Keep your hands on the wheel, for now

IN­TER­VIEW/ Mark Smyth spoke with the head of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing at BMW Group about how close we are to the driver­less car

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

There are more ques­tions than an­swers when it comes to au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles at the mo­ment. Fol­low­ing all the grandiose an­nounce­ments, the re­al­ity of im­ple­men­ta­tion is start­ing to make many in the in­dus­try won­der how plau­si­ble all the prom­ises are, at least for now.

Re­cently we chat­ted to a num­ber of auto in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives, who have all spo­ken about life be­yond the PR state­ments and it is clear that the full self-driv­ing car is much fur­ther away than some would have us think. And when it does ap­pear driver­lessly in front of you, it will only be in cities that have in­fra­struc­ture specif­i­cally tai­lored to mit­i­gate the risks.

This all be­came more ob­vi­ous while talk­ing to El­mar Frick­en­stein, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent au­ton­o­mous driv­ing at the BMW Group dur­ing the Frank­furt Motor Show. He has been with BMW for more than 30 years but has only been in the driv­ing (per­haps we should say driver­less) seat of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles for the past year.


He points out that au­ton­o­mous technology is not a BMW is­sue, it is an in­dus­try is­sue, which is why the com­pany has teamed up with In­tel and Mo­bil­eye as its core technology sup­pli­ers as well as Con­ti­nen­tal and Del­phi. But these are all sup­pli­ers to the in­dus­try, so Frick­en­stein says BMW has also asked other orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers (OEMs) to work to­gether on the technology. So far Fiat Chrysler has joined but he is con­fi­dent that oth­ers will fol­low.

“As an OEM we can de­velop the cars but we can­not launch the car to the end cus­tomer or a fleet,” he says. “Maybe in small cities.” He sug­gests that in 2021 the com­pany will be able to launch a level 4 au­ton­o­mous vehicle but only in three or four cities around the world.

One of the big rea­sons for this is that of the lack of hu­man judg­ment, the eth­i­cal is­sue if you will. Frick­en­stein is cau­tious not to make the same mis­take that his coun­ter­part at MercedesBenz did when its head of driver as­sis­tance sys­tems, Christoph von Hugo, said in 2016 that a fu­ture au­ton­o­mous Mercedes would pri­ori­tise the safety of its oc­cu­pants over those out­side the vehicle. Not sur­pris­ingly, there was a furore and Merc had to clar­ify its po­si­tion.

We even spoke with Di­eter Zetsche, chair­man of Daim­ler, just af­ter the con­tro­versy started and he con­firmed that it was “an eth­i­cal is­sue that we have to talk about as a society”.

Frick­en­stein agrees, telling us that the “tech­ni­cal ap­proach to­day is that an au­ton­o­mous vehicle is not able to make an ethics de­ci­sion”. He says that while a com­puter knows where ev­ery ob­ject around a vehicle is, it can only see the “green carpet”, ef­fec­tively the route that it can take between those ob­jects.

He says it will not be pos­si­ble to have a solution in the next five to 10 years.

In the mean­time, it is all about trans­fer­ring the technology. He says the next gen­er­a­tion of BMW cars will be fit­ted with a new ar­chi­tec­ture and elec­tri­cal sys­tems. The de­but of an elec­tri­cal ar­chi­tec­ture pre­pared for level 2-5 au­ton­o­mous driv­ing will be in 2020 or 202.

The com­pany is test­ing much of this technology in a fleet of 40 7 Se­ries mod­els, but he says there are ma­jor lim­i­ta­tions. Real-world test­ing would need to have 240-mil­lion kilo­me­tres of ac­ci­dent-free test­ing. “That’s im­pos­si­ble,” he says. Only 5% of test­ing is done in the real world, leav­ing 95% to be an­a­lysed through com­puter sim­u­la­tions.


But BMW did start early. More than 10 years ago it de­vel­oped what it called the Track Trainer, a driver­less car that was used to find the best driv­ing lines on the Nur­bur­gring as well as other race­tracks. Pro­fes­sional test driv­ers would then have to fol­low it to repli­cate the lines.

How­ever, BMW is not about au­ton­o­mous driv­ing, at least not all the time any­way. “We don’t want cars with­out a steer­ing wheel or ped­als. We don’t want robot cars,” says Frick­en­stein.

That will be a re­lief to many who fear a fu­ture full of driver­less pods, but it is clear from our dis­cus­sions with the in­dus­try in the past few months that that fu­ture is start­ing to look fur­ther away than some thought.


BMW is us­ing a fleet of 40 7 Se­ries mod­els to test its au­ton­o­mous tech. Be­low left: El­mar Frick­en­stein, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent au­ton­o­mous driv­ing, BMW Group.

The com­pany says the steer­ing wheel will re­main for those who want to drive.

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