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An interview with Dr. Andrej Heinke, Vice President of Corporate Foresight and Megatrends at Bosch

Dr. Andrej Heinke’s job at Bosch is to make the seemingly impossible possible. He makes plausible assumptions about the future and travels the world investigating them. As a result, he is highly familiar with the topic of modern travel solutions – mobility – in both theoretical and practical terms. Heinke talked to TRANSFER about the road safety aspects of autonomous and automatic driving, the changes these will necessitate when it comes to infrastructure, and autonomous flying. Despite many risks and challenges, he strongly believes that autonomous mobility will be safe and efficient in the future.

Hello Dr. Heinke. How important are “autonomous” factors for the mobility concepts of the future, especially given Bosch’s slogan: Invented for Life?

Bosch’s aim with automated driving is to make the roads safer. Nine out of every ten accidents are caused by human error. Providing drivers with specific help in unclear situations or completely taking on the task of driving for them can save lives. Also, existing resources like space, time, and energy can be used more efficiently because if you get high enough market penetration of automated vehicles they can be synchronized more.

The population is growing so there’s more traffic on the roads. By 2050, there could be three times more cars on urban roads. According to an international survey conducted by Capgemini, the management consulting company, one in two consumers would like to drive an autonomous vehicle that takes the task of driving off their hands and steers them through traffic. Bosch is currently developing a variety of solutions for personal travel and goods transportation. Our vision is to create safe, sustainable, and fascinating mobility. To do this, we need solutions to be personalized, automated, electric, and connected.

The CEO of Bosch, Volkmar Denner, defined the strategic direction when he said that Bosch is more than cars. We’re leveraging the entire technical scope of the corporation to introduce innovative mobility solutions – things like connected parking, automated driving, or apps for multimodal transportation and electric vehicles. Not only do we make driving easier, safer, and more comfortable than it’s ever been, cars are becoming a new kind of fully connected assistant. Bosch’s portfolio means that it’s prepared for different types of developments like no other technology and service company.

The first step toward autonomous driving has already been taken at Bosch. Since 2019, cars have been able to find their way without being driven to parking spaces in the garage at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, and then park themselves. This makes it possible to fit up to 20 percent more vehicles into the same area. This form of automated valet parking has been made possible by intelligent parking garage infrastructure supplied by Bosch. The system revolves around community-based parking: Bosch takes on the search for a parking space by allowing cars to automatically notify the cloud that their ultrasound sensors have detected empty parking spaces as they drive past. Drivers are then shown the nearest empty parking space on their navigation devices and they’re guided straight there – which saves time, fuel, and frustration. At the same time, this helps reduce air pollution and traffic jams in urban areas.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in turning motor vehicles into actual “auto-mobiles”?

Understanding the opportunities and threats involves a lot of factors. Let me give you an example. Bosch and Mercedes-Benz have been working together on the development of automated driving solutions for cities and have started a pilot project in San José in Silicon Valley looking at hitch-a-ride services using apps. This involves an automatically driven S-Class Mercedes-Benz. Under the supervision of a safety driver, autonomous cars travel back and forth between the district of West San José and the center of the Californian city, along the main travel artery of San Carlos Street and Stevens Creek Boulevard. The test should provide Bosch and Mercedes-Benz with further invaluable insights for developing their automated driving systems in keeping with SAE Level 4/5. The business partners also expect to gain an understanding of how to integrate autonomous cars into intermodal transportation systems, drawing on the example of public transportation resources and car sharing.

Autonomous cars can potentially improve safety with their permanent 360-degree monitoring systems, especially in heavy inner-city traffic, and because they travel in a uniform manner they can improve traffic flow. For automatic driving to become everyday technology, it has to be reliable and function safely. It’s not just about the automated vehicle itself winning people over, but also how it dovetails with urban transportation.

As more and more autonomous driving is introduced, human failings will be central to how quickly new technologies gain traction, especially during the transition phase – things like people nodding off at the wheel, getting distracted, or not using their seat belts. To avoid hazardous driving and, if possible, accidents, cars will therefore no longer just monitor the roads, but also the driver, the front-seat passenger, and others in the vehicle. Bosch has developed a new system for monitoring car interiors with cameras, plus artificial intelligence (AI), which should be ready for mass production in 2022. That’s when safety technology will become standard in new vehicles in the European Union, doing things like warning drivers if they’re tired or getting distracted. The EU commission expects its new safety requirements to save more than 25,000 lives by 2038 and avoid at least 140,000 serious injuries.

