Paris allows driverless car on its tricky streets
FT Paris correspondent David Keohane talks to Jacques Aschenbroich, CEO of Valeo, the world's largest supplier of car parts, about his experiment to test the first driverless autonomous cars on the complicated and busy streets of the French capital
Filmed by David Keohane. Additional footage from Valeo and Reuters. Produced by Josh de la Mare.
The streets of central Paris are congested, polluted, and busy. Steeped in history, they are twisted and complex for any driver. Now, for the first time, a car with no driver moving the steering wheel is giving it a go. It's the latest development in Paris, which is at the forefront of a transport revolution. The streets are already thronged with scooters, Segways, the e-bikes, many electric vehicles, and hoverboards, all trying to find a way through and around each other.
The technology is growing everywhere, with driverless vehicles being trialled from the US to China. And driverless buses have already found their way onto the straight and smooth surfaces of Paris's business district of La Défense. But the heart of Paris has remained undriven so far. Its complex streets have been capable of holding off armies and police behind barricades. And now, they present a formidable obstacle to computer-driven cars.
The man behind this particular experiment is Jacques Aschenbroich, CEO of Valeo, the world's leading supplier of parts to the car industry. Despite many tests of the car in Paris, he still seems understandably a little nervous in a test drive for the Financial Times.
We have done the experiment 50 times in the last few days without any problem.
He has a young engineer behind the wheel to jump in if things go wrong.
Valeo's selling point is not the car, but the sensors and the software.
We have standard sensors around the cars. We have very high level of sophisticated software, and embedded some artificial intelligence that help recognising through the camera all the object that we are seeing here. Unlike maybe all the drivers, it respects the rules of the road, all of them. So when you have a speed limit, you respect the speed limits. And therefore, you feel the car extremely smooth. And in such a condition, maybe you drive a little bit faster. But here, it respects all the rules. And when it's allowed, it goes faster. When it has to be limited, it limits the speed. It sees the trucks ahead, and it slows down when it sees the traffic lights.
Being allowed to test this car in the streets of Paris requires the highest levels of authorisation.
We need to have a special authorisation from the mayor of Paris and the French government to try the car, fully autonomous, in a very complex environment.
Basic safety and simply not killing people are the paramount concerns of autonomous cars' battle to prove their worth.
Right in the middle of all the traffic, anything can happen. You are on a bridge here, and sometimes you have people crossing the road unexpectedly. And of course, the car takes it in consideration and has an emergency stopping.
A real challenge for the car is a tunnel where contact is lost with the outside world. But Valeo's experiment comes through with flying colours.
We just went through a tunnel, and the tunnel is a very complex situation, because we don't have connection anymore with the GPS and the real, very fine localisation. So the car was absolutely by itself.
Valeo knows it's in a global competition with other car makers and parts suppliers, with talent and engineers key to the company's success.
We need to really convince very good engineers to be attracted by Valeo. And we have one here, being a young engineer, being -
- 25 years old -
Just out of school.
- out of school, attracted by such a very complex environment. And you are lucky, nine months after you joined Valeo you are doing such an experiment, which is something unbelievable.
As with other such driverless car experiments, Mr Aschenbroich is cautious about the future.
The time frame for you and me to buy a fully autonomous car would take much more time, probably 10, maybe more, years. Because then it has to be - because there'd be no steering wheels, no pedals. It has to be fully autonomous, any time, any place, anywhere the conditions.
We might still be years away from a Paris full of autonomous cars driving freely amongst the scooters and hoverboards alongside the Seine. But with this and other experiments coming soon, it's a future we are ever closer to realising.