Robo-Car Brakes for Balloons as Real World Tests Driverless Hype

On a test route in Berlin traffic, an experimental Jeep Grand Cherokee slams on its brakes every few hundred yards, like a nervous teenager with a learner’s permit. In a sense, that’s exactly what the robo-car is.

Even after months of navigating the same 11-kilometer (7-mile) set of roads, the sport utility vehicle that’s kitted out with an array of radars and sensors gets spooked frequently. Whether it’s grass, street litter or a political billboard, there are endless surprises that overwhelm the auto and show just how complex self-driving is in real life.

“The car is like a beginning driver,” said Joern Ihlenburg, a manager at auto-parts maker Magna International Inc.’s research and development unit. “It doesn’t have any experience. Last week a blue balloon flew past and the car didn’t know what it was and braked.”

The Jeep’s trip isn’t wholly stop-and-start. The vehicle moves steadily around a multilane traffic circle with an impatiently driven truck following close behind, which would be unsettling to many human operators. Yet the overall performance shows how difficult it’ll be for self-driving autos to master an ever-changing city, even as hands-free operation on highways comes into view.

The car industry has developed a ranking for vehicle automation, with future models capable of fully driverless trips topping the list at Level 5. Luxury-auto makers BMW AG and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz brand currently compete with level 2 features, while Volkswagen AG’s Audi offers a car with close to Level 3 autonomy. Suppliers including Magna, Continental AG and Delphi Automotive Plc are in an equally tight battle to provide the components — cameras, sensors, radar — and the software to integrate them all and push the technology forward.

Swamy Kotagiri with the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Source: Magna International Inc.

Aurora, Ontario-based Magna, the world’s third-biggest auto-components maker, estimates revenue from its autonomous-driving unit will double to about $1 billion by 2020, according to Chief Technology Officer Swamy Kotagiri. But while science-fiction images of people riding in wholly driverless vehicles grab headlines, he expects few customers to adopt the top technology in the foreseeable future.

“I’m confident” highly or fully automated cars will be operating in “geo-constrained areas quite soon,” Kotagiri told reporters in Berlin. But in areas with lots of people or vehicles moving at different speeds and in different directions? “No.”

The Jeep carries Magna’s MAX4 self-driving unit underneath its rear storage area, and its trips are programmed through the navigation system on the dashboard. Its struggles to coexist with other road users become clear when a truck at a comfortable distance in front drifts slightly into the SUV’s lane, and the passengers are jolted with another hit to the brakes. It’s also the slowest-moving vehicle on the road as the computer must stick to the 50-kilometer-an-hour city speed limit. 

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