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.

Advances in genetic technologies mean that it could soon be possible to de-extinct our closest relative. But even if we can, does that mean we should? We investigate

45,000 years ago our species was not alone on this planet. Alongside us, Homo sapiens, was a second member of our genus, Homo neanderthalensis, with its own tools, society and cultural practices.

At one time it is thought that there were around 70,000 Neanderthals living on Earth, mainly in what we now know as Europe and southwest and central Asia. How much our species interacted with this sapient cousin is not fully known, but there was certainly some interbreeding: while Neanderthals are long deceased, their DNA lives on in many Europeans and Asians.

But now, with the advances of genetic technologies, Neanderthals could return. Recent advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as well as the sequencing of DNA taken from the bone of a female Neanderthal who is thought to have walked the Earth some 50,000-100,000 years ago, mean that what was once pure science fiction could soon become a reality.

Legendary geneticist George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is currently spearheading the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, has said that he thinks the de-extinction of Neanderthals will occur in his lifetime.

“The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,” he told Spiegel Online in 2013. “In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning.

“We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?”

Bringing Neanderthals back from the dead

When we consider de-extincting Neanderthals, it is important to note that we would not be bringing back a precise, perfect copy of the Neanderthals that lived on Earth up until their extinction some 40,000 years ago.

As Douglas McCauley, assistant professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, explains, the question of whether we can bring Neanderthals back from extinction “depends upon how much of a purist you are about the definition of Neanderthal”.

I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges

In the simplest terms, any scientists who set out to de-extinct Neanderthals will do so by cobbling together modern human and extinct Neanderthal DNA.

“The technique that many de-extinction scientists are now using to bring back extinct species is to sequence the genome of the dead species – line it up next to the genome of the nearest living relative – then use CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify elements of the genome of the living relative to approximate elements of the genome of the dead species,” explains McCauley.

This is the approach being taken by the Harvard team currently attempting to de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

“Here they are using the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and the genome of a living Asian elephant. The goal, however, isn’t to bring back a perfect replica of the woolly mammoth. A success would be to genetically engineer a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant.

“This would also remain the same strategy for any group attempting to bring back a Neanderthal. Again, this would be more like engineering increased Neanderthal-ness into the human genome – not like cranking out a carbon copy of a Neanderthal.”

This approach should be technically possible for Neanderthals in the near future. But, as McCauley explains, that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

“Technically engineering more Neanderthal into the human genome will indeed be possible very soon,” he says. “Practically, I don’t really see this happening. People will most certainly use CRISPR and next-generation gene editing techniques to edit the human genome – but I think this is much more likely to be tuning humans up, rather than tuning down.

“I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges.”

Criteria for de-extinction

De-extinction is, in general, a topic that is set to be the subject of ever-greater discussion in the coming years, as hypothetical concepts become scientific reality.

“It is on the precipice of moving from a crazy idea we once mused about over coffee, to a real possibility we can actually make happen in the lab. From science fiction to real science,” summarises McCauley.

However, with such abilities come significant moral questions. De-extinction could be a vital tool for conservation, but it could also be used to produce creatures that are more reminiscent of science fiction horror stories than of scientific value.

As a result, efforts are already being made to build a moral framework within which de-extinction scientists can work. As part of this, McCauley authored a paper along with several colleagues that recommended using three specific criteria for the selection of candidates for the de-extinction process.

“I am a conservation biologist and an ecologist. The three criteria we issued were created from that vantage point: what species would we bring back if we genuinely wanted de-extinction to combat the ecological crisis being created by the ongoing human-driven mass extinction?” he explains.

“We suggested recovering species that: 1) performed ecological jobs that were highly unique and were not replicated by other surviving species; 2) recent extinctions for which the technological and ecological barriers for recovery and restoration were lower; and 3) species that we could meaningfully recover to historic levels of abundance.”

If following this approach, scientists would therefore favour species to de-extinct that could not only fulfil a role in the ecosystem that another species had not taken over, but were likely made extinct fairly recently and would survive and flourish in the current environment. And under these criteria, Neanderthals would be a poor choice.

“Neanderthals most importantly fail the first test,” explains McCauley. “Their ecology is very similar to another species that survived and thrived – our own.

“To put it bluntly, from a conversation biologists point of view: the last thing our planet needs right now is more hungry Hominids.”

Neanderthal revival: the moral issue

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Neanderthals would pose any particular threat to modern humans.

“Quite the opposite,” argues McCauley. “The greatest challenge would be keeping de-extincted Neanderthals alive and safe from us, not worrying about them taking over.”

As these newly engineered Neanderthals would not be true replicas of their past equivalents, they would be likely to suffer from genetic issues, as well as being potentially highly ill-suited to the human-occupied modern world.

There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals

“There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals (e.g. birth defects), they are likely to be quite susceptible to modern disease, and it is unclear what habitats they would slot back into,” he adds. “Our species has taken over all of the once prime habitat of Neanderthals.”

Then there is the matter of Neanderthals’ original demise; something that could easily play out again if we were to bring back a group of the species. It’s hard to see the scientific value of de-extincting a species that would be at high risk of quickly becoming extinct again.

“It is important to remember that we likely played an important role in the original extinction of Neanderthals,” explains McCauley. “We competed heavily with them for food and homes and we may have given them lethal diseases. Reviving Neanderthals might simply be an act of recreating history.”

Value in de-extinction

For McCauley, there is currently no circumstance under which bringing back Neanderthals would be a good idea. But that does not mean that de-extinction as a wider practice does not have value – in fact, it could offer significant benefits, provided we select the right species to focus on.

“There is a very long list of other species that I think would be smarter to bring back before we started in on Neanderthals,” he says.

“As an ecologist that looks out at a world with species being driven extinct in all directions around us, I am all ears for smart new conservation tools.

“The challenge here will be carefully selecting targets that meaningfully help the planet, not using this new-found power to create oddities for zoos or bio-bazaar.”

School will use facial analysis to identify students who are dozing off

In September the ESG business school in Paris will begin using artificial intelligence and facial analysis to determine whether students are paying attention in class. The school says the technology will be used to improve performance of students and professors.

Source: The Verge

Company offers free training for coal miners to become wind farmers

A Chinese wind-turbine maker wants American workers to retrain and become wind farmers. The training program was announced at an energy conference in Wyoming, where the American arm of Goldwind, a Chinese wind-turbine manufacturer is located.

Source: Quartz

Google AI defeats human Go champion

Google's DeepMind AI AlphaGo has defeated the world's number one Go player Ke Jie. AlphaGo secured the victory after winning the second game in a three-part match. DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis said Ke Jie "pushed AlphaGo right to the limit".

Source: BBC

Vegan burgers that taste like real meat to hit Safeway stores

Beyond Meat, which promises its plant-based burgers bleed and sizzle like real ground beef and is backed by investors like Bill Gates, will begin distributing its plant-based burgers in more than 280 Safeway stores in California, Hawaii and Nevada.

Source: Bloomberg

The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

Brain cells that destroy and digest worn-out cells and debris go into overdrive in mice that are chronically sleep-deprived. The discovery could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: New Scientist

"We can still act and it won’t be too late," says Obama

Former US President Barack Obama has written an op-ed piece in the Guardian giving his views on some of the greatest challenges facing the world – food and climate change – and what we can do about them. "We can still act and it won’t be too late," writes Obama.

Source: The Guardian