Putting autonomous driving into the spotlight: An interview with Professor Sahin Albayrak

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At the end of February, the German cabinet passed a new ordinance on autonomous driving – is this a step in the right direction for autonomous driving? We interviewed Professor Sahin Albayrak – Founder and head of the first Distributed Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (DAI-Labor) and Chairman of the Connected Living Association to find out more.

The new ordinance for autonomous cars, which was passed by the German cabinet is extensive. It specifies the corresponding approval procedure and the process is so detailed that around four authorities at different levels have to be involved for each car and various steps have to be taken.Do you see this new ordinance as the right approach for eliminating safety concerns, or do you see it as an obstacle?

The regulation is definitely a step forward. It helps us because it gives us a clearer roadmap on how to apply for operating permits for our autonomous vehicles. It’s the only way we can get the road experience, collect data and train the AI software to make the vehicles better and safer. To address safety concerns, the safety of autonomous vehicles will be much more important than the specific approval pathways.

Many Germans worry about the potential dangers of autonomous driving. You yourself describe BeIntelli as a “showcase for AI-based mobility.” How important do you consider the educational role to be for the long-term success of autonomous cars?

People need to understand, at a basic level, how an autonomous car works. We achieve this by making AI and innovations in mobility tangible. We want to show how an autonomous vehicle perceives its surroundings, how the vehicle and the roadway communicate with each other, and what advantages autonomous driving systems have. I am convinced that explainability and understanding are the keys to creating broad acceptance for the mobility of the future.

That is why, in addition to the BeIntelli project, we are currently building a new center for tangible AI and digitization by focusing on explaining new AI technologies, especially in the mobility sector.

It’s not just Germany, but also China and the USA investing in autonomous driving technology. What factors do you rate as crucial for carmakers to be able to keep up with the other global players in the long term, and to what extent can we set an example with the Autonomous Driving Act?

The legal framework in Germany is innovation-friendly. That’s good and important because it means that the German automotive industry won’t lose out on this topic of the future. However, I believe that we can only catch up if we create as many fields of application as possible. Putting as many autonomous vehicles on the roads driving in regular traffic conditions is the decisive key to training the systems with data and thereby optimizing them.

In which area do you think autonomous vehicles will establish themselves first in Germany and how can we promote this and other areas even more?

In spatially limited industrial campuses, developments are already relatively advanced. The technical and regulatory requirements here are lower than in road traffic, making implementation easier. I see many startups here that are developing exciting products and many large companies that have a need for such products. We can strengthen the scaling of autonomous mobility applications by further networking the ecosystems and bringing startups together with large companies.

With your model project in Berlin, you set up an “urban test field” for the first time, which has to take many factors into account. What lessons have you learned from the project so far?

We don’t have a final picture here yet, because we are still developing our software and the vehicles. But we already have some learnings:

  • We need to do more to promote the networking of the AI and automotive industry ecosystems. As things stand today, there is not enough institutional exchange here.
  • Autonomous vehicles should ultimately bring added value to society. This will only work if they are widely used in society because they are trusted. We won’t achieve that by telling people it’s safer. They have to be able to experience how the technology works and be given the opportunity to feel safe in an autonomous car. This is the only way to demonstrate the benefits of autonomous mobility in terms of safety, economic potential and convenience by allowing people to experience it.

The lessons we have learned so far have prompted us to join forces with the leaders of German industry to establish the world’s first center for experiential AI and digitization. With this Center we will address these learnings and aim to contribute to Germany as an innovation location in the future.

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