Looking inside the vehicle will also solve a fundamental problem experienced with autonomous cars. This is because to transfer the responsibility for driving back to the driver after traveling on a highway, for instance, a car needs to be sure that the driver isn’t sleeping, reading the news, or writing emails on a smartphone. If you fall asleep for just three seconds at 30 kph or look at your smartphone instead of the road, you’ll have traveled 42 meters in the meantime – running blind. Many people underestimate how dangerous that is. A study by DA Direkt and infas quo found that roughly ten percent of accidents are caused by distractions or fatigue, and the number one distraction overall is the smartphone. The Bosch system for monitoring car interiors uses an inbuilt camera in the steering wheel to detect if the driver’s eyelids are starting to drop, or he’s distracted, or his head is turned to the front-seat passenger or someone on the back seat. Thanks to AI, the system uses this information to work out what’s happening. Depending on the preferences of the car manufacturer or statutory requirements, it warns the driver if he’s not paying attention, recommends he take a break, or even slows down the vehicle. The new Bosch system also thinks about driver comfort. The interior camera detects who is sitting in the driver’s seat and adjusts the rear-view mirror, seat position, steering wheel height, and infotainment settings to individually stored preferences. The camera can also be used to control the infotainment system with hand gestures or the eyes.

Automatic mobility is not just restricted to certain vehicles – it’s already been introduced to some vehicles on tracks. Airplanes are also starting to go autonomous. How long do you think it will take for this to become a reality?

Most airline passengers don’t realize how little of the time the pilots are actually still flying the aircraft themselves. In a survey quoted in the New York Times, airline captains flying Boeing 777s were recorded as saying that on the average flight they only control the airplane for seven minutes – and that was in 2015. With Airbus aircraft, it was even only three minutes. Pilots do the take-off and landing, and the rest of the time they’re monitoring the autopilot. Some of the very latest combat aircraft and all drones can either be flown automatically or allow themselves to be controlled remotely. Airbus is testing commercial aircraft in research simulators with just one pilot in the cockpit. It’s still not known whether this idea will enter airline operation – and if so, when. But if things can be made safer versus flying with two pilots in the cockpit, it will be introduced quickly. Human error is the main cause of air accidents. AI systems will translate instructions issued by air traffic control into text, without misunderstanding anything, and multispectral on-board camera systems will be even better at reading taxiing signs and identifying obstacles on the ground, day or night. To do this, Airbus is testing a laser system based on lidar. The taxiing, take-off, and landing stages will probably be automated first.

But there are also risks involved when you automate things. Pilots have already become so dependent on autopilots that they’re beginning to forget fundamental procedures, ignore them, or even unlearn them because too much responsibility is being delegated to automatic systems. You just need to think about how dependent you become on the navigation system in your car. Who still uses a map these days, or simply drives an unfamiliar route based on intuition?

New mobility concepts require changes in the infrastructure. What do you think the most important milestone will be for this?

Transportation options will always be more varied in cities. People walk, ride bicycles or electric bikes, travel by bus or train, or use their own cars – and in the future they’ll also ride in autonomous vehicles. In urban areas, autonomous flying taxis or drones could be used to transport people or urgent products and medicines. All of these applications need powerful sensors and control systems, and these also need to conserve as much energy as possible. This is precisely where the publicly backed OCEAN12* project comes in, which involves 27 partners from all around Europe from the fields of semiconductor technology, electronics, aeronautical technology, and automotive engineering. Together, the aim is to develop sensor systems to use in autonomous driving and flying. Bosch heads up the 14 organizations that make up the German consortium. Together, the project partners will develop different types of energy-efficient components by the end of 2021. These will capture and process data on the immediate surroundings of cars and airplanes. This will include sensors monitoring the surroundings of vehicles, lidar or radar sensors, and microprocessors for processing information. The electronics will convert recorded data into control commands for downstream components. These could be car brakes or steering systems, or units controlling the engine of a flying taxi.

Bosch is also taking steps to address another requirement that affects new mobility concepts: the use of high-resolution maps. To do this, shares have been bought in the maps company HERE Technologies in order to work together on a manufacturer-independent solution. The idea is that vehicles should share traffic information gathered by their sensors so that maps can be updated in real time. There are also potential fields of application for such solutions beyond the transportation space – such as connected factories, where accurate maps of indoor areas can help automate and coordinate material flows.

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Dr. Andrej Heinke (author)
Vice President Corporate Foresight and Megatrends
Robert Bosch GmbH (Stuttgart)