Test field Autonomous Driving: In May the first vehicles will be rolling in Karlsruhe

The FZI Open House provided insight into current projects and development. (Photo: Andreas Drollinger/FZI)

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Innovation is in the air in the Haid-und-Neu-Straße in Karlsruhe.  Not only is PTV’s headquarters located there, the FZI Research Centre for Computer Science is just 200 metres further. At the end of February, the FZI Open House, which provides insight into current projects and development, was held there for the third time. We took this opportunity to meet with the FZI researcher Christian Hubschneider for an interview. We spoke with him about the Test field autonomous driving Baden-Württemberg, where the FZI is managing the consortium.

Compass: Christian, autonomous driving is one of the hottest mobility topics right now. What is the goal of the test field in Karlsruhe?

Christian Hubschneider:  The focus is not on the autonomous vehicle itself, as many people initially think, but rather on the infrastructure. The goal of the project is to equip traffic areas and routes of all types for automated and networked driving. We want to offer developers of autonomous systems – and also entirely different potential interested parties – an environment in which they can try out their applications for future mobility under realistic conditions.

Compass: Which actions does this include?

Christian Hubschneider:  On the one hand, we are creating detailed 3D maps of the entire area. On the other hand, the selected test zones will be equipped with “intelligent” infrastructure, which means, for example, that sensors will be installed to monitor traffic and all kinds of influencing factors in real time. Furthermore, so-called roadside units – radio modules for communication between traffic light and vehicle – will be connected to the light signal systems’ control units at intersections.

The FZI researcher Christian Hubschneider is working on the Test field autonomous driving Baden-Württemberg (Photo: FZI).

Compass: The construction of the infrastructure began last summer. How far have you come in the meantime?

Christian Hubschneider: Our initial focus is on the Ostring, which should gradually be equipped from Haid-und-Neu-Straße to Wolfartsweierer Straße. On Mannheimer Straße, we have cabled the whole intersection, at the corner to the Durlacher Allee we are even a little further. The sensors and a roadside unit have been installed there. Thus, for example, it is possible to transmit when a light turns green or red. Vehicles with appropriate receivers – such as trucks – could then hit the green light phase precisely in test operation without having to brake.

Compass: What are the biggest challenges you are facing?

Christian Hubschneider: Because this is not a typical research project, but rather a kind of equipment-implementation project, we are sometimes confronted with entirely new questions. On the legal side, for example. Whenever you want to set up a camera somewhere, this is data privacy-relevant. Our in-house counsel, who maintains close contact with the city’s attorneys and a few others, has her work cut out for her.

Compass: And when will the first vehicles roll on the test field?

Christian Hubschneider: The starting shot will sound in May. However, the infrastructure will still be expanded after that.

Compass: Are there other test fields for autonomous driving in Germany?

Christian Hubschneider: In addition to many smaller projects, there are two other big test fields. There is a DLR site in Braunschweig, and one on the A9 near Ingolstadt.  There, a section of motorway will be equipped with similar sensors and networking components. In principle, autonomous driving on motorways is a problem which has almost been solved already. Therefore, we find the overland area into the city centre much more exciting.

Compass: Numerous regional partners, including PTV, are involved in this project …

Christian Hubschneider: I think that is what makes it special. We have so much expertise here in the Karlsruhe Technology Region – not just due to the strong research universities, but also because of the IT companies. At the moment, we are conducting workshops with our partners in order to sound out additional possibilities. Models and simulations created by PTV can help with many questions in the test field. For example, in order to test in advance what the effects of a particular percentage of automated vehicles on overall traffic will be or in order to test unforeseen traffic scenarios realistically.

Compass: How much autonomous driving will there be in our everyday life in three years?

Christian Hubschneider: I believe that normal citizens will have their first contact with autonomous vehicles in public transport. In Tokyo and London, for example, underground trains on certain lines are already driving without a driver. Surely small shuttles will be added soon. Furthermore, I assume that the first cars will drive autonomously on motorways very soon – still with restrictions, for example that the driver takes the steering wheel back at construction sites. In my opinion, it will still be a while until autonomous vehicles are driving in city centres.