Car companies racing to build self-driving cars are calling for trust in their technology while acknowledging public faith in the industry has diminished.
The German car industry is leading a push for autonomous vehicles, with Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen presenting thinly-veiled concept cars at this week’s Frankfurt motor show pointing to electric, self-driving models likely to go on sale before 2020.
Dogged by issues including Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal and allegations of cartel conduct, Germany’s car makers are trying to win support for emerging tech that has the potential to change motoring forever.
Speaking at the Frankfurt motor show, Daimler chair and Mercedes-Benz head of passenger cars Dieter Zetsche told reporters, customers and colleagues that “there has been a loss of trust – trust in the German car industry’s power of innovation and sustainability, and I regret that very much”.
Audi research and development boss Peter Mertens agreed with Dr Zetsche.
“Of course there is a loss of trust in the car industry,” he said.
“We have to build that trust back up, and we work hard on that.
“Integrity, ethics etc, play a much higher value and role in our organisation than it ever did before.”
Dr Mertens told Australian reporters that belief in the capabilities of technology was essential to the roll-out of self-driving cars.
Audi unveiled a production-ready A8 sedan in Frankfurt with self-driving capabilities that go beyond any model currently on the road.
Set to go on sale in Europe next month, the new A8 will assume responsibility for driving when owners ask it to take control.
Audi’s AI Traffic Jam Pilot system works on highways and stop-start traffic situations at speeds up to 60km/h, though Australian regulations may prevent that feature from being part of the car’s initial Australian specification when it arrives in 2018.
Audi will be the first company to openly accept responsibility and legal liability for a self-driving car.
“If there is anything that happens, that leads to an accident which is caused by a failure of the vehicle, the system as such, it’s our responsibility,” Dr Mertens said.
The ex-Volvo executive said drivers who tested the system experienced initial scepticism before placing their faith in the car.
“You build up trust, that’s the most important thing,” he said. “Trust that the car is really capable of dealing with anything that comes up in an any situation in the given parameters.
“If you can’t trust the system working 100 per cent, it’s stress.”
That sort of trust led to the death of an American Tesla owner in 2016.
The US National Transportation Safety Board published a report on September 9 that found Tesla owner Joshua Brown died because of “overreliance on vehicle automation”.
Mr Brown’s Tesla Model S sedan was in an “Autopilot” driving assistance mode when it slammed into the side of a truck that failed to give way to his car.
NTSB chair Robert Sumwalt said Brown placed too much faith in the Tesla’s abilities, and that the company had “a lack of sufficient system safeguards” to prevent an accident.
Tesla shook up the car industry with battery-powered models offering more advanced driver aids – even self-driving capability – than that put forward by established brands.
Elements of the automotive industry remain sceptical of Tesla’s approach, which regularly updates customer cars with varying degrees of “Autopilot” ability in a process known as Beta testing.
Asked about the NTSB’s findings into Mr Brown’s death, Dr Mertens told reporters “we don’t do things like others do”.
“We would never, ever accept something that we haven’t fully validated.”
Sensors on Mr Brown’s Tesla were reportedly unable to recognise the obstacle posed by the reflective side of a white truck in bright conditions.
Stressing that he was “not talking about any of our competitors”, Dr Mertens said “I would never release ‘Beta’ versions of any sort of tools in a car and would never, ever, allow things like that to happen without having the right sensors,” he said.
A survey of Australian motorists published by the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative found that “the community has concerns about many issues relating to self-driving cars”.
A parliamentary committee into driverless cars put forward a 10-point plan last week that called for local trials of self-driving cars open to the general public.
Mercedes research and development boss Ola Kallenius said the best way to win the trust of customers was by demonstrating technical abilities in the real world.
“In our case, technology is the answer,” he said.
“The technology speaks for itself.”