GENIUS Children’s University: The future of the automotive world

Today, I’m not headed to work at the Mercedes-Benz plant, as I usually do, but to Stuttgart City Hall. Although it’s an unusual destination for an engineer like me, many curious children are looking forward to seeing us there today. The children have come together at the city hall because the Genius Children’s University is being held there as part of the Stuttgart Science Festival.

Genius — the young knowledge community from Daimler — aims to get children enthusiastic about topics related to the natural sciences and technology. The topic “Seeing – Thinking – Talking. What makes cars fit for the future” is, of course, ideal for this purpose. I’ve been a Genius ambassador for the past two years and was thrilled when I was asked to support the lecture as an “assistant.”

It goes without saying that I was very keen to take part. The Children’s University enables boys and girls between the ages of seven and 14 to experience our lecture first-hand and give their curiosity free rein. Their “professor” today is Michael Bauer. Some of the children might already know Bauer, who is the production and site manager of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Sindelfingen, from the junior reporter video filmed during Emma’s and Nick’s visit to the plant.

Curiosity and suspense for GENIUS Childrens’s University

It’s a special day for the boys and girls. Like actual college students, the kids are waiting for the lecture to begin so that they can learn lots of new things. The children are curious about what to expect. The two new Genius junior reporters Alex and Milena are also present. After welcoming the young students, Michael Bauer introduces me along with my colleague Tabea and the children’s assistant Emma.

“Talking” cars?

Michael Bauer immediately dives into today’s topic: a car’s “senses.” The children obviously know that cars don’t talk to one another the way people do. Otherwise they would have realized it by now. Michael Bauer explains to them how automobiles can nevertheless communicate and share information.

At this point, Bauer uses the results of a survey that we conducted with the kids before the lecture. A word cloud represents their favorite places. The movie theater is especially prominent in this cloud, as it’s the place that the children most frequently mentioned. “Swarm intelligence” works in a similar manner. Cars can share their “knowledge” with one another. This enables them to warn drivers to circumvent a traffic jam, for example.

We can also use voice control systems to communicate with our cars. This is very useful because, for example, we don’t have to enter a destination into the navigation systems by hand, which can distract us. Michael Bauer then asks the kids which favorite place in Stuttgart he should drive them to in a virtual car. They have to speak loudly and clearly. The crowd of children immediately shouts “the movie theater!” In response, the virtual car promptly starts the navigation system.

Mindstorm-car shows driverless mobility

Now it’s my turn to speak. The children’s assistant Emma and I show the children how autonomous driving works. To do this, we have set up a short course that a Mindstorm car has to navigate by following a black line. Emma gets to try her luck first. She uses a remote control, but soon finds out that maneuvering the small car is by no means easy. “We should let the car drive autonomously,” I tell her. Surprisingly, the car stays in its lane much better when it operates on its own.

We then reveal the secret: There are two cameras underneath the car that can “see” the roadway. Such sensors enable vehicles to perceive their surroundings, including obstacles, and to respond by sending appropriate signals to their steering systems. They will enable cars to drive completely on their own in the future. The children are impressed.

Power sockets instead of gas stations

Some of the children have also heard about renewable energy. They mention the sun and the wind as alternative sources of electricity. They also know that some cars are powered by electric motors. The oversized model that Tabea presents to the children would never fit into a real car, of course.

However, it lets her explain how electric drive systems work. To do so, she once again needs the children’s help. They are asked to alternately hold up red and green cards that represent the positive and negative poles of a magnet. The repulsion of the poles generates movement in an electric motor. In a similar way, the children’s magnetic pole cards cause the model in the lecture hall to move faster and faster.

A car needs a battery for this. Michael Bauer then invites me to speak again. I’m curious to find out what the children will say about our next experiment, in which we will generate electricity with the help of a lemon. I use a zinc nail and a five-cent coin made of copper to connect the lemon to a lamp. The children are surprised when the lamp really begins to glow. I tell them that electrons moving through the citric acid generate the electric current.

People and technology — a powerful team

We then show a film that shows the children how people and robots work together in a modern car plant. Robots can do some things better than people, such as lifting very heavy objects. Humans, on the other hand, can respond flexibly, assess different situations, and intuitively make decisions.

An unexpected “guest” now crosses the hall above the young students’ heads. It’s a drone that flies straight to Michael Bauer. He explains that he would like drones to help us deliver individual components in the future.

A small parting gift is given to the children at the conclusion of the event. With that, we say farewell to the children, who will hopefully consider their first day at the university to have been a great experience.

For me it was certainly fantastic to see how eager the children are to learn and how we can get them enthusiastic about science and technology. Michael Bauer is impressed as well. “I’m really awed by the children’s creativity and, to be honest, also by their learning. It’s impressive to see how much they already know about these subjects.”

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Anna Kaiser supports as an assistant the Chief Engineer of Production S-, E-, and C-Class. She likes best the proximity to production as well as the wide range of tasks of the current activity.