Robot cars overtake racers

“DTO 10 is now on the Grand Prix circuit.” The radio in Norbert Kohlenbrenner’s hand is rustling as he waits for a confirmation. A warning sign appears in the side window of his black station wagon: Attention! Racing & Test operation. Danger of death! The route supervisor answers: “Confirmed.” Kohlbrenner, head of the test track operation at Lausitzring, drives his company car the last few meters to the driveway. Then briefly accelerates to stop at the long curve of the tri-oval, into the “Hörlitzer Eck” – dedicated to the inhabitants of Hörlitz, who live within earshot of the legendary “EuroSpeedway Lausitz”, as the Lausitzring was also called.

The beginning of a new era: Largest inspection and test track for automated and networked driving moves to the pole position.

The race track is legendary because international competitions have been held on this tarmac for almost 20 years – from the DTM to the Superbike World Championship and Formula 3 through to the RedBull AirRace. At the end of 2017, the Lausitzring found a new use. DEKRA acquired the premises to the adjacent Technology Center (DEKRA Technology Center). Since then, Kohlenbrenner refers to his daily routine as “test operation with racing character”. Because DEKRA turned a racetrack into a test track. During the week, around 200 DEKRA employees inspect vehicles up to the type approval – from Pedelecs to tanks. For DEKRA, the location is ideal for offering all test procedures at a single spot: Engine test stands, exhaust castors for emissions and energy consumption measurements, halls for safety crash tests, or special asphalt tracks for noise measurements. In Germany, there is no comparable area in terms of dimensions. Even across Europe, the location with its approximately 540 hectares, which roughly corresponds to over 700 football fields, is unparalleled. On weekdays, up to 200 different vehicles are tested here. On some weekends a year, events such as the DTM race are held. DEKRA has been at the Lausitzring since 2003. Initially as a tenant, later as a lessee of the test oval, and today as the owner of the entire facility. Over time DEKRA, has invested a high double-digit million amount, created many jobs and a flagship project for the region. The present is now called: Safety instead of glowing asphalt.

The Driver becomes a Passenger

In the coming years, the company plans a giant step into the mobility of the future. The entire site will be upgraded to a test center for automated and networked driving. DEKRA is working closely with Deutsche Telekom to harness the new communication technology – a powerful 5G network – across the site. This standard allows DEKRA and the customer, to test the mobility of the future on a track proven for 20 years. It won’t take long for self-driving cars to lap around the Lausitzring. The long straights serve as “overland scenarios”. As for the racing oval, it becomes the “highway scenario”. What is more, each surface can be converted into a “city scenario”. In Lausitz, DEKRA combines its extensive know-how with that of partners to bring self-driving vehicles safely onto the streets in the coming years. Vehicles that, in the best of cases, require no driver whatsoever. Vehicles that turn drivers into passenger. When Kohlenbrenner finishes his lap around the course of the Lausitzring, he turns off onto a small side street: “DTO 10 has left the Grand Prix circuit,” he says into his radio. He drives past the former paddock, whose 55 boxes are rented out to manufacturers from around the world to test their innovations on the DEKRA grounds for hours or days. On the freshly paved, blue-black shimmering surface directly in front of it. Here is just an SUV braking with a screeching noise. Sensors and cameras connect to innumerable cable strands. Who is testing? Secret. What is being tested? Secret.

DEKRA has been at the Lausitzring since 2003. Initially as a tenant, later as a lessee of the test ovals, and now as owner. Because safety calls for testing.

The computer acts as the passenger. Tests proof whether the car evades the cyclist in time or decelerates reliably. Because only maximum safety creates trust in new technology.

The whole area is screened. If you enter, you have to tap the mobile phone camera. Where once the public could drive to the auditorium, security guards now watch over a locked gate, embedded in a 2.20-meter high chain-link fence fitted with opaque tarpaulin. It encloses the whole area. If a prototype is announced, only a handful of employees will be admitted. This also includes Managing Directors – no exceptions are made.

A clear vision: Safely shaping the mobility of the future. This means: Testing, testing, and testing.

Simulation of different Scenarios

“This is the overland course,” says Kohlenbrenner while the car runs rumbling over a wide road, where years have already eaten into the asphalt. He drives past a muddy motocross track and on a circular surface, on which the DEKRA examiners check the handling and braking behavior of a vehicle. Kohlenbrenner leaves behind a noise measuring section and travels along the ABS measuring section, which is coated with three coverings to simulate black ice, dryness and rain. Then we reach the gate.

