AMS.automotiveITSTUTTGART - Better maps will help improve autonomous-driving technology, but they aren't crucial for the realization of the driverless car, two top automotive executives said Thursday.

Ulrich Hackenberg and Thomas Weber, R&D chiefs at, respectively, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, said the premium car makers have developed autonomous test vehicles that can navigate routes without the help of maps. That's important, they said, because the cars shouldn't have to rely on maps that will, most likely, be stored in the cloud rather than in the car

"High-resolution digital maps are helpful, but if they're not available, the car has to be able to drive itself," Hackenberg told the Auto Motor und Sport Congress here.

Daimler's Weber noted that the availability of a mobile connection to cloud-based information will never be guaranteed. Hence, "we never want to be dependent on this," he said.

The Congress, whose theme was "Mobility of the Future," discussed autonomous driving as well as other personal-mobility trends.

Weber and Hackenberg took part in a panel discussion about autonomous driving. Both executives expressed optimism that the technology would be available to car drivers in the next decade. But Markus Lienkamp, automotive technology professor at Munich Technical University, warned that such a major change in people's driving and transportation habits will take time. "It's likely that this won't go quite so fast," he said. He added that it will "clearly" be a long time before drivers can read a newspaper while the car drives itself.

Peter Gutzmer, board member for technology at German supplier Schaeffler, predicted that a so-called intermodal approach to mobility will prevail in coming years as more personal transportation options are created. He also cited a role of growing importance for bicycles. "In urban mobility, we see a clear trend for more bicycle use," he said. But despite increased use of car sharing, buses and trains, two-wheelers and other modes of transportation, the car "will always play a key role," Gutzmer said.

Notes of caution

Congress participants heard two notes of caution about the digital changes the auto industry is undergoing. One was on the vulnerability of connected cars to hacking attacks and the other was on the growing dependency of automakers on semiconductors.

Sebastian Schreiber, managing director of German penetration testing experts Syss, demonstrated how relatively simple it is to hack into connected games, open heavily encrypted files on a USB stick and upload malware onto end-user systems. And though connected cars provide a more complex target for hackers, they are far from invulnerable, he said. "From the point of view of IT, a vehicle is a data center."

The other warning came from Burkhard Goeschel, former R&D boss of premium car maker BMW. Goeschel cited a fast-growing dependency of the auto industry on a very small group of chipmakers. Semiconductors are increasingly important to manage the "crazy growth in functionality" in coming car generations, he said. And they are needed to handle the fast-growing volumes of in-car automotive data that need to be processed. "Semiconductor companies will be very important players in the auto industry," Goeschel said.

The former BMW executive said tomorrow's cars will need a completely new electronic architecture to simplify software complexity, reduce time to market and fuel innovation. This will require more cooperation between automakers and a fundamental reorientation on the boards of the companies, he said.

-By Arjen Bongard