where he discussed in detail the importance of having a bulletproof infrastructure set in place, so that the cars can communicate with each other. Establishing infrastructure of this magnitude is possible in huge cities, but will that be the case for less populated areas? Mr. Klaenhardt thinks not and, once again, affirms his point from before. “You will have a car that (once again) will have a requirement to be driven by the human being.” He finishes his answer by saying how he feels autonomous driving is “more or less the subject of technology driven experiments” and how he primarily puts his faith in the e-vehicle, since pollution is a serious issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
At this point, we are wondering if we could see change in car ownership, from owning cars to cars as a service. Mr. Klaenhardt acknowledges the trend and admits that cars do not hold the same status symbol as before. Thanks to rent-a-car services, it is understandable how in certain situations the need for owning a car might dissipate. He feels that the “future generations will not be able to afford and shouldn’t afford to spend 60.000, 80.000 euros only to possess a car.” Their interests might shift and it would be perfectly understandable to “take a car from a sharing pool when I need it”. However, he is hesitant to predict that the future will belong to the rich people and that only that group would be able to possess an autonomous car. We mention how someone compared the whole concept to owning a horse, to which Mr. Klaenhardt adds it is also more like a hobby. He praises Tesla’s Model S but is quick to add that he would not buy this car for commuting purposes.
“The clientele will, of course, exist, people who are enthusiastic about the technology. But, this is only a small percentage.” he adds.
We ask how automated vehicles will affect the cities and Mr. Klaenhardt confirms our belief that smart cities and smart cars are interconnected and that “without permanent connection to the infrastructure, the autonomous driving will not work”. He feels that most people would be hesitant to buy autonomous vehicle due to lack of proper infrastructure. In the end, the car company can manufacture the car, but the government has to change the infrastructure and adapt it for the purposes of the next-gen vehicles.
Knowing this full well, we raise our concerns about who would take the blame when level 4 or level 5 of autonomy is reached and accidents start happening. “This could raise terrible problems for the insurance”, explains Mr. Klaenhardt and adds how it all depends on the country. He tells us how there is a team of experts already weighing in all the options and ethical implementations. “Do I crash into the other car or do I run over the young lady? It is a decision you can’t leave to the autonomous driving”, he says. For the time being, all that the car manufacturers can do is to assure that the “the car is going fully automatically to the level 2 or 3 or 5, but, if any kind of malfunction would appear, you are the driver and you are responsible for it.”, says Mr. Klaenhardt and agrees that it is far from the acceptable answer.
We end the interview by asking Mr. Klaenhardt what he can tell us about his work in ESG and BMW. “ESG and BMW are in a commercial relationship for more than 20 years,” Mr. Klaenhardt recalls how BMW is their biggest customer and how they are focusing on the developments of the so-called E/E-section, which is electronics and electrics. “Within these departments, ESG is known and well positioned as service and engineering provider” that has to compete with other companies on a daily level. Smiling, he informs us that close to 300 experts from ESG automotive work for BMW and we feel nothing but gratefulness for being able to take up so much of his time.