Self-driving cars are now on the streets of Hamburg

By Charles Riley, CNN Business

(CNN) — Five electric Volkswagen cars fitted with the latest in autonomous technology are now driving a section of Hamburg’s streets.

The carmaker announced Wednesday that its first tests of vehicles with Level 4 automation in a major German city are underway.

The e-Golf cars Volkswagen is testing are designed to handle complex urban traffic patterns without help from drivers, although they must be ready to intervene. Level 5 automation, the only higher category, requires the vehicle to perform all tasks, turning every rider into a passenger.

The cars are driving three kilometers (1.9 miles) of urban Hamburg roads where new signals and other traffic management systems have been installed to facilitate autonomous driving.

The goal is to upgrade another six kilometers (3.7 miles) of the city’s streets by 2020 with the new infrastructure that allows vehicles and traffic management systems to communicate with one another.

Volkswagen says that computers stashed in each test car contain the processing power of 15 laptops, allowing up to 5 gigabytes of data to be communicated every minute.

The cars are also equipped with 11 laser scanners, seven radars and 14 cameras.

Axel Heinrich, head of Volkswagen Group research, said the tests “center on technical possibilities as well as urban infrastructure requirements.”

“In order to make driving even safer and more comfortable in future, vehicles not only have to become autonomous and more intelligent — cities must also provide a digital ecosystem,” he said in a statement.

The German government is funding similar sites, or “test beds,” in Berlin, Braunschweig, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Ingolstadt and Munich to encourage autonomous vehicle testing in those cities.

Autonomous driving can be tested anywhere in Germany, under certain conditions, but the “test beds” function as real-world laboratories that can be observed by policymakers. Responsibility for the tests rests with users.

Volkswagen and many of its global rivals are now investing heavily in autonomous driving. Waymo, a subsidiary of Google owner Alphabet, is widely recognized as the industry leader.

Other tech companies including Uber are testing similar technology, as are traditional carmakers such as Ford, General Motors and Nissan.

German automakers Daimler and BMW, which compete against each other in the luxury car market, have formed a strategic partnership focused on autonomous driving. They are testing Level 4 cars in China.

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