As far back as 50 years ago, Continental was already doing groundbreaking work in preparing for the future of mobility. On September 11, 1968, Continental’s first electronically controlled driverless car took to the Contidrom test track in the Lüneburg Heath, to the amazement of the public in attendance. “The Future Is Here” and “Around the Banked Turn with a Ghost at the Wheel” were among the headlines. More than 400 newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television channels reported on the event. The actual purpose of this visionary project was to determine how tires could be tested precisely using scientific methods under programmed conditions. However, the Continental engineers were pushing the limits of what was technically possible at the time and, in a sense, were paving the way for the future of driving.
50 years later, in the summer of 2018: Continental invited three retired engineers to the Contidrom so they could recount their stories first-hand. Herbert Ulsamer, Hans-Jürgen Meyer and Klaus Weber returned to the place they gathered their first experiences as young Continental engineers. The driverless car was one of their first big projects and today, they will not only get to see the legendary Mercedes "Stroke Eight" again, but also get a glimpse of what's new in automated driving.
The new systems for the driverless test vehicle were developed for Continental by Siemens, Westinghouse and researchers at the technical universities of Munich and Darmstadt. The vehicle was guided by a wire on the road surface. The electronics system in the car used sensors to detect whether it was still on track and automatically adjusted the steering accordingly. “Ultimately, it was a car that drove by wire,” remarked Hans-Jürgen Meyer (78). Fifty years ago, he was a young engineer responsible for the development of new measurement methods for providing objective tire analyses. This augmented what had previously often been purely subjective tire evaluations. Measurement coils attached to the vehicle detected a magnetic field emitted by the wire attached to the road surface. This system enabled precision electronic control.
In the Mercedes-Benz 250 Automatic (also known as the “Stroke Eight”), the engineers installed a range of equipment including electro-mechanical steering, an electro-mechanical throttle regulator and a radio system for reporting measurements – cutting-edge technology at the time. In addition, the bumpers were adorned with an array of antennas, with the control electronics and an electro-pneumatic braking system housed in the trunk.
Via the wire to the car, the control station next to the test track sent commands telling it to brake, accelerate or sound the horn. The benefit of the completely new test system was that ruling out the possibility of human influence resulted in a considerable increase in the accuracy of the measurements. Meanwhile, the tests meant that the Contidrom, which had opened the year before, was being used to its full capacity for the first time.
“Measurement technology was still in its infancy back then, and we had developed a lot of it ourselves,” explained Herbert Ulsamer (76), who began his career at Continental as a young automotive engineer in 1965 before retiring in 2006. “Research and development (R&D) at Continental was undergoing radical change at the time,” he recalled. Ever stricter requirements applicable to tires as a product called for more thorough research and testing. At the time, more than 1,000 developers were working at Continental on new rubber compounds, tire designs and treads. Today, around 1,300 engineers work at the Stöcken campus alone. They develop new tire models for cars and commercial vehicles as well as for specialist vehicles such as forklift trucks and agricultural machinery. The technology company Continental employs around 44,000 people in research and development.
“For us young engineers, the e-car was like a great big toy,” said Meyer with a smile as he shared vivid memories with former colleagues Ulsamer and Klaus Weber (81) at the anniversary event at the Contidrom. To the three retired engineers, the “e-car” is not a modern electric car but their “electronically controlled car.” “When you went out in the car, you would constantly see and hear the stepper motor working away on the steering wheel, always making a clicking sound,” recalled Meyer. “For employees like us, the car was and everyday thing, but for the visitors from all over the world, it was hugely impressive and fascinating to see a car cruising around without a driver. They saw that Continental was doing something truly extraordinary.”
During their project, the Continental engineers had some memorable experiences working at the forefront of the technology available 50 years ago. “There was a pilot phase, during which test runs with the e-car took place at night as well. The aim was to use it as efficiently and effectively as possible. That meant I would stand at the control station while the car drove through the night. You would see the headlights appearing and disappearing again and again. Sometimes, though, the car wouldn’t come past. This meant that it had lost the wire and had stopped automatically,” said Meyer. Right from the very first driverless vehicle at Continental, development activities were focused on safety in the event of an accident.
“The steel structure in the concrete track probably diverted the magnetic field slightly every now and then,” explained Weber, who worked for the “Electronics” group as a mechanical engineer and electrician in 1968. “As long as it was going in a straight line, everything was fine. But we were particularly interested in lateral aquaplaning – in other words, how the vehicle handled in bends on a wet road. And then often, quick as a flash, the car would lose the wire and come to a halt.