It opens automatically and to reveal the racing oval behind it. Two miles of parallel runs that meet in 42-degree steep curves. Unique in Germany – and therefore just right for DEKRA. “This is our highway route. In tests, we can reach speeds of over 200 kilometers per hour and simulate ascending and descending sections,” explains Kohlenbrenner.

Overland courses, large surfaces for city scenarios, motorway routes, the 5G network; in Klettwitz, DEKRA has a clear vision in mind: to make future mobility safe. The person responsible for this vision is Volker Noeske. His office is located right next to the test tracks, on the first floor of the DEKRA Technology Center. Here, we find the nearly 1.90-meter tall site manager in front of the pictures on his wall. On one you can see him measuring a DTM racing car with millimeter precision using a 3D arm. DEKRA has also been responsible for the technical acceptance of DTM cars for many years.

On his window sill, there is a yellow test flag with the signatures of all the DTM racing drivers. “Manufacturers and drivers initially wondered what we found from DEKRA in our tests,” says Noeske with a smile. But it quickly became clear to everyone involved that DEKRA was the safety and fairness guarantee.

Communication in Realtime

Noeske has been at it for long time. Since 2008, the 48-year-old manages the site. Therefore, he also looks after the expansion of the 5G network: “With Telekom, we will place radio masts here to offer the latest mobile communications standard and related services.” 5G is fundamental to autonomous driving. Vehicles can communicate in real time with their environment. So far, response time for information processing was too long. Everything changes with 5G. Noeske: “Among other things, it allows “precise positioning”, which allows locating vehicles with an accuracy of two centimeters”.

Precision through progress: 5G allows precise positioning down to 2 centimeters.

Self-driving cars can be “automated”. That means the car itself scans the surroundings. It uses its own safetysystems including radar, lidar or camera. DEKRA is ckecking automated driving cars today in Klettwitz. Today’s systems still present certain limitations. When snowing, for example, cameras can no longer recognize the white lane marking. The car can no longer stat on lane independently. Fortunately, “precise positioning” is weather independent. The system is however dependent on external communication. The next step: Cars drive and then network. They continuously exchange information with the environment – communicating “vehicle-to-everything”. The vehicle communicates with crash barriers, traffic lights and other road users. It even knows about the child who plays behind the next corner beforehand, although its own sensors do not reach that far. Simply because an oncoming car shared the information.

Human source of Errors

“Man is the biggest source of errors in traffic,” says Noeske. “Autonomous driving allows us to avoid this source of error and get closer to Vision Zero. No more accidental deaths and only a few seriously injured.” 5G can help in that respect: To do this, DEKRA equips the infrastructure with sensors that communicate via the 5G Telekom network. Every scenario, whether city, country, highway, metropolis or village can be built on the site. “Today, Schipkau, tomorrow Shanghai. Wherever works. Around 70 percent of the mobility scenarios of the future can already be tested by DEKRA today. The remaining 30 percent can be mapped with the know-how of the DEKRA connectivity experts from Málaga and the Telekom cooperation. “We combine our knowledge – for the benefit of all partners and for the safety of autonomous driving,” says Noeske, the master of the (Lausitz) ring.

3 Questions for Volker Noeske

Volker Noeske

Head of DEKRA Technology Center in Klettwitz

Strong team for networked driving – said Volker Noeske about DEKRA’s international test network. How close is the connection with the colleagues in Málaga, Spain?

What is being tested in Malaga?

In Málaga, DEKRA is developing knowhow for connected driving in Klettwitz and on other routes on which DEKRA collaborates, such as in China. The Spanish location is our laboratory version. Together, we are a strong networked driving team. Today, we are testing automated driving. That is, the entire sensor system is in the vehicle itself. In the future, it’s going to be about networking. The vehicle also communicates with the environment. With the guardrail, the traffic light, other road users, etc. In Malaga, this communication technology is being tested. 

Where do you gain the experience?

In Málaga, colleagues have been testing Wi-Fi components, Bluetooth connections, smartphones and mobile phones for approval for many years. Meanwhile, also-called on-board units. These are the brains of the vehicles that communicate inside and outside. Special attention is also paid to cyber security.

How close is the connection of the locations?

There are two strands in Klettwitz and Málaga, which have become even more integrated in 2019. In order to build the test track for automatedand networked driving in Klettwitz, we need more software engineers and communication engineers, according to the Spanish model.