The in­hu­man fac­tor

Herald Sun - Motoring - - News - PAUL GOVER CHIEF RE­PORTER IN GENEVA paul.gover@cars­guide.com.au

I TOOK a lovely ride in the Ger­man coun­try­side the other day, en­joy­ing the mid-sum­mer sun­shine and some beau­ti­ful scenery, with no one at the wheel. The driv­ing was all han­dled by the car.

My BMW au­topi­lot was safe, con­trolled and had a sur­pris­ingly light touch. It was even able to make a safe, gen­tle, 100km/h merge be­tween two sec­tions of free­way, blend­ing eas­ily into the fast-flow­ing traf­fic af­ter se­lect­ing a gap and then ac­cel­er­at­ing into the space be­tween cars.

It felt like the fu­ture to me, al­though it’s a very dis­tant fu­ture based on the amount of equip­ment in the car and the need for su­per-de­tailed dig­i­tal map­ping data that’s not com­ing to Aus­tralia any time soon. The 7 Se­ries fu­ture car still needs to be closely mon­i­tored by a hu­man in the driv­ing seat but BMW be­lieves it’s more than just a lab-onwheels.

Yes, it’s a won­der­ful science pro­ject but with a re­al­is­tic hori­zon,’’ BMW head of driver as­sis­tance Dr Werner Hu­ber says in Mu­nich. We don’t want to fly to the moon. So it’s rel­a­tively easy.

What we do is highly au­to­mated driv­ing. (Driv­ers have) the com­plete freedom to de­cide if they want to drive by them­selves or have the car drive them in a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion, and that is the mo­tor­way.’’

Rel­a­tively easy for him looks su­per com­pli­cated for me. Hu­ber and his small team have done the heavy lift­ing and it’s now a ques­tion of time, money and lawyers— time and money to com­mer­cialise the sys­tem, lawyers to build a frame­work for blame.

BMWis not the only com­pany work­ing on au­ton­o­mous auto, as they call it, but its ver­sion is far more con­vinc­ing than even the lat­est S-Class. I’ve sam­pled the big Benz as it drives it­self in a sin­gle mo­tor­way lane but it’s a long way from BMW’s test pack­age. And it’s a long way be­fore a car will be able to re­spond to a voice com­mand and drive you to work.

In­stead, BMWis fo­cus­ing on a car that can take con­trol in the hurly-burly of sub­ur­ban traf­fic and the bor­ing ex­panses of mo­tor­ways, free­ing you for email and phone calls and pre­vent­ing the fa­tigue that leads to crashes.

Hu­ber is up­beat but says BMWis not plan­ning a to­tal takeover on the roads, which would also re­quire mil­lions of cars with a huge range of all­round sen­sors, gi­ant com­puter brains and roads fit­ted with hard­ware and as­sis­tance sys­tems that gov­ern­ments have yet to de­velop.

I won’t say this never will hap­pen. It could hap­pen (af­ter) I have re­tired,’’ he says.

At the first step we are try­ing to find the tech­nol­ogy. But that is not the big pic­ture. It is the driver in so­ci­ety. Do driv­ers and so­ci­ety ac­cept the tech­nol­ogy and how do we deal with this?’’

Based on my ride out­side Mu­nich, BMWis well down the road. It even has a car that will be pop­u­lar with po­lice and safety au­thor­i­ties, one that can­not ex­ceed the speed limit and never makes the sort of blun­ders that lead to so many crashes.

No Hans: Gover merges a 7 Se­ries in 100km/h traf­fic— in Ger­many, with de­tailed dig­i­tal road map­ping

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