Volkswagen Magazine


urgent warning.

With its involvement in the UR:BAN initiative, Volkswagen is promoting safe, efficient and anxiety-free driving in urban traffic. Do modern assistance systems succeed in transforming a very stressed test person into a relaxed driver? A do-it-yourself experiment.

Text Sabrina Künz
Photos Georg Roske

It may seem silly, but my stomach has been in knots since I set foot on the grounds of the DLR (German Aerospace Center) in Braunschweig during drizzling rain. A touch of ‘driving test’ infuses the situation. The difference? Though I’m not a teenager I am going to be filmed and analysed by professional traffic experts whilst driving.
Volkswagen and 30 other project partners are involved in the national research initiative UR:BAN (Urban Space: user-oriented assistance systems and network management). It began in March 2012 and runs over a period of four years. The project partners work jointly on developing and implementing intelligent and cooperative driver assistance systems for urban traffic of the future. The systems allow drivers to drive safely, efficiently and stress-free in complex urban traffic scenarios. Dr. Julia Werneke, who heads the partial project “Human-Machine Interaction for Urban Environments”, and works in corporate research at Volkswagen, is introducing me to the preliminary findings today.

» I wonder when the concepts will go into production. «

Sabrina Künz, author

Stressed & distracted.

What does human-machine interaction (HMI) mean? In short, it is the way my car communicates with me, the interface between the technology and its user. Dr Julia Werneke: “Urban driving is very dynamic due to complex situations, distractions, mixed road use, short times to make decisions and a large number of road users. Urban driver assistance systems have to process a lot of information, filter it and pass it on to drivers in a form that relieves pressure without distracting them.” It is at this juncture that the sub-project is brought to bear. Its stated aim is to bundle driver assistance systems in a package that supports the driver in the best possible way. The key question is how much and which information the drivers need to adapt their driving style in a specific manner. Dr Julia Werneke again: “A useful warning doesn’t mean that all signals are switched on simultaneously. They have to be effective.”

Watch out, car in your blind spot! The system warns me with an LED signal and in the instrument cluster. The lane-change assistant subsequently supports the overtaking manoeuvre.

To that end the researchers are testing a combination of acoustic, visual and haptic signals to convey information or warnings to drivers. They then develop a modular HMI toolkit system based on the results. It is categorised according to driving situation, desired (re)action and urgency. The modular HMI system differentiates between situations in which comfortable and efficient driving is foremost, and those that concern safe driving, including appropriate reactions ranging from recommended action to control, through to warning and actual intervention. The modular toolkit system encompasses clear design guidelines regarding the assistance systems’ appearance and their placement. It describes visual output media such as the instrument cluster or head-up display, acoustic signals like sounds or speech, visual cues such as LED bar or indicators, as well as haptic signals like a steering moment, jerk on the brake or emergency steering manoeuvre.

» A useful warning doesn’t mean that all signals are switched on simulta­neously. «

Dr. Julia Werneke, Volkswagen AG Group Research

The objective of the HMI modular toolkit system is to function in a generic, modular and expandable manner. Generic means that in future all assistance systems will be consolidated and work together in synchronisation with each other. Modular means that not every car must have the identical mix of assistants. The components have to be expandable because technical advances continue to be developed. I get into the dynamic driving simulator to experience live the current status of the research. The car is mounted on a hexapod, lifted around two metres into the air and subjected to vigorous shaking to simulate a car’s movements. From outside, the whole set-up looks similar to a rollercoaster ride, but inside it feels astonishingly realistic. The scenery is projected as a 270-degree panorama around the car, and corresponding visual angles are sent to screens in the wing and rear-view mirrors, perfecting the realism of the driving experience.

A major scare: a pedestrian suddenly steps out in front of the car. The assistance system intervenes with an emergency braking action. Everyone escapes with just a fright.

The first thing I test is the lane-change assistant. A box-type delivery lorry is crawling along in front of me. Time to overtake. But while I’m obediently activating the indicator, the car behind me swerves out of the lane and floors the accelerator. The assistant sends me a signal both through the instrument cluster and an orange LED on the left wing mirror that it’s not safe to overtake and slows down the car. When the road is clear, the system assists me safely past the vehicle ahead by means of steering movements. Not bad at all.
Next I reach a street with cars parked along the roadside. Will I fit through there? The bottleneck assistant provides the answer: 360° sensors measure the clearance while the assistant manoeuvres the car safely through the danger zone. At first the supporting steering interference feels strange, but I notice myself relaxing after a few minutes and letting myself be led through the situation.

The driver receives important information and warnings via the instrument cluster.

Safe & relaxed.

My pulse is now normal. I’m cruising around the virtual city in an upbeat mood, encountering eye-catching fellow road users trying to distract me. A man with a huge dog, cyclists and a group of people on the left. Will someone perhaps stumble into the street to test me, I wonder, just as I catch something dashing into my field of vision from the right out of the corner of my eye. Before I even know what is happening, a warning signal sounds and the red LED bar lights up. I step on the brakes hard and come to a safe stop right in front of a man. After that shock, the instrument cluster displays an instruction telling me to continue my drive. I end the simulation with a sharper sense of awareness.

The situations described show the logic of the modular HMI toolkit components. As long as there is time enough and the situation remains unthreatening, the vehicle merely provides information. Should I get into critical situations in which my reaction time would be too slow, the system intervenes to prevent an accident. That way I never lose control, and am given clear, specific and practical support.

What comes next for UR:BAN? Now the results are being implemented out on the roads. Dr Julia Werneke: “We are very satisfied with the progress so far. The assistant systems are now being installed in test vehicles and tested in real city traffic.” In conjunction with the concluding presentation, the project group is drawing up a final version of the design guidelines to improve current and future human-machine interaction development. I wonder when I will have my first opportunity to come across an assistant in a car again.

Volkswagen and UR:BAN.

UR:BAN has been working on innovative assistance systems for complex driving situations in urban environments since 2012. Volkswagen Group Research is participating in all three key UR:BAN project areas: “Cognitive Assistance”, “Human Factors in Traffic” and “Networked Traffic System”. They are developing three assistance systems: the “lane-change assistant”, the “bottleneck assistant” and the “emergency braking assistant” within the “Cognitive Assistance” project. Volkswagen is working on an innovative human-machine interface for the “Human Factors in Traffic” area. UR:BAN is a national research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy (BMWi).

As an intelligent communication channel this will filter, prioritise and present information to the driver as it is needed. The Group is developing the “Intersection Pilot”, the “Entering and Starting Assistant” as well as the “Emergency Vehicle Assistant” based on car-to-X communication in connection with the sub project “Networked Traffic System”.