There was also a sheet of glass built into the track, and underneath that was a high-speed camera taking 10,000 photographs per second. The goal was to see how the blocks in the tread behaved when the car was in motion. The wire had to be laid in such a way that the tires of the e-car rolled exactly over the sheet of glass. That sometimes worked well, but often didn’t work at all.” At numerous events between 1968 and 1974, the driverless e-car was one of the main attractions for visitors to the Contidrom. Despite all the innovations, the objective of the automated vehicle test for tire development was not yet achievable at that time.
“Ingenuity, creativity and a pioneering spirit are part of Continental’s DNA,” commented Kurt Lehmann, corporate technology officer at Continental and in charge of the corporation’s long-term technology strategy. “Today, we are working on the future of mobility, just as we were 50 years ago. While the magnetic field of a wire was responsible for the car’s ‘navigation‘ at the Contidrom in 1968, we now use on-board computers, satellite navigation and advanced driver assistance systems. Back then a single main computer gathered the results produced by the electronically controlled car, but now we connect more and more cars directly via the Internet. We are now working on automated and autonomous driving – on highways, in cities, and to help with parking.”
Continental’s goal is seamless, automated mobility without accidents in all variations. To that end, the technology company is currently working on getting highly automated driving ready for production and, at the same time, on the systems necessary to enable fully automated driving on the autobahn by 2025. Highly automated autobahn driving in itself is designed to allow car drivers to temporarily focus their minds on activities other than driving. With fully automated driving, this should be possible for sections of the route without the driver having to act as a fallback mode at all. Continental also believes in autonomous driving. The technology company is testing components and systems for driverless robo-taxis in cities with its Continental Urban Mobility Experience (CUbE) test platform. At the same time, Continental is already pursuing the concept of developing vehicle systems for autonomous vehicle fleets in the distant future. If Continental’s plans come to fruition, the BEE (not only a reference to the insect, but also short for Balanced Economy and Ecology mobility concept) will one day form a swarm of autonomous vehicles of various sizes and configurations, all powered by electricity.
Fifty years after the e-car blazed a trail at the Contidrom, Continental is now working on the next generation of test systems for reliable, efficient and reproducible tire tests in real-life conditions. The challenges that presented themselves back then are motivating today’s developers to make full use of the opportunities that the company itself offers today. “Even though the vehicle did not fulfill all expectations at the time, it was still a remarkable project from a modern-day perspective. Continental showed a willingness to take risks and break new and truly revolutionary ground back then – and it continues to do so to this day,” said Thomas Sych, head of global passenger and light truck tire testing in Stöcken. “Ultimately, you can draw a straight line from the test pioneers at the end of the 1960s all the way to our test systems today. Since 2012, we have been conducting many of our tire tests on the test tracks in the AIBA (Automated Indoor Braking Analyzer) building at the Contidrom, where the tests are automated and completely unaffected by the weather. Fifty years to the day since the e-car took to the track at the Contidrom, we are now deploying a driverless tire test vehicle based on the Continental Cruising Chauffeur in Uvalde, Texas,” explained Sych.
The new driverless tire test vehicle for the test facility in the U.S.A. has been adapted to suit the requirements of the tire test on the basis of the Cruising Chauffeur system developed for highways by Continental. Whereas with the Cruising Chauffeur, development has focused primarily on assisting the driver with automated driving on autobahn routes, the team of developers working on the Uvalde test vehicle is taking things much further. The tire test vehicles are designed to drive autonomously along the test track, which means that there is no longer any need for a test driver to sit in the vehicle while it is put through its paces. The medium-term plan is for multiple autonomous vehicles to cruise around the track at the same time, all monitored from a control center. The main goal is the optimized endurance test on the different test tracks in Uvalde. These days, in scorching heat and extreme environmental conditions, test drivers have to pilot the vehicles hundreds of miles to identify potential weaknesses in new tire designs and rubber compounds. Thanks to automation and the ability to control vehicles down to the very last centimeter, not only should it be easier to compare results, but it should also be possible to optimize the way in which the vehicles drive on the track and thereby to minimize wear on the track itself. In fact, these are very similar objectives to those in place at the Contidrom 50 years ago, when engineers Ulsamer, Weber and Meyer wrote test history with the e-car.
When asked for their thoughts on the automated driving technologies being pioneered by their modern colleagues at Continental today, the three retired engineers react with a mixture of enthusiasm and reticence: “As long as I have the steering wheel in front of me and am able to intervene, I’d be OK with being driven by an automated car. But I wouldn’t read the newspaper at the same time,” says Weber, with a twinkle in his eye. “Plus I still really enjoy driving myself.”