Is Berlin too chaotic for self-driving cars?

Automotive equipment supplier Magna takes on the unique traffic challenges of Berlin in order to develop self-driving software.

Riding in a modified Jeep Grand Cherokee down the Bundesstraße through Berlin's Tiergarten, the driver takes his hands off the wheel and the car does a reasonable job of maintaining its lane position. Joern Ihlenburg, engineering manager at Magna, the automotive equipment supplier that turned this Grand Cherokee into a self-driving car, points out that the lanes in Berlin are substantially narrower than those in the US.

The lane width makes this self-driving test a real challenge, exacerbated by the Grand Cherokee, which is wider than typical European cars.

The test becomes untenable, however, when we approach the traffic circle around the Victory column, the 19th-century landmark in the center of Berlin's Tiergarten. The Grand Cherokee's driver takes hold of the steering wheel as we approach the Victory column, and Ihlenburg, sitting in the back seat with me, explains that this first generation of Magna's Max4 Autonomous Driving Platform isn't up to handling this situation.

I look at the chiaroscuro of mixed lines on the pavement, with five major roads entering and exiting the traffic circle's five lanes. It's a mess, so I get why the car's computer can't handle it. Human drivers can barely cope.

Ihlenburg remains confident. "The hardware is up to the task," he says, "it now comes down to the software."

14. September 2017

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