Like it or not, self-driving and even driverless vehicles are on the horizon, thanks to developments in autonomous vehicle technologies that are already commonplace in many even mainstream vehicles today.
In fact, cruise control — the simplest form of Level 1 (feet off) vehicle autonomy — has been around for years and has since been joined by radar cruise control and automatic emergency braking, while newer features like lane-keeping assistance constitute Level 2 (hands off).
Level 3 (eyes off) is the next step and BMW will offer it to customers from 2021 in an all-electric SUV that will be able to accelerate, brake and steer itself for extended periods without any driver input.
Legislation permitting, after that comes Level 4 (brain off), in which ‘drivers’ will only need to be on standby if the car needs help, leaving them free to read a book or surf the interweb.
The holy grail, for some at least, is the Level 5 autonomous vehicle, in which you’re simply a passenger and all driving responsibilities switch entirely from human to machine.
Best of both worlds
So how will BMW’s slogan of ‘sheer driving pleasure’ apply to the revered German car-maker’s products in an increasingly automated vehicular world?
According to the global head of product management at BMW i, Dr Alex Kotouc, by always allowing its owner to take control when he or she wants to, and by giving their vehicle the capability to operate itself when they don’t want to, such as in a traffic jam.
“What is the value of BMW’s sheer driving pleasure if you are driving autonomously? Well the value of autonomous driving is in all the situations when you don’t want performance, such as in traffic when you don’t want sheer driving pleasure,” he told us.
“You just push the button and you know you’re absolutely safe. Then you reach the end of the highway and you want to drive on the windy road so you push the button and all is good again.
“I promise you that whatever we do, as long as there is the BMW logo on the hood it will still feel and drive like a BMW, like the i3 and i8 do.”
To that end, Dr Kotouc said it was almost certain that all BMW vehicles would always come with a steering wheel – or at least something similar.
“We have some questions about getting rid of the steering wheel and probably in autonomous driving mode it might move away, but I’m quite sure if it’s a BMW it will always have a steering wheel and you will be able to steer it yourself.”
Enough to make you sick
As for motion sickness in a vehicle you’re not in control of, could be facing backwards within and/or may not even be able to see out of, the BMW i product boss admitted it could take some people some time to get used to.
“Honestly the first time I sat in one of our autonomous test cars on an internal racetrack where they wanted to demonstrate how fast it could go, it did feel a little bit strange. It takes two or three laps before you feel the car is capable of doing it on its own.
“People will need some time to adapt to the technology.
You need to trust the technology, that’s the first thing.
“As for the motion sickness question, there are people sitting in buses and trains facing backwards and not getting sick. We of course will introduce a drivetrain in the car that will make it possible to even turn around in the car without getting sick.”
Level 5 a while away
Asked how far away full Level 5 vehicle autonomy was, Dr Kotouc said the technology exists now but it depends on regional legislation – and consistently clear road markings.
“The car needs to know where it’s going. If you have perfect maps, perfect streets and a perfect situation around you many cars could drive autonomously.
“This is why we invested in HERE with other car manufacturers because it [detailed mapping] is one of the next big steps.”
He said autonomous vehicles will be initially best suited to highways, even some without clear lane markings, but drivers would still need to be ready to take control.
“On a highway when all cars are going the same direction at the same speed it’s much easier. There are no kids running around on the highway usually. And even if there are no road markings the machine can calculate.
“[But] even on a perfect highway, if they do some remodeling on one side and there is no barrier then the car loses its way. This is the moment when it rings the bell and says ‘driver I need you because I’m losing my way’.”
Some cities may never see autonomous cars
Dr Kotouc said urban areas were a different matter, suggesting full Level 5 autonomous transport would be limited to specific areas outside populated areas – and that many cities would never be home to self-driving cars.
“When it comes to city driving it’s a completely different driving,” he said.
“Driving in cities like Mumbai – I did it once and it was the worst experience in my life – there is so much going on in the street, even things that should never be going on in the street.
“So if you ask me when will we ever see autonomous driving in Mumbai my answer is probably never, because there won’t be a machine able to really forecast all these things running around the streets.
“Highways will be soon, but urban areas will be tougher.
“If there is something like cars parked and you imagine a kid chasing a ball and you can’t see through the car then you can do the math.
“As soon we can no longer offer a perfect solution we won’t do it, because we just don’t want a BMW driver in that situation.”
More harm than good
Indeed, Dr Kotouc said the headlong rush towards autonomous vehicles by many car-makers – and other companies – next decade could lead to widespread doubt about the technology.
“We call stage three highly automated. Others call it autonomous. I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong, but BMW is always a little bit more conservative.
“We don’t sell anything we can’t deliver. If you don’t do it properly I think people are afraid of the technology.
“The danger is too many companies pushing too far with the technology and people don’t trust it any more. They’re actually doing more harm than good.”