There’s been a ton of buzz surrounding self-driving cars recently, both about BMW and the broader auto industry. It seems like we’re perpetually on the cusp of a world in which no one has to physically drive their own cars anymore. When will autonomous vehicles — and, more specifically, self-driving BMWs — really be ready?
The Five Levels of Autonomous Driving
Experts define five levels of autonomous driving, with each one being more advanced than the one before it. Level one includes driver assist technologies that help the driver but don’t take control over the car. In level five, the vehicle operates itself completely, and the people in the car are merely passengers.
Level one technologies are commonplace in today’s world, and all new BMW models have them. BMW Personal CoPilot driver assistance systems are examples of level one tech. These systems include Active Cruise Control with the Stop&Go function, which adjusts your distance to the car in front of you. The Collision and Pedestrian Warning system with City Brake Activation uses automatic braking to prevent collisions.
Some Beamers also have level two technologies. In this level, the car can take control, but the driver is still responsible for vehicle operation. These systems include BMW’s Steering and Lane Control Assistant, which includes Traffic Jam Assistant. Designed to make everyday driving easier, these systems can take over steering, in addition to automatically braking and accelerating. Another example is the remote-controlled parking function.
In keeping with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s autonomous vehicle testing guidelines, BMW is currently testing cars with level three and level four autonomy. It aims to introduce level three cars to the consumer marker by 2021. These vehicles would be able to drive autonomously for longer periods, but drivers would still need to be ready to take control quickly and would have to drive under some conditions.
BMW is also testing level four cars and has a fleet of around 40 of them in Munich and California. In level four, the vehicle drives autonomously the majority of the time, although the driver must still be able to take over.
BMW’s Current Efforts
With a research and development team of about 1,000 people, BMW is working continuously on its autonomous vehicle technologies. The company does much of its research and development work out of its Silicon Valley technology office. The company is also testing the vehicles in California and Munich.
The test vehicles are loaded with cameras, lidar systems and other sensors that allow them to capture data about their environment. This includes information about the motion of other vehicles, the presence of pedestrians and other hazards. Hardware located in the trunk of the cars process all this information and puts it into action.
BMW is working with several partners on its autonomous vehicle tech, including Intel Corp., which owns sensor maker Mobileye. BMW also works with German automotive parts maker Continental AG and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. BMW has said it’s open to working with other collaborators and is pursuing a nonexclusive platform for the development of self-driving technology.
The iNext Concept
The Vision iNext concept provides a glimpse into what the future of BMW vehicles may look like. The idea behind the iNext concept is to turn the vehicle into a “living space on wheels.” It’s designed to be a place where you can relax as if you were at home, while still having the option of the driving experience BMW is known for.
The driver has two options for what experience they want to have in this iNext concept vehicle. In Boost mode, the driver is in full control, and the steering wheel is easily accessible. In Ease mode, the car operates autonomously. The steering wheel retracts slightly, freeing up some space. The vehicle includes two interactive digital screens that display information, such as your speed and your proximity to other cars.
The company premiered the concept at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It plans to have a production version in its showrooms by 2021 in the form of a level-three, all-electric SUV from its “i” brand.
Today’s new BMWs already have some autonomous functionalities, but we’re still a relatively long way off from fully autonomous, level five vehicles. We need more technological advancements as well as substantial safety testing, and federal rules will need to evolve further before we can fully adopt self-driving vehicles. BMW, however, expects Beamers with level-three capabilities to hit showrooms by 2021.
BMW, along with the rest of the auto industry, is moving steadily toward an autonomous future.