First Ride: Autonomous Driving in a BMW 6 Series and M235i Prototype +VIDEO
BMW takes a big step towards autonomous driving
By Henny Hemmes
Senior European Editor
The Auto Channel
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LAS VEGAS - January 8, 2014: BMW demonstrated that it has taken autonomous driving technology a step further. Last June, I was had a ride in a self-driving 5-Series prototype on a 25 mile stretch of German motorway. This week, I was again in the passenger seat, but now it was going to be even much more exciting.
At the handling course of the Las Vegas Speedway, BMW showed its state-of-autonomous driving by letting me ride shotgun in a prototype of the upcoming M235i Coupe. Its driver – that is say, the guy who in fact did NOT drive – is an engineer in the Research and Technology team. He was responsible for “teaching” the car how to handle the track and how to maneuver a short slalom.
Right from the start of the first lap the technology was put to the test when the car hit a bend that has been sprayed wet. With a small pull on the steering wheel the ghost driver provokes the car into a long drift before getting back smoothly into the ideal line again…All alone, without human intervention!!
The engineer is in the driver’s seat, but his hands never touched the steering wheel and his feet are on the floor. Development chief Udo Hänle later said that a driver has to be really skilful to do it this way.
One thing the car did not have to be taught is how to handle over steer to safely deal with the wet bend. This is made possible by using advanced control technology combined with a new generation of safety assistance systems, which bring the car back into line in demanding driving situations without out any driver input.
So far, control systems restore stability by braking the wheels, but a new function, which is part of ActiveAssist, features active and precisely calculated steering inputs. It deals with fluctuating grip levels by measuring the road surface and grip level every tenth of a second. Those are combined with new ultra sonic radar and 360 degree stereo camera technology, so that the car can change lanes and overtake.
Watch the video demonstration from the Las Vegas Speedway
As successful as the demonstration was, however, it does not mean that fully autonomous driving will be possible any time soon. Like BMW, Mercedes and Audi are also developing highly advanced safety systems. But even though they all aim to be the first to offer the technology, they also agree that it will take at least until 2020 before we can see people sitting in the driver seat without their hands on the steering wheel. That is a step up from the current situation that BMW calls highly autonomous driving. There are many issues to be addressed, like judicial ones, before the combined systems can finally evolve into highly autonomous driving.
In the meantime, we will see new systems being introduced, such as the lane keeping assistance with active side collision protection. This is a safety assistance system that brings the vehicle back into line when a driver decides to change lanes. The system will also avoid cars that are changing lanes and crossing into the lane that the BMW already occupies.
Dr. Werner Huber, BMW’s head Research and Technik, said that automated driving will serve three goals:
It should improve traffic and driving safety. In other words the occupants should also be safe, with and without automation. Dr. Huber: “Of all accidents, 90 per cent is due to human mistakes. Technology has an advantage compared to humans.”
It will improve driving comfort. Time can be gained by delegating, such as making phone calls when the car is in control. It also means the problem of distracted driving could become history.
It will improve driving efficiency. Time and fuel can be saved through optimized driving strategy.
Dr. Huber went on to say, “It will take a huge effort with all key players and it will need judicial changes before those goals can be realized. In the meantime we will not wait with showing what is possible already, so that law makers can get an idea. BMW will not do this alone, we will cooperate with other manufacturers, but we aim to offer the best technology.”
Later, we headed over to one of the BMW’s i3, the electrical city car, to go parallel parking using their new Parking Assistant. The system is based on ultrasound sensors that will steer, brake, accelerate and switch between forward and reverse gears. When you see a likely parking spot you push the button in the center console and drive past with a speed of up to 20 mph, so that the car can measure if there is enough room, meaning 21.6 inches longer than itself.
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It does not matter how far away you have stopped next to the parked car when you want to start the action. You take your hands off the steering wheel, put your feet of the floor and let the car do the work.
Drivers who have lots of experience, will be tempted to neglect such a system, but people who are not used to parallel parking, will love it. It is convenient indeed, but autonomous drifting is much more fun!