New professor aims for safer self-driving vehicles
Christian Berger got promoted to professor at the department of Computer Science and Engineering during spring 2022. This is how his curiosity and interest for safe self-driving vehicles led him to his present role.
What does your research address and what do you want to achieve by it
”Our team is working towards developing methods to make better software - especially for designing systems that require the collaboration between various disciplines. This allows us both to incorporate ideas that may not necessarily originate from the software engineering discipline, as well as to contribute to other research disciplines that realized the importance of the role that software plays for them but that are missing adequate methods to realize the right software solution."
Competition for self-driving vehicles was the starting point
During his PhD education at TU Braunschweig and RWTH Aachen University in Germany, Christian got the unique opportunity to be part of and coordinate a team of PhD and Master students to design and develop a self-driving vehicle for the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge - the world's first large-scale competition for robotic vehicles that were supposed to interact with each other and to operate in urban-like environments. The contestant vehicles needed to "see" what was happening around them and "understand and obey" the traffic rules to avoid collisions.
The team did well and made it all the way to the final event, with only ten other research groups from initially 89 participants in that competition.
However, it was very clear that none of the finalist vehicles would have been able to act safely on public roads anywhere else in the world - the robotic vehicles were primarily designed specifically for that competition held in a confined area. Nonetheless, the event raised the attention of numerous research groups and companies all over the world to realise the dream of making a vehicle that can drive safely and comfortably without the help of humans.
“My own research was linked over the past 15 years to the area of designing and developing safe software components for realising self-driving vehicles. There are still very many open questions to address before we can safely remove the steering wheels from our today's vehicles."
Was your plan to become a professor in the field, or did things just develop in that direction naturally?
”I am a very diligent person to begin with, who is curiousity-driven about software-enabled systems and computer technology to make our society's life better. The robotic competition in 2007 was clearly a disruptive event confirming and even further inspiring my curiosity-driven interest to continuously work in this field.”
Christian started a career in the automotive industry to work on driver assistance systems and in that way help making the vision of self-driving vehicles come true. However, after a short while, he realised that his curiosity-driven personality appreciated the academic context much more. This was the time when he was offered the opportunity to join the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology.
”I saw the great chance to further pursue my research and work on my ideas at the university. Hence, I decided to leave industry and return to academia. Retrospectively, this was a very right decision and after ten years of intensive and exciting research, I am glad to have been acknowledged from many peers in my field for my work and having been promoted to professor at University of Gothenburg”, says Christian.
What challenges are there in your field?
”We have seen many exciting and impressive demonstrations from self-driving vehicular technology both, from research groups as well as from companies who try to commercialize this technology during the past decade. The software in such vehicles is getting better every day - yet, we cannot claim that the vehicles are safe for a day-to-day use for anyone.”
According to a standardized classification scheme for self-driving vehicles, it is envisioned that the steering wheel can be removed at the highest level, as the vehicle must be capable of handling any situation safely.
”At the moment, we are not even half-way there yet”, says Christian.
Why is computer science important and what possibilities does it provide for society and people?
”Software as an artifact per se is usually invisible - yet it is affecting tremendously our daily lives. When such software is not working, we notice clearly its importance and our dependency on working software. Computer science is an important research field whose research results brought human mankind safely to the moon and back.”
Christian ensures, there are still many unanswered research questions to tackle on Earth and even his own field is still expanding. As examples we have artificial intelligence and machine learning, who are currently permeating many disciplines outside computer science, or quantum computing that, according to Christian, will shake up the way we thought so far about algorithms and the way software is made.
What is important for you outside of work?
”My own family is very important to me. Seeing and supporting our two small children doing their own "research" about our world is fascinating and I am enjoying being part of their sheer endless curiosity-driven perseverance on learning how things work. I am also open to new culinary experiments in the kitchen and I am trying to surprise the family - sometimes, I succeed.”