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Bosch cautiously moving full-speed ahead with self-driving car tech

By Ronan Glon

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Bosch, Daimler autonomous Mercedes-Benz S-Class

CES 2019 again illustrated that many of the industry’s brightest minds are working on making self-driving cars a reality in the not-too-distant future. Several not-insignificant issues continue to stand in the way of autonomous driving, including middling consumer acceptance and the lack of a comprehensive legal framework, but car and tech companies are confident they’ll find best way to knock them down.

Digital Trends sat down with Kay Stepper, one of Bosch’s self-driving car experts, on the sidelines of CES 2019 to learn more about the company’s plans for deploying automated cars.

Digital Trends: Bosch is a human-centric company. How does autonomous driving improve the life of the average consumer?

Kay Stepper: Our aim is to improve people’s lives in a number of different ways. The first thing that comes to mind is getting people from point A to point B. If you look at individual transportation, to get around, you need to own your own vehicle, you need to insure it, you need to maintain it, you need to look for a parking spot, and then park it. Those are all pain points for real people today.

The first thing that comes to mind is to assist the driver in removing tedious driving tasks. We’ve already introduced that with advanced driver-assistance systems [like adaptive cruise control]. Now, we transition from driver-assistance systems to different stages of autonomous driving. For example, if you find yourself in a traffic jam, why would the human be tasked with keeping the vehicle in the lane and at a safe distance from other cars? This is something machines are capable of today.

Other examples are how do I get from point A to point B in a metropolitan area?.The idea of an automated taxi comes to mind. Why would I even have to drive the vehicle?

And think about goods transportation. How do we get goods to real people like you and me? Whether it’s long-haul transport or last-mile delivery, we can improve people’s lives by getting these critical goods delivered on time, and relieve humans from long-distance travel.

Do you predict autonomous cars will one day fully replace human-driven cars?

I think there’s going to be a mix of autonomous vehicles and human-driven vehicles for many, many years. There are several reasons for that. Not everyone lives in a metropolitan area. Not everyone wants to give up the task of driving themselves. Not everyone wants go give up individual vehicle ownership. So, why would anyone force that upon someone?

One hurdle standing in the path of autonomous cars is acceptance. People have to trust autonomous cars to use them. What are acceptance levels like?

We just looked at this in 2018. We did a study looking at the acceptance levels and the knowledge levels of recent new car buyers [in the United States]. We asked if they could envision using or owning a self-driving vehicle in the next 10 years. More than 50 percent said “yes, absolutely.” Consumers are bullish about the technology. It’s not 100 percent, though.

Bosch and Mercedes-Benz parent company announced plans to deploy self-driving prototypes based on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in San Jose, California, in 2019 as part of a pilot program. What are you hoping to learn from the program?

Consumer acceptance and feedback. We have a lot of work to do on those topics as an industry. The topic of not accepting that technology, but there is also the topic of over-acceptance, in some cases.

We certainly want to gain more experience in running a fleet. We’re going to have a fleet of vehicles operating in downtown San Jose and gain valuable day-to-day operational experience; that’s where the rubber meets the road. We’ll give real customers, anyone that’s interested, real rides in a level-four vehicle. There is a lot of experience to gain, which is different from the development and testing phase we are going through right now. And, we’ll ready ourselves for the larger launch of level four urban automated taxis in the beginning of the next decade.

In 2018, one of Uber’s self-driving cars hit and killed a pedestrian. It raised a lot of questions about the safety of self-driving cars. How will you make the cars in your pilot program safe?

We are very diligent in training our safety drivers. We have developed a very thorough training and certification program for the safety drivers that are operating these vehicles. In this model deployment in the city of San Jose, there will be a safety driver. They’re Daimler and/or Bosch employees that go through a rigorous training program.

From your perspective, has the accident set back the self-driving car industry?

It’s hard for me to comment on that specifically. We haven’t slowed down. Nothing is delayed. We’re going full speed and sticking to the original timeline.

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