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Frankfurt show: BMW moves self-drive R&D to top level

No driver required: BMW’s development chief Klaus Froelich has commissioned a fleet of 7 Series cars with full Level 5 self-driving specs.

No point in interim levels of vehicle autonomy, says BMW, as Level 5 trials underway

15 Sep 2017


BMW is accelerating its autonomous car development by moving straight to fully driverless prototypes – operating at the top end of the scale, known as Level 5 – as it works on bringing such a vehicle to market by 2021.

Autonomous vehicles are currently graded from Level 1 (least aided) to Level 5 (completely human-free) on a scale of machine involvement, and BMW AG member of the board of management responsible for development, Klaus Froelich, believes there is little point taking small steps with progressive movements through the levels.

Instead, Mr Froelich has commissioned a fleet of BMW 7 Series sedans that have been built to Level 5 specifications, with the aim of scaling that high-end technology back down to lower levels.

“We don’t think that we want to develop step-by-step from the car architectures to Level 3, 3.2, 3.4, 3.6 and so on, because when it goes to fully autonomous driving, you need redundant steering, you need redundant brakes, you need a lot of sensors,” Mr Froelich told Australian journalists at the Frankfurt motor show this week.

“We take it from Level 5 and then go backwards, and then we can scale it wherever the markets or the legislatures allow us to be.”

Mr Froelich, who has boosted BMW’s digital engineering department by more than 2000 employees, claimed BMW’s current autonomous technology already outstrips that used by competitors, but said there was much more to do before Level 5 becomes a reality.

“It’s not possible to put sensors in place for Level 5 because they are not available yet,” he said. “We have to develop, for example, chip-based laser scanners, and we do not need one: we need at least five of them.”

Autonomous driving is based around what is known as an environment model, and Mr Froelich revealed that the human eye is the perfect device to identify obstacles and animals, as well as predict trajectories accurately.

“If we drive down a street in a city with 50 pedestrians, I have to calculate the most probable way they would go for all those 50 pedestrians, or the bicycle couriers who ride in a challenging way,” he said.

“At the moment, the technology’s not available to do fully autonomous driving from our approach to be really safe, because a Level 5 accident means we are liable.”

The experienced engineer, whose previous roles include head of product planning for all BMW Group brands, head of brand and product strategies and head of development for petrol engines, