Continental licensed to test autonomous vehicles in Nevada
Continental AG is the first automotive supplier to receive an autonomous vehicle testing license in the state of Nevada, the company said Wednesday.
Although Continental's first testing vehicle requires a human operator, it's being called a "highly automated" 2012 Volkswagen Passat.
In a statement, the German supplier said it aims to launch production for partially automated driving systems by 2016. Continental's ultimate goal is to have fully autonomous vehicles ready for production by 2020 or 2025, the company said.
"Of course, we'd need customers," Continental spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell said on Wednesday. "But we think it would be possible to have this by then."
With a partially automated vehicle, the driver can switch between automated and manual modes. In theory, a driver stuck in traffic could switch a car into autonomous mode, and it would keep him going at a safe distance from the car ahead. Even if another car starts to weave into his lane, the car would adjust.
Blackwell said the automated system can be particularly useful in a traffic jam environment and relieve the stress of driving. But a conscious driver is still required in the front seat.
A number of automakers are experimenting with driverless cars, but Google Inc. upped the ante in recent months when it developed a radar-guided Toyota Prius and began lobbying state legislatures to allow driverless vehicles on public roads. Florida and California also have passed laws permitting autonomous vehicles on the road.
Continental doesn't have a fully autonomous vehicle for reasons such as cost and technology. In addition to requiring a telematics system that can read all roads and road markings, autonomous vehicles also need to implement construction and speed limit recognition. Blackwell said Continental is developing a speed limit sign recognition system in Europe and will eventually do so in other countries.
To ensure safety, Continental's test vehicle always has a trained engineer behind the wheel. As long as the car is engaged in highly automated mode, the engineers are able to take notes and make observations.
Blackwell said she doesn't see how autonomous cars could not be commonplace in the future, especially with decreasing costs of technology.
"Most of our technology is found on the road right now in other vehicles," Blackwell said. "We've just combined it."
Safety sensors in autonomous vehicles are becoming so good that their reaction time is better than human reaction time, according to Blackwell. The cost of safety sensors is going down as well.
"You combine all of this technology and eventually we will see a day when there will be no vehicle accidents," she said, "and that is going to mean no fatalities."
Continental ranks No. 3 on Automotive News' list of the top 100 global suppliers with estimated worldwide sales to automakers of $30.52 billion in its 2011 fiscal year.
David Sedgwick contributed to this report.