AI News, How We Gave Sight to the Mercedes Robotic Car

How We Gave Sight to the Mercedes Robotic Car

It is August 2013, and we are sitting in what looks like a standard S-Class Mercedes, nosing through traffic in a small town in southern Germany.

We and our colleagues at Daimler call her Bertha, after the wife of Mercedes-Benz founder Karl Benz, who exactly 125years earlier became the first joyrider in history when she took her two sons for a 100-kilometer jaunt in her husband’s car, from Mannheim to Pforzheim.

Without input from the driver, cars can now park, space themselves out on the highway, hold the center of the lane, and even stop when a crash is imminent.

On its way to Pforzheim, our car had to deal autonomously with a number of highly complex situations, including encounters withroundabouts, crossings, traffic lights, pedestrians, cyclists, and trams.

Add to that eight state-of-the-art radar sensors, invisible from the outside, which provide close to 360-degree coverage around the vehicle, sensing objects from a few centimeters to as much as 200 meters away.

Most present-day automotive radars represent cars, pedestrians, and other moving targets as points on a plane, each with an arrow indicating the target’s speed and direction of motion.

Just as people recognize objects by taking into account their movement, color, shape, and size, autonomous vehicles are at their best when using many different types of sensors.

It measures the speed of one object relative to that of another by means of the Doppler effect, most commonly heard in the changing frequency of a train’s whistle as it approaches and then retreats from you.

Then there are the radars that fly high above Earth, in satellites or in airplanes, exploiting synthetic-aperture techniques to provide imagelike representations of stationary elements down below.

What has aided them most is the development of compound semiconductors, such as indium gallium arsenide and silicon germanium, which can reach frequencies of 76gigahertz or higher, making possible sensors that are small enough to fit behind the bumper and yet can distinguish a pedestrian from a car from 100 meters away.

What’s more, these frequencies see through rain and snow, provide good resolution over a wide field, and can be updated every 40 to 60 milliseconds, fast enough to keep a close eye on a changing traffic situation.

(Toyota had introduced the first commercial adaptive cruise control system the year before.) The system used one long-range radar and two shorter-range units, all of them mounted in the front of the vehicle.

Daimler then developed a succession of driver-assistance systems capable of detecting hazardous situations, issuing an alert, and more recently, automatically intervening to avoid an accident.

Another, dubbed Pre-Safe Brake, introduced the following year, automatically applies the brakes if it determines that there’s a risk of colliding with the vehicle in front.

If the short-range radar determines that a crash simply cannot be avoided, the system applies the brakes some 100 ms before impact, substantially reducing damage to the car and its occupants.

Finally, in 2013, the new S-Class boasted an electronic safety “cocoon” spanning nearly 360 degrees, with both short-range radars and a stereo camera.

We installed two slightly modified long-range radars from Continental Automotive Group at the sides of the front bumpers to provide early detection of vehicles coming from the left or right at intersections.

The car must get a precise fix on the location and direction of every object that might collide with it, particularly in dense traffic, in narrow streets, and when facing oncoming traffic.

But radar alone works under all weather conditions, provides a full 360 degrees of coverage, and sees up to 200 meters ahead.

One case where optics work better is in keeping track of the edges of a traffic lane, so that the system can predict the car’s trajectory and keep the car within its lane.

To exploit these reflections and to predict the course of winding roads, we developed algorithms that match clothoids, the special curves used in many roads to avoid sudden lateral accelerations.

Parked cars often hide the approach of a pedestrian at the side of the road, which means the sensors don’t have enough time to predict the pedestrian’s movement and adjust the car’s driving accordingly.

While the engineering of fully autonomous vehicles remains out of reach for the moment for commercial car manufacturers, some benefits accrue immediately after incremental improvements in the various enabling technologies.

For instance, electronic stability control systems, which Mercedes-Benz introduced back in the 1990s, cut U.S. accident rates by 27[PDF] percent for cars and by 67 percent for sport-utility vehicles, according to an analysis by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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