Autonomous driving: revolutionising everyday lives

Fully automated – or autonomous – driving will be one of the biggest innovations in mobility in the coming years, affecting virtually every form of transport. The BMW Group has long been developing self-driving cars and is positioning itself as the leader in this technology.

Michael Seitz

Nearly 20 years ago, James Bond piloted his BMW 7 Series, the legendary E38, round a multistorey car park in Hamburg using his mobile phone. Even though the vehicle ended up crash-landing in a car hire office, the vision of a driverless car captured the public imagination. Now this technology has left the realms of agent Q’s gadget workshop and is hitting the road for real. Autonomous driving will be one of the biggest mobility topics – if not the biggest – over the coming years. And it is set to revolutionise not only the business sector but everyday lives as well.

Experts predict that varying degrees of automation will be implemented not just in cars but in many other modes of transport as well. Driverless trains have been introduced in Australia, and fully automated truck fleets are already in operation in the Canadian mining industry. Research is also under way to apply this technology in agriculture, freight transport and urban mass transit. The London Underground, for example, is planning to have 250 driverless trains up and running by 2020.

Back in October 2009, BMW chose the world’s most challenging racing circuit – the Nürburgring Nordschleife – to demonstrate its BMW Track Trainer, a highly automated car that holds an ideal line on race tracks, delivering the fastest possible lap times. Just three years later, the BMW Group went on to test a self-driving car on the A9 autobahn between Munich and Nuremberg. And during the past year, in Las Vegas, the company showed off a BMW i3 capable of autonomously, dynamically and safely locating a vacant slot in a multistorey car park.

These developments helped lay the groundwork for a number of systems now available in the new BMW 7 Series. These systems allow the vehicle to manoeuvre into garages and parking spaces without a driver at the wheel, or to steer itself automatically and maintain a safe following distance on motorways at speeds of up to 210 km/h. Already, cameras, radar and ultrasound sensors give the BMW 7 Series a complete picture of its surroundings. In the future, further essential information will be supplied via car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communication. To handle the resulting data volumes, highly advanced wireless networks, processors and software will be required. Of course, as well as being equipped with sensory “organs” and an onboard supercomputer “brain”, future vehicles will also need to be able to navigate. This will call for high-precision HD maps, which must be updatable in real time. The joint purchase by BMW and fellow German premium carmakers Audi and Daimler of digital mapping company HERE will provide the necessary know-how in this area.

Rather than rigid programs, vehicles of the future will require a form of self-teaching artificial intelligence that steadily hones its skills with every mile driven, while also learning to adapt to the individual habits of its driver.

But while the technology has already come a long, long way – as the latest remote-control parking technology illustrates – regulatory requirements mean that BMW test vehicles still need a special official permit before they are allowed out on the road, whether in Munich or Silicon Valley. And no manufacturer wants to see an autonomous vehicle cause an accident or injury. For now, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding autonomous driving. For example: what are the responsibilities of a “driver” who is not actually driving? Who is liable in the event of an accident? What can be done to protect autonomous vehicles against potential hacking attacks?

Software is a key component of the automated vehicle. It has the job of evaluating and interpreting millions of items of information, then filtering response options and making decisions on the road. Rather than rigid programs, vehicles of the future will require a form of self-teaching artificial intelligence that steadily hones its skills with every mile driven, while also learning to adapt to the individual habits of its driver. The BMW Group is stepping up its research in this area, which according to Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s Head of Research and Development, will be key to future success: “With our new BMW iNEXT we will lead the field in autonomous driving, bringing this technology of the future onto the road as quickly as possible.”

Against this backdrop, the development division has now been restructured around three key innovation sectors: Fully Automated Driving and Driver Assistance, Digitalisation and Mobility Services, and The Interior of the Future. The new Fully Automated Driving and Driver Assistance sector is headed by Elmar Frickenstein. It will span all the BMW Group’s research, advanced engineering and development in this key innovation field. Among other things, activities will focus on core autonomous driving technologies such as artificial intelligence.

So one thing’s clear: autonomous driving is going to happen. Motorways and stop-start traffic will be the first application scenarios, followed by car parks. Autonomous vehicles will open up new options and business models, revolutionising the whole face of individual mobility. And it will be absolutely safe – unlike in the case of James Bond’s BMW 7 Series, whose autonomous ride left it distinctly the worse for wear.