Target 2021: BMW’s bold plans for fully automated driving within half a decade

BMW has set itself the ambitious target of unleashing self-driving cars on the world by 2021, but currently no one anywhere in the world has developed anything beyond part-automated driving. So what makes BMW think they can go one better? We find out

We all know that driverless cars are racing toward us, and even at this stage we know it’s a matter of when not if they arrive, but getting us to the point where we can safely take our hands off the wheel isn’t a simple task. To do that, we need cars that can think for themselves, not to mention overcoming various liability and regulatory issues. German car giant BMW has a plan though, and says it can deliver fully autonomous, sleep-in-the-driving-seat, take-your-eyes-off-the-road, cars by 2021.

“Since 100 years ago we are driving by ourselves, but with the technology changes, with the supercomputers, with the internet of things, with 100% connectivity everything has changed. Disruptively,” says Elmar Frickenstein, senior vice president of fully automated driving and driver assistance at the BMW Group. “The autonomous driving will come. With these supercomputers we are able to make it happen to be in 2021 for fully-automated driving.”

BMW has been in the automotive industry for a century and it recognises that it’s not always easy to bring disruption to such a well-oiled machine.

For this reason, BMW is partnering with a number of innovative startups and companies from outside the automotive industry like Intel and Nokia, whose products can bring BMW’s established brand into the 21st century. BMW calls its startup programme Startup Garage, but will associations with companies new and old be enough to eject drivers from BMW’s cars?

How driverless cars get from A to B

“We have to do a lot of different things. We have to do the electronics, we have to do new architecture in a [driverless] car. We have to create a backend solution. We have to create a full blown sensor set up and sensor fusion. We have to create the motion control and finally we have backend security as well as vehicle security to think about,” says Frickenstein.

“We need artificial intelligence and in the middle we need to have an environmental model, which includes a supercomputer that checks everything from the street.”

Images courtesy of BMW

As well as the fundamental technology, there is also a wealth of knowledge that cars need to be able to drive without human interference. Humans have the advantage of years of road experience, as well as intuitively knowing the road position of the car and the by-product of the speed of the car (neither too fast nor too slow is desirable).

Humans also have information about speed limits, pedestrians, accidents, and can make decisions that while not strictly legal, are in the best interests of other road users. This is the kind of information that we need to impart to driverless cars.

“With all this knowledge you are able to drive a car from A to B, without that you cannot do that, so this is our task and therefore we need the supercomputers, we need the software, we need the IT and the 100% connectivity. We have to team up our BMW team with partners. We start partnering together with cross-industry collaboration. It is not possible to do these jobs only in the automotive industry,” explains Frickenstein.

Spirit of collaboration

Realising its limitations and collaborating with experts in other fields appears to be BMW’s roadmap to 2021 and driverless technology. Need to know about AI? Ask Intel. Interested in mobile technology? Check with Nokia.

If we make fully-autonomous driving cars, we create less accidents, less traffic, less parking and searching algorithms and less CO2

It’s this kind of collaborative spirit that led to BMW’s participation in the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA). The group includes Audi, BMW and Daimler from the automotive side and Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia, Vodafone and Qualcomm from the telecoms industry, and has been set up to develop 5G technology for future connected and autonomous vehicles.

As well as collaborations between companies, BMW has also spoken of the need for nations to work together in order to make autonomous driving a reality. “We need a lot of test fields to do tests on the street,” says Frickenstein. “We need it in Germany, we need it in the US, we need it in Israel as well as in China. We need a lot of help from the legal department, certification and legal requirements to do our jobs.”

The spirit of collaboration autonomous driving necessitates has obvious benefits for both parties, in that new business streams are created for both; but it will also benefit communities rather than just individual drivers. “If we are making ride sharing, for example, and we make fully-autonomous driving cars, we create less accidents, less traffic, less parking and searching algorithms and less CO2, so there is a big benefit for the customer and a big benefit also for the community,” says Frickenstein.

Startup Garage

Frickenstein explains that we’ve already achieved semi-automated driving, but nobody has been able to push beyond that point at this stage. “No driver assistance, no electronics in, this is level 0. With level 2 it’s partly automated driving. We are talking about temporary hands off, temporary eyes off. Nobody in the world has created more than level 2, so the whole automotive industry is in level 2 and in the next years, we are on the way to go to level 3,” says Frickenstein.

To get to level 3, BMW will need new technologies that solve the problems driverless cars raise. In order to get these new technologies, BMW has created the Startup Garage, which takes innovative technologies, products or services, made by startup companies, and uses them to significantly advance and disrupt the automotive industry. Startups that are selected to work in the garage undergo a special programme lasting several months. At the core of this programme is the development of a functional prototype that pushes BMW’s cars to go further, faster and without human interference.

It goes without saying that letting 3,000-pound death machines steer themselves without humans at the controls will take an awful lot of work. BMW will need to ensure that regulation is changed to let that happen, but there are also a lot of technological challenges to overcome as well.

The car giant has recognised that it needs unfamiliar technologies to achieve fully-automated driving by 2021, and the best way to innovate is to work with innovative partners. We can’t understate the size of the task BMW has given itself: four years to transform the automotive industry; but it has put partnerships in place to achieve that target.

Only 6% of space enthusiasts would like to live in the first low-Earth orbit settlements

A new survey has found that only 6% of respondents would be happy to live in a proposed Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) settlement, where humans live in a small cruise ship-like space station at a similar orbit to the ISS.

Four conditions were set for respondents to assess and while at least 30% said they agree with at least one of them, the number shrank significantly when it came to those who could accept all the conditions.

These were that the settlement itself would require permanent residence, would be no bigger than a large cruise ship, would contain no more than 500 people and would require residents to be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to move in.

The example settlement used in the survey is Kalpana Two, pictured, a conceptual cylindrical space habitat visualised by Brian Versteeg. Measuring 110 m x 110m it would rotate to provide simulated gravity on the “ground” and zero-gravity near the cylinder’s core where occupants can ‘fly’, and would be capable of housing 500 – 1,000 people

The study, conducted by researchers from San Jose State University (SJSU) and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) sought to assess the desirability of such a settlement. Previous similar studies had suggested early space settlements would need to be significantly smaller than believed, and located far closer to Earth.

The research was conducted via an Internet survey made available to the public between 8 January 2016 and 17 June 2016. The survey, using Qualtrics software, received 1,075 responses and was distributed via an email list, social media and spac- related organisations. It should therefore be noted that the respondents are not representative of the general population: 95% actually identified as space enthusiasts.

“95% of respondents were self-described space enthusiasts and 81% were male. 70% were from North America and 20% from Europe,” the study authors Al Globus, from SJSU, and Tom Marotta, from AST, wrote in the research paper.

“This is not surprising as the authors made no attempt to select a random sample of any particular group, but rather to simply distribute the survey as widely as we could.”

Kalpana Two, the conceptual space station the survey was based on. Images courtesy of Brian Versteeg

The paper itself is rather enthusiastic about the 6% figure, pointing out that while it is a low percentage of those who responded, if considering it 6% of those who globally identify as “space enthusiasts” there are likely more than enough to fill these early settlements.  The authors also acknowledge that such a number is not all that surprising given the demands of the move.

However, while the enthusiasm and optimism is laudable, it’s worth noting that those principally willing to give up the most were small in number and tended to fall on the wealthier spectrum. So while the possibility of the project exists, it seems that, as with all commercial space projects so far, it would principally have to cater to the rich.

Moreover, when responding to the main attraction of life in space, “the most common remark was simply that it was ‘in space’ not any particular characteristic of living in space”. There seems in the responses to be a certain enthusiasm that may not hold up in the actual moment of decision.

The fact that people like the idea of living in space is no surprise; the survey however does little to assuage the realities of the situation. Enthusiasm is promising, however the main result of this survey seems to be that blind optimism is only truly backed up by vast amounts of money.

Life expectancy to break the 90-year barrier by 2030

New research has revealed that the average life expectancy is set to increase in many countries by 2030 and, in South Korea specifically, will improve so much as to exceed an average of 90 years. The study analysed long-term data on mortality and longevity trends to predict how life expectancy will change from now until 2030.

The study was led by scientists from Imperial College London in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Looking at 35 industrialised nations, the team highlighted South Korea as a peak for life expectancy; predicting expectancy from birth, they estimate that a baby girl born in South Korea in 2030 will expect to live 90.8 years, while men are expected to live to be 84.1 years.

Scientists once thought an average life expectancy of over 90 was impossible, according to Professor Majid Ezzati, lead researcher from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London:

“We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier,” he said.

“I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy -if there even is one.”

South Korea leads in life expectancy. Image courtesy of jedydjah. Featured image courtesy of Carey and Kacey Jordan

Ezzati explained that the high expectancy for South Korean lives was likely due to a number of factors including good nutrition in childhood, low blood pressure, low levels of smoking, good access to healthcare, and uptake of new medical knowledge and technologies. It is likely that, by 2030, South Korea will have the highest life expectancy in the world.

Elsewhere, French women and Swiss men are predicted to lead expectancies in Europe, with 88.6 years and nearly 84 years respectively. The UK is expected to average 85.3 years for women (21st in the table of countries studied) and 82.5 years for men (14th in the table).

The study included both high-income countries and emerging economies. Among the high-income countries, the US was found to have the lowest predicted life expectancy at birth. Averaging similar to Croatia and Mexico, the researchers suggested this was due to a number of factors including a lack of universal healthcare, as well as the highest child and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and obesity among high-income countries.

A lack of universal healthcare is one of the reasons the US trails behind in life expectancy. Image courtesy of HSeverson

Notably, the research also suggests that the life expectancy gap between men and women is closing and that a large factor in increasing expectancy is due in no small part to older sections of the population living longer than before.

Such increased longevity is not without issue, however, as countries may not be prepared to support an ageing population.

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” added Ezzati.

“This is the opposite of what is being done in the era of austerity. We also need to think about whether current pension systems will support us, or if we need to consider working into later life.”