The future will be less car-oriented. But in Germany, the autobahn travels no less than 13,000 kilometers. As well as being one of the longest and densest road systems in the world, it’s also a love letter to pushing cars to their limits with stretches with virtually no speed limits for certain vehicle classes.
But it also provides a critical test bed for the future of mobility, with a plethora of rapidly evolving technology in the wild. Let’s see.
Driving with your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road
In December 2021, the German Federal Motor Transport Agency (KBA) granted Mercedes-Benz system approval for level 3 autonomous driving below UN-R157 on the highway.
It means drivers can legally participate in “certain sideline activities at speeds of up to 60 km/h in heavy traffic or traffic jams on suitable stretches of highway”, such as the autobahn. These include talking to colleagues via In-Car Office, surfing the web or watching movies – otherwise blocked applications while driving. The apps are available via Mercedes Benz DRIVE PILOT in the S-Class and EQS, at an additional cost of €5,000 and €7,430 respectively.
Specifically, it is level 3 automation (there are 5 SAE levels), which means that the driver must stay behind the wheel and remain alert. You can go hands-free, take your eyes off the road to watch a movie and turn your head to the side. But you can’t take a nap.
However, drivers should only use these functions at speeds of 60 km/h in heavy traffic or traffic congestion. Since the speed on the highway is 130 km/h, this is comparable to checking your phone during a traffic jam, so there is work to be done.
The technology is currently exclusive to Germany. But Mercedes is looking to get regulatory approval in California and Nevada later this year.
Electric trucks powered on the autobahn
With electric trucks becoming the future of freight transport, sufficient charging facilities is a challenge for long-haul transport.
As with tram or train tracks, the trucks on the highway run using overhead electricity from a pantograph. They switch to battery power for the final miles. This halves energy consumption and significantly reduces local air pollution.
However, the initiative costs no less than 72.8 million euros for the development of infrastructure, the operation of test tracks and associated research. It is not cheap and raises questions about the financial viability of the initiative compared to conventional battery charging in truck depots.
The vehicle is economical in terms of dimensions and has a range of about 180 kilometers on a single charge. But it is also the world’s first foldable electric car, making it suitable for short city trips as well as for the autobahn.
The vehicle is built to withstand various driving and parking conditions. Two steel beams on the vehicle frame can extend the wheel track by 25 centimeters on each side at the touch of a button. This increases stability for fast riding, which aids in better weight distribution, such as when cornering.
It also makes it suitable for driving on the autobahn, although it can only reach 90 km per hour to date. The folding chassis also allows for width adjustment, meaning four City Transformers can park in one standard parking space.
The company is from Israel, and Roding Mobility in Germany built the prototypes.
City Transformer was awarded Top Tech Startup at SHIFT Mobility at IFA, Berlin last week. Udi Meridor, co-founder, COO & Strategy, told me that the company is planning test drives later this year with a target of mass production by 2024.
A true industrial use for 5G
Imagine you are driving on the autobahn. Your GPS can tell you when to change lanes or adjust your speed. This results in a smoother journey with fewer traffic jams and accidents. In Germany, a consortium called Providentia ++ does exactly this. Contributors include the Technical University of Munich, Intel, Valeo (automotive supplier), Fortis (Bavarian R&D institute for software-intensive systems), Elektrobit (automotive software systems expert) and Cognition Factory (digital twin solutions), as well as associated partners such as 3D Mapping Solutions GmbH, Siemens Mobility and Huawei.
Providentia focuses on a 3.5 km long A9 Digital Motorway Testbed, a dedicated area close to the autobahn. Snsors collects real-time data. This is fed into a digital twin. It simulates the ongoing flow of traffic, detects potential problems and provides warnings and advice to drivers over a powerful 5G connection. In the future, a companion app will provide drivers with a comprehensive real-time view of the surrounding traffic environment.
Slow down the highway
Despite the autobahn’s relationship with innovation in the aforementioned use cases, the most radical idea on the autobahn is perhaps the simplest, in light of the current oil crisis: a speed limit.
And there is a precedent: during the oil crisis of 1973, Germany laid a temporary speed limit on the highway.
The Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Aid Association) calls for: speed limits from 100 km/h on highways and 80 km/h outside the city to reduce 9 million tons of CO2 and 3.7 billion liters of fuel.
But this year, the three-party coalition agreed to no general speed limits on motorways.
Unfortunately, there is also limited national support, with a recent opinion poll commissioned by the magazine Der Spiegel note that only 55% of Germans support an immediate, temporary speed limit, and 39% are against it.
The autobahn is a critical testing ground for promoting technical mobility. But it also represents a country unwilling to sacrifice the right to drive fast for the greater good. So it looks like Germany will suffer more from oil shortages in the coming months to bring about real change.