LAS VEGAS - Volkswagen isn't trying to put hundreds of thousands of self-driving Golfs on the road this year. Its ambitions are more realistic: Start deploying automated commercial vehicles for specific uses in limited areas half a decade from now.
The plans for VW's new autonomous driving unit, announced last week, reflected a growing sense of pragmatism in the air at this year's CES event here. Gone for now are the promises of fully self-driving robotaxis being commonplace in 2020. Expectations for Level 4 autonomy - still a six-figure-per-vehicle proposition - have been reset. The hottest trend now might be widespread adoption of advanced driver-assist systems that don't let the driver tune out.
Asked whether people were overly optimistic about the rapid deployment of ubiquitous autonomous cars, Alex Hitzinger, CEO of the VW subsidiaries tasked with bringing autonomous technology to scale, didn't hesitate: "Absolutely," he said. "This is one of the hardest problems we have right now in the world. It is like going to Mars."
He calls the commercialization of autonomous driving "the mother of all systems- engineering problems."
Here's why: Basically, three expensive groups of ingredients are needed to bake up a Level 4 system that can function without human involvement in a defined geography under certain weather conditions or other limitations, he explained. Sensors must perceive the environment; the computing hardware must process the inputs like a brain; and the software must provide the knowledge to translate all the inputs into useful information and decide what to do with it.
The type and placement of the sensors determine what algorithms are needed, and the nature of the software determines what hardware is needed to execute the programs.
If the sensor strategy is changed - say, by no longer using lidar, or using more lidar, or rearranging the camera placement - then the algorithms change, which alters the demands on the hardware.
"So you see, it's a circular systems-engineering optimization effort," he said. "And that all needs to be combined with the overall vehicle. It's an extremely complex topic."