Mobility of the future

When algorithms make the decisions

30. September 2017
Text: Johann Jungwirth & Valdis Wish
Photos: private, Volkswagen AG

Self-driving cars promise greater safety and increased access to mobility. But if we let machines do the driving, could we simply be trading old risks for new ones – hackers, algorithms without ethics, data exploitation? A chat with JJ, Chief Digital Officer at Volkswagen.

Johann Jungwirth, 44, joined Volkswagen in November 2015. He plans to see the Group’s first self-driving models hit the streets in 2021. Jungwirth is married and father of three children.

Valdis Wish: JJ, what’s going to stop a hacker from steering my self-driving car into a tree?

JJ: The self-driving system will secure all communications through state-of-the-art security. There will be no way to manipulate steering, braking or acceleration remotely; this can only be done by the system aboard the vehicle as with us humans as drivers today.

But it seems like everything gets hacked eventually.

Our security by design approach including over-the-air updates is very similar to what’s used in aviation. Planes are always connected to the internet, satellites and GPS, yet a plane’s controls have never been taken over by hackers.

Hacked or not, let’s imagine I’m still headed for that tree.. Is my self-driving car programmed to protect me?

The strategy for our self-driving system is to avoid accidents altogether. The system doesn’t fall asleep, drink alcohol, get agitated or distracted, react slowly, run red lights, take drugs, have limited angles of view –the very human causes of 91 percent of all accidents that occur today.


Valdis Wish, 39, lives in Berlin. He works as an editor, develops digital concepts and regularly publishes articles on sustainability and digital technology.

An ethics commission of the German government has presented 20 guidelines for automated driving. Algorithms shouldn’t prioritize some lives over others when an accident is inevitable. What do you think of the commission?

I support it. I’m glad we have a dialogue to make sure that self-driving systems on the road comply with the same standards and rules.

What if I don’t want to share my vehicle data with Volkswagen?

That will be up to you to decide. We’re prioritizing digital fairness, which means being completely open and transparent and letting the customer control their own data. Customers decide what they share with us.

And now for the litmus test:  would JJ entrust his own kids to a self-driving car?

For sure – from the very first day that we release these cars.

The Di Fabio Comission

The German government’s Ethics Commission on Automated Driving – led by former Federal Constitutional Court judge Professor Udo Di Fabio – published the world’s first ethical guidelines for self-driving vehicles in June 2017. They include 20 propositions for automated driving systems to ensure safety and protect human dignity, freedom of choice, and data autonomy.

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