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.

Former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader warns against over-hyping driverless cars

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader has said that unsubstantiated claims from driverless car enthusiasts are distracting authorities from improving transport links and improving road and rail infrastructure.

In a blog post, Nader argues that the while the many advantages of a possible driverless future have been reported by the media, they have not been properly scrutinised, and the technology is draining much-needed funds that should be made available to mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades.

“The mass media took the bait and over-reported each company’s sensationalised press releases, announcing breakthroughs without disclosing the underlying data,” said Nader.

“The arrogance of the algorithms, among many other variables, bypassed simple daily realties such as bustling traffic in cities like New York.”

Image courtesy of Don LaVange

Nader makes the claim that the predicted decline in car sales has led car companies to promote their high-ticket, driverless cars, which as Nader points out are already being marketed as “computers on wheels”.

However, Nader argues no explanation has been given for how autonomous vehicles would be implanted into normal people’s daily lives, and the problems of cars being hacked or requiring humans to take over haven’t been resolved.

“The industry, from Silicon Valley to Detroit, argues safety. Robotic systems do not get drunk, fall asleep at the wheel or develop poor driving skills. But computers fail often; they are often susceptible to hacking, whether by the manufacturers, dealers or deadly actors,” said Nader.

“Already, Level Three—an autonomous vehicle needing emergency replacement by the surrogate human driver—is being viewed as unworkable by specialists at MIT and elsewhere. The human driver, lulled and preoccupied, can’t take back control in time.”

Nader also makes the point in his blog post that driverless cars are diverting funding away from making cars we already have safer, more efficient and less polluting.

It is Nader’s opinion that we shouldn’t wait for what he terms a “technological will-o’-the-wisp”, and we should instead make changes to the cars we already have, as well as improving public transportation and infrastructure.

“The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades,” said Nader.

“Why won’t we concentrate on what can be improved and expanded to get safer, efficient, less polluting mobility?”

Self-driving shopping: Autonomous grocery delivery trialled in London

The first trials of a self-driving grocery delivery service have started in Greenwich, London, as part of a wider project looking into the use of autonomous vehicles for ‘last mile’ deliveries.

An initiative between UK government and industry funded smart mobility lab the GATEway project and Ocado Technology, a part of the world’s largest online-online supermarket, the trail uses a cargo-carrying self-driving vehicle known as CargoPod. Developed by Oxbotica, the vehicle can carry 128kg of groceries at a time, as is designed to drive in areas populated by pedestrians thanks to its software system Selenium.

“Last mile delivery is a growing challenge as our cities become denser and more congested,” said Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica. “In this new project we are working closely with Ocado Technology to deploy our Selenium autonomy system into a novel last-mile delivery application in Greenwich as a part of the GATEway project.”

Running over ten days, the trail will see groceries delivered to over 100 residents across the Royal Riverside Arsenal development in the borough of Greenwich. The project is the latest in a series of trials of self-driving vehicles in the borough, which have been primarily focused on their operation in areas also used by pedestrians.

“The Royal Borough of Greenwich is one of the UK’s leaders in smart city innovation and we are proud to be working alongside our partners to be at the forefront in this new age of driverless technology,” Councillor Sizwe James, cabinet member for transport, economy and smart cities at the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

“With Digital Greenwich spearheading this work forwards, we are gaining new insights into how connected and autonomous vehicles, including automated light delivery vehicles, will impact on the city and what cities need to do to capture the opportunities they can bring.”

Images courtesy of the GATEway project

The eventual goal of the project is to bring self-driving vehicles into general use in the UK.

“The GATEway project takes us another step closer to seeing self-driving vehicles on UK roads, and has the potential to reduce congestion in urban areas while reducing emissions,” said UK Business Minister Claire Perry. “Backed by government, this project firmly establishes the UK as a global centre for developing self-driving innovation.”

As part of this, there has been a strong focus on the commercial opportunities of self-driving vehicles, as evidenced by the involvement of Ocado.

“Ocado Technology is delighted to have worked in partnership with the GATEway Project to a complete a very successful grocery delivery trial using driverless vehicles. We are always looking to come up with unique, innovative solutions to the real-world challenge of delivering groceries in densely-populated urban environments,” said David Sharp, Head of 10x Technology at Ocado.

“This project is part of the on-going journey to be at the edge of what is practical and offer our Ocado Smart Platform customers new and exciting solutions for last mile deliveries.”