Self-Driving Cars: BMW Puts the Record Straight


Autonomous driving is the hot topic in the automotive world at present, but rampant misreporting on the subject has not only created unrealistic expectations, it has also made driving enthusiasts feel threatened. BMW, however, has some good news...

The recent Paris Motor Show was the first international exhibition I have attended since coming back to the motoring media world. I was only away for 3 years, but nevertheless the change the industry has experienced in that time was astonishing to see as I walked the otherwise familiar halls of the Mondial de L'Automobile at Porte de Versailles. Electrification, digitalization and autonomony were the buzz trends, and like many of my colleagues, I sometimes find the big changes that are looming around the corner intimidating and hard to understand.

Also read: BMW & Digitalisation - Embracing the Future

Consequently, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to chat to senior BMW engineers and designers on these very hot topics in Paris... not only because I could generate content on the subjects, but for more personal reasons, too. As is the case for many driving enthusiasts, I'm sure, the subject of autonomous driving is particularly bothersome. And, besides, what does it all mean for a brand such as BMW, famed for its "Sheer Driving Pleasure" slogan?  

Enter Dr Dirk Wisselmann, Senior Engineer Automated Driving of the BMW Group. Within 20 minutes, he had not only corrected numerous misconceptions, but also allayed my biggest fear – that driving for fun will soon be a thing of the past. This is what I learned...

Highly Automated and Autonomous – it's not the same thing

The various levels of Automation according to NHTSA and SAE.

During my research prior to the Paris Motor Show interview, I noticed that Dr. Wisselmann prefers to avoid the blanket term "autonomous driving". It was a good starting point for the chat.

"There is a big difference (between highly automated and purely autonomous driving)," he says. "Let’s start with autonomous driving. This is very simple to define because there is no activity required from the driver. This means you don’t need a driver’s licence. You don’t need to be able, or even capable of driving a car. The kids can drive... You can be drunken. It’s really like a train. There is no activity required. Here we talk of so-called level 5 cars, and in some instances level 4.

"Highly automated driving will, in terms of timing, be available much earlier. These are the Level 3 capable cars. With these cars, in specific situations and on specific roads, divided roads for example, where there is no relative (oncoming) traffic, we want to offer drivers the opportunity to completely delegate driving tasks – the work of driving – and he can relax and do other things, such as send e-mails, for example. But he may not sleep. That’s a big difference. Highly automated driving means that within a given timeframe, let's say 6 to 7 seconds, the driver can take over the driving function again. Maybe there’s a work zone on the highway, and the car tells the driver about the situation, and instructs him to take over."

Hands-off in... 2021

So, where are we at present, and how long before we can take our hands off the steering wheel?

"At the moment we have so-called level 2 capable cars, which means there is a constant monitoring of the driver and car. We call the actual systems “assistants”, such as lane and steering control assistant. This is very important for us, because it must be very clear to the driver that it’s not autonomous driving right now. It’s really a kind of intelligient power steering, with a foresight function. This means the technologies relieve you from these minor control activities, so you can already relax with today’s cars, but you have to monitor the situation."

  • See the video above for examples of the assistant technologies Wisselmann makes mention of.

Level 3 vehicles are, however, around the corner, Wisselmann says. BMW has announced that its first Level 3 capable car will be shown in 2021, but it would appear some Level 4 technology will also feature. Wisselmann's description of a Level 4 driving scenario seems pure science fiction, but the reality is that it is nearer than we think. 

"Let's say you want to go to the Alps to ski," he begins. "It's a long trip, so you can leave Munich in your Level 4 car and go to sleep. The car will then wake you up when you near the Alps and the roads get twistier or the road conditions are poor. Then you can drive yourself. Level 4 is very interesting to us, and it will still require you to have a driver's licence, and to be capable of driving."

The future for driving fun?

Don't expect the steering wheel and pedals to disappear from cars any time soon!

BMW, of course, is associated with the "Sheer Driving Pleasure" slogan. How does Wisselmann see the brand ethos being affected by all these new technologies, seemingly with the ultimate goal of no human involvement in the act of driving?

"I think the difference is really from level 4 and level 5," Wisselmann begins. "As I said before, to be honest, today, the driving situation is not very interesting, such as on the highway and in traffic… not very fun. With the automation technologies we want to delegate the driving in these situations to the car, and if there is an interesting road or trip, then you can do it yourself. It is therefore fitting perfectly with our brand. It is the driver's decision. You can do it yourself or hand it over to your car."

Wisselmann pauses, as if thinking very carefully about his next words... 

"Autonomous driving, without steering, without pedals, is something different of course, but this is something we will see first in an urban environemnt. It’s not realistic that we will see level 5 cars going to very complex, or countryside roads. We should not talk about this in the next decade because the cars will not be capable (to do so). And I think we can talk in 10, 15, 20 years whether we really will switch completely to level 5 cars. At the moment it is something we can discuss on a hypothetical basis but it’s not interesting," he explains.

Indeed... later in the interview he also mentions that the computing power needed for full autonomy is such that the current processing power available would have to increase tenfold.

Safety and the Human factor

Dr. Dirk Wisselmann - Senior Engineer Automated Driving at BMW Group.

Our chat then turns to safety concerns and the much-publicised goal of "Vision Zero", the phrase coined for the industry-wide aim to have no road accidents. 

"We want to completely avoid traffic incidents. Of course we are on the way. In the last 40 years we have reduced the number of people killed in Germany from more than 20 000 per year to fewer than 3 000 in 2016. It's a dramatic decrease. But we are not at zero and the automation has a potential to bring us closer to zero. Real zero will never be realistic.

"The automation will help to decrease the number of accidents. The automated car is constantly aware of the driving situation and not distracted. It is always attentive. It is a good means to reduce a number. But one thing is important – automation is not always helpful. A highly experienced and trained driver is very capable of avoiding accidents. Of course a driver today is the main reason for accidents, but is also the main reason for not having accidents. If we replace the driver we must put something in the car to avoid accidents in the same way and that’s not that easy."

And what of ethical decision making, a topic often raised by naysayers in the media? 

"I have a personal opinion when it comes to the ethical decision making. We looked at the number of accidents where ethical decisions have to be made today and to be honest, you virtually find nothing. Actually, there are almost no accidents where the driver has to choose if he kills a human, or between an old man or a child. This doesn’t really happen," Wisselmann explains. "So in our cars, we will not apply any ethnical algorithms.

In summary

Arguably the most important nugget of information gained from this interview was that Wisselmann, and I assume BMW as an organisation, doesn't currently view automation as a threat to what the brand stands for. A future of automated (Level 5), connected transport in cities makes absolute sense if you think about it, with personal cars ultimately becoming Level 4 vehicles that allow you to still "head for the hills" should you desire. 

And that, folks, is mighty good news...

Further reading

BMW Design: The Significance of X2 & Lessons from Paris
BMW 7 Series: A tech showcase (with video)
A day at BMW Classic's HQ
Stunning classic Bimmers at 100 year festival (video)

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