A detailed report by BMW has outlined the brands future mobility goals, bringing highly autonomous vehicles forward in the automaker’s plans with drivers expected to be able to let their car pilot itself as early as 2021
As part of the maker’s iNext plan driver’s may even be able to take a nap while behind the wheel on cross-country trips, with plans to advance the technology even further by 2030 to fully autonomous control that doesn’t require driver input at all.
BMW has published a 19-page document on its iNext plan, giving a detailed insight into its research and development program for autonomous cars. Some of the items in the report cover familiar automation programs previously detailed by BMW, although the high-level automation that will allow people go to sleep at the wheel in just four years' time is a new one.
Already BMW has equipped cars like the current 5 Series and 7 Series sedans with driver-assisting 'Level 2' automation, which are able to reduce driver input for short stints, though ultimately the driver’s attention is required at all times, mostly as a precausting stemming from technical limitations and existing legislative framework.
BMW will upgrade those systems to 'Level 3' automation from 2021 in the upcoming iNext model, allowing drivers "to perform secondary in-vehicle activities for longer periods of time", making it possible to spend minutes at a time doing other tasks without the need to watch the road.
Level 3 automation will still require the driver to be on standby to resume driving duties with a few seconds notice in instances where the car may not be able to use existing date, like areas undergoing roadworks that lack clear lane markings.
From 2021 the iNext program will be capable of 'Level 4' autonomous driving, meaning an extension of capabilities to allow what BMW describes as "fully automated driving in urban traffic" with the system upgraded to allow automation of a level where the driver could potentially “sleep during long distance journeys if necessary," according to the report.
BMW describes the difference between Level 3 and Level 4 as offering the driver "far longer" notice before being asked to take control of the car.
Further into the future the highest stage of automation, 'Level 5', will essentially turn drivers into passengers, removing the need for a human to take the wheel, potentially removing the need for a driver’s licence, with the technology involved to be gradually rolled out between 2020 and 2030.
Despite BMW’s ambition to create the next revolution in mobility, the company is aware that limitations exist, both with the array of sensors, GPS data, and computers required to enable the self-driving, as well as with the legal framework that currently governs road users and how autonomous driving will fit with that.
BMW has also answered the potential ethical question of what might happen in a situation where a self-guided vehicle finds itself having to react to a life or death situation for either occupants or other road users, with BMW even going so far as to claim such situations would be "all but nonexistent" in the real world.
Thanks to a set of clearly defined Asimov-esque rules iNext’s systems will do the following:
Though unlikely, should a critical situation arise early generations of the technology will first decide if the surrounding driving space is "clear and passable" or "not clear" / "not passable".
If a situation is “not clear” maximum braking force will be applied, in instances where an imminent collision is unavoidable the vehicle will scan for a free space to move into and conduct an evasive manoeuvre.
If no escape route exists the vehicle will maintain course and maximum brake force to minimise impact speed, but even before that analysis is required BMW suggests that vehicle will be able to adjust their speed to suit conditions allowing sensors to detect critical events as early as possible.
Already BMW has established a new centre for autonomous systems near Munich, with plans to introduce 40 automated 7 Series sedans to road networks in Germany, Israel, and the US as part of ongoing trials this year in partnership with collaborators, Mobileye and HERE mapping.
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