The inhuman factor
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