More than a few denizens of the city have been pleasantly astonished by the sight of autonomous e-Golfs* driving on the streets of Hamburg. The driver only grabs the wheel in exceptional circumstances. The car is testing autonomous driving.

With all its sensor technology, the modified e-Golf* looks a bit like a cute spaceship darting through sunny Hamburg. Also noteworthy: No one has their hands on the wheel. In theory, at any rate – the specially trained driver Wojciech Derendarz attentively monitors the drive and is ready to assume control at any moment. He is sitting in a car that is tasked with providing valuable data about autonomous driving. The various sensors on the roof, on the fenders and in front and back scan the surroundings with lasers, with radar, ultrasound and cameras.

Autonomous Driving Is Pioneering Work

Derendarz is Volkswagen’s project manager for autonomous driving. He was been studying the matter for about ten years. “Everyone in the department for autonomous driving is very excited,” says Derendarz cheerfully. The project is pioneering work, he says. And autonomous driving in the city is the elite discipline in the field. “It’s enormous in terms of diversity and complexity. The key thing is for our artificial intelligence to detect all relevant objects without issuing false alarms,” explains Derendarz. The project in Hamburg has been running since early February. The test route was set up by the city of Hamburg as a 9-km circuit within the city limits. It runs from the Dammtor train station via Messehallen, Landungsbrücken and the Elbphilharmonie to Rödingsmarkt and back.

Learning Process for Team and Machine

But why the field trial? The idea is to test the complete autonomous package on the roads of the Hanseatic city, which is full of traffic lights, turn lanes and traffic signs – not to mention the other traffic participants, who are out in force today: cars, trucks, motorcycle riders, cyclists and pedestrians. What that also means: intersections, right-of-way rules, parking vehicles and lane changes in moving traffic in the space of very short distances. And that is a lot of input for such a computer brain. “Humans have been training their perception and interpretation of sensory input for thousands of generations. Simulating that with a program is a challenge and a learning process for us and the machine,” says Derendarz. The software tasked with mastering the challenge was developed by his team, primarily in the programming languages C++ and Python. Special technology known as GPUs enables parallel programming in which large amounts of input can be processed simultaneously. The project works with different approaches to artificial intelligence: deep learning, neural networks, pattern recognition methods.

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Source and photo credits: Volkswagen