Easy Rider Bertha, You Can Drive My Car

Taking a ride in Bertha, a prototype driverless car being developed and tested by Mercedes-Benz in Silicon Valley, reveals an impressive array of technology and engineering along with some vexing challenges before full-scale production can begin.
Relax, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Günther Krehl steers the S500 out of the parking lot. The black Mercedes-Benz purrs along the streets. It’s afternoon, not too much traffic, just a couple of pedestrians are on their way to the office buildings in Sunnyvale, a city to the south of Silicon Valley.

At an intersection, the Mercedes engineer removes his hands from the steering wheel. A female voice announces, “System is active”. That’s Bertha.

It’s an insane moment.

As if guided by an invisible hand, the wheel turns to the left and the luxury sedan turns, paying attention to oncoming traffic and staying within the traffic lanes. On the straightaway, it steps on the gas, a bit wildly but confident on the road. The car stops at a red traffic signal. When the light turns green, Bertha makes a left turn and the Mercedes is zooming onto the freeway. Attempting to enter the flow of traffic, a light blue Toyota Prius pulls alongside, driven by a Silicon Valley hippie with long, gray hair and a scraggly beard. The hippie doesn’t notice that Bertha is starting to experience major problems.

Bertha recognizes the Prius with her side radar, but what she doesn’t comprehend is that the hippie isn’t letting her into traffic because he apparently is engrossed in other matters. The Mercedes hits the brakes and would come to a complete stop in the acceleration lane if Mr. Krehl hadn’t intervened by stepping on the gas and swinging in behind the Prius.

Mercedes is currently testing two self-driving S500s, Bertha and Sunny, on the streets of Silicon Valley. Three similarly automated Mercedes are driving in Germany on the roads around Sindelfingen near Stuttgart. Three hundred engineers at Daimler and 20 software experts in Silicon Valley are working “Active Security” with the goal of producing a self-driving Mercedes by 2020 at the latest.

The interior of Bertha looks like a perfectly normal S500, but that can’t disguise the problems she’s facing.

The importance of the self-driving car to Daimler can be seen in the keynote address to be delivered by Chairman and Mercedes-Benz head Dieter Zetsche at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2015, where he’ll introduce the driverless vehicle concept. The project remains secret, but word it is it will be a newly developed “research model,” similar to one presented at the 2011 IAA International Motor Show.

Rival Audi also touted a self-driving car at the CES. The Ingolstadt-based automaker plans to cruise the 500-mile stretch from Stanford in Northern California to Las Vegas with a driverless car. Like Mercedes, Audi has licenses from the states of California and Nevada, which include requirements that two specially trained drivers be in the car and that the vehicle be insured for a minimum of $5 million (€4.02 million). “We want to show what we can do technically,” said Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi board member for technical development.

Mercedes offers a virtual driving tour at its Silicon Valley research lab in the car it plans to show at the CES. The interior design is reminiscent of the 1960s with curved bucket seats, which can turn 180 degrees to create a seating arrangement around a table that can slide out of the rear console. The only thing missing is a lava lamp. Interactive graphic panels are set in the table, windows, almost everywhere, which can be operated with a swiping motion. “We want to create a ‘third location,’ alongside the home and office,” said Ralf Lamberti, the head of Daimler interactive cars, sounding as much like a Starbucks manager as an automobile executive.

The interior of Bertha looks like a perfectly normal S500, but that can’t disguise the problems she’s facing. When the car in front of Bertha bangs into the car ahead of it, the driverless car comes to a complete stop as the drivers get out to exchange information. In fact, Bertha wouldn’t move from the spot for the next hour or so, until Mr. Krehl takes the wheel and drives past the traffic accident.

Bertha takes command again, flawlessly. The steering wheel whips back and forth. Watching it is much more like a pleasant dream than a nightmare. It’s amazing how quickly Bertha gains your trust.

There is a square screen on the instrument panel next to the speedometer. Black and white images from the front stereo camera can be seen as software transforms cars and pedestrians into so-called “stixels,” tiny rectangular elements of data dance across the screen like an animated cartoon. Oncoming traffic is red and cars in the same lane are blue. That’s how Bertha sees and measures the world.

But she doesn’t see everything.

Shortly before returning to the research lab, a black squirrel scurries across the road in front of the Mercedes. To save the rodent, Mr. Krehl again reaches for the wheel. The camera didn’t detect the squirrel. Technically, Mercedes could make it more sensitive, but the danger of confusing Bertha is too great. Jörg Hillenbrand, head of Autonomous Driving at Mercedes in Silicon Valley, sighs, “We love little animals, but we can’t brake for every shadow cast.”



Daimler, like many auto firms, is planning similar projects; Tesla is well on the way.


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Thomas Jahn writes for Handelsblatt in New York on economics and politics.  To contact the author: [email protected]