The PROMETHEUS project launched in 1986: Pioneering autonomous driving

Sep 20, 2016

Autonomous driving has become a reality, current series production vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class already control individual elements. Thirty years ago, the European PROMETHEUS cooperative project established the foundations for the networked mobility of tomorrow. The findings have long since been integrated into numerous everyday technologies, such as DISTRONIC PLUS adaptive cruise control or the PRE-SAFE® concept. These and many more developments will lead to the fully automatic vehicle – it's almost tangible.

Stuttgart. On 1 October 1986 when PROMETHEUS was launched, only experts were aware of the project's magnitude: The "Programme for a European traffic of highest efficiency and unprecedented safety" (in German: Programm für ein europäisches Transportwesen mit höchster effizienz und unerreichter Sicherheit"). The following, specific questions formed the basis: What must be done for cars to also enable maximum mobility in the future? How can we increase safety despite an increasing number of vehicles to reduce the number of accidents? How can we boost efficiency? How do we harmonise the flow of traffic without building new roads? How do we achieve all these goals while simultaneously preserving the environment? The research programme was set to analyse these and many more questions. What was then Daimler-Benz AG launched the European cooperative project. For over eight years, it represents a cooperation between several, European automotive manufacturers, electronics and supplier companies, universities and institutes.

"It soon became clear to us that there would only be one solution for the increasing number of traffic issues", Walter Ziegler, PROMETHEUS project manager at Mercedes-Benz, said at a past event. "We had to integrate new technologies into road traffic – most of all microelectronics, sensors, telecommunications and information processing – as comprehensively as possible." Back then that represented major developments. At that point, no one could have been able to anticipate the scale to which electronics have taken over our everyday lives. Neither could we have been able to foresee that almost all technologies developed as part of PROMETHEUS would be in or close to series production nowadays.

VITA drives autonomously

As part of PROMETHEUS, Mercedes-Benz achieved the highest level of intelligent vehicle with the VITA vehicle. Small video cameras installed behind the windscreen and rear window of an S-Class to enable a steering of the vehicle using automatic image processing. Thanks to these electronic eyes, the on-board computer is always aware of what is going on around the vehicle. VITA – an abbreviation of "Vision Information Technology Application" – is a genuine autopilot that can brake, accelerate and steer. The computer detects the course of the road and also registers whether the vehicle is on collision course with other objects. The primary goal is automatic collision prevention: we are keen to demonstrate that what is commonly known as "computer vision" can prevent accidents.

However, it does boil down to autonomous driving. It was in October 1994 when the research vehicle covered more than 1,000 kilometres on a three-lane motorway in normal traffic at speeds of up to 130 km/h while demonstrating lane changes in both directions as well as autonomous overtaking after approval by the safety driver.

A previous version of the VITA vehicle was initially developed on the basis of a Mercedes-Benz van and its spacious load area was packed with computer technology. The S-Class as an evolution already represented an important step towards miniaturisation and consequently series production maturity.

DISTRONIC, PRE-SAFE® brake, navigation system and Car-2-X

Intelligent cruise control, a function that always maintains the required, safe distance, is a sub-project of VITA. As soon as the infrared sensor identifies a slower object ahead, the vehicle is automatically braked until it maintains a safe distance. Drivers can override the function at any time. Daimler-Benz advanced the project, named it Traffonic and used radar sensors in the process. Such a system has long since reached series maturity at Mercedes-Benz, i.e. DISTRONIC or DISTRONIC PLUS. The automatic PRE-SAFE® brake has also long since reached series maturity.

Communication played a major role in further PROMETHEUS sub-projects. In this context, researchers were working on dual route guidance to relieve drivers. It was the precursor of the navigation system. Back then it had to make do without assistance from satellites as this technology had not yet been released for civilian use. The sub-project also involved communication between vehicles, for instance to prevent collisions or warn each other of black ice patches – nowadays known as "Car-to-X" technology.

Nowadays fleet management is standard

Cross-border communication is the key term of a further PROMETHEUS sub-project by Daimler-Benz researchers: freight and fleet management. It is designed to enable freight forwarders an efficient use of transport capacities and also react flexibly to unforeseen events. The tests surrounded a mobile online connection between freight forwarders and their vehicles. Distribution managers can identify their vehicles' positions using terrestrial and satellite-based radio systems. They can send their vehicles messages that will pop up on driver's screens via a central computer system. An enhanced system known as FleetBoard® is a matter of course in today's on-road goods transport.

A further sub-project called STORM (Stuttgart Transport Operation by Regional Management) tests regional traffic management using a series of ideas and results from PROMETHEUS. In this process, use of the available traffic infrastructure throughout the Stuttgart region is improved by linking and enhancing available traffic guidance systems: with the objective to reduce the environmental impact and increase the safety and efficiency of traffic within the region. The main claim is to provide traffic participants with all information and assistance at the right time and in the right place so they can responsibly choose their mode of transport.

Additional innovations, such as lane change assistance or parking aid are also routed in the PROMETHEUS research programme. "It was well ahead of its time", Werner Breitschwerdt retrospectively analyses the project, having been responsible between 1977 and 1983 for research and development as a member of the Daimler-Benz AG Executive Board and ultimately also between 1983 and 1987 as chair of the company's executive board. PROMETHEUS lives on in current vehicles and future, fully automatic vehicles.

PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994), test vehicle on the basis of a Mercedes-Benz van. VITA sub-project – a precursor of DISTRONIC PLUS and the automatic PRE-SAFE® brake. Cameras behind the windscreen for digital image processing.
PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994), test vehicle on the basis of a Mercedes-Benz van. VITA sub-project – a precursor of DISTRONIC PLUS and the automatic PRE-SAFE® brake.
Working towards traffic without accidents: adaptive cruise control in testing as part of the PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994).
PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994), test vehicle on the basis of a Mercedes-Benz van. VITA sub-project – a precursor of DISTRONIC PLUS and the automatic PRE-SAFE® brake.
Perfect guidance: the route guidance computer as part of the PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994) was a precursor of modern navigation systems.
Reaching the destination thanks to computers: the first electronic road map formed part of the PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994).