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Germans are working on networked automobiles, safer nuclear plants, and neurotechnology.

April 1, 2005

A century ago, with its world-leading chemical industry and its cadre of top physicists, Germany was widely considered a technological heavyweight. But it has now fallen behind in many areas of emerging technology. The German biotech industry, for example, started much too late (it hardly existed until the mid-1990s) and is still trying to make up ground. And while German universities are doing excellent research on nanotechnology, many worry that the country will not turn that basic science into products.

Germany’s greatest strength is its automobile industry. In the years to come, many emerging technologies, from optical communication links to nanotech mate­rials, will find their way into cars. Tech­nological innovation will be critical to creating the opportunities that will lead German carmakers and their suppliers out of their current trouble. In particular, German carmakers are betting on computer-based assistance systems that could make driving safer and more comfortable.

The basic idea is that a car would map information from a variety of sensors, like cameras and radars, into a digital model of the surrounding traffic conditions. In case of danger, the system would issue a warning to the driver. In more-advanced systems, vehicles could use wireless communications to inform each other in real time about oil puddles, traffic jams, or accidents. BMW is working on wireless networks for cars that will automatically set up connections among vehicles in order to exchange critical sensor information; a car that detects a slippery stretch of pavement, for instance, could relay that information to other cars on the same road. The goal is to create networks of intercommunicating cars that could someday form a sort of automotive Internet. Researchers at the University of Stuttgart, in collaboration with Daimler­Chrysler and other German carmakers, are also designing and testing systems to assist drivers at intersections. Such systems might combine information from traffic lights or signs with onboard-sensor data about other vehicles and their speed or distance in order to get the drivers safely across.

Although they have introduced prototypes of hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, carmakers in Germany are betting on the longer-term vision of fuel cell cars that consume hydrogen. DaimlerChrysler, for example, has said it will bring such vehicles to the market by 2010. And in what has the makings of a startling turnaround, the demand for hydrogen that would result could help bring about a nuclear renaissance in Germany. In the late 1990s, after massive antinuclear protests, the government coalition of Social Democrats and Greens decided to shut down Germany’s nuclear power plants by 2020. The country committed itself instead to developing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

But whether renewable energy sources can ever contribute sufficiently to German energy production is much debated—hence the reëmergence of the nuclear option. Developers of so-called third-generation nuclear plants claim that their technology is much less risky. The European pressurized-water reactor, for instance, developed by Siemens and the French company Framatome, has various safety features—such as double-wall containment—that by limiting the release of radioactivity are supposed to make a catastrophic core meltdown much more manageable. Given the availability of such improved reactor technologies, Germans might possibly change their minds about nuclear energy. Though the coalition now in power remains adamantly opposed to it, the Christian Democratic Party has announced that if it regains power—not an unlikely prospect—it will rethink the country’s policy on nuclear energy.

Looking further ahead, German researchers are doing world-class basic science in fields ranging from materials science to biomedicine. German neuroscientists have made important contributions to research in brain implants and in noninvasive brain-­machine interfaces. But neurotechnology brings with it tricky ethical dilemmas. One concern is that the findings of brain science will undermine our notion of autonomy and individual responsibility. In wrestling with these issues, neuroscientists in Germany and elsewhere must reconcile the powers of new technology with the concepts of consciousness and free will. But that’s a task that may very well suit the country that gave the world Immanuel Kant.

Thomas Vasek is editor in chief of Technology Review’s German edition.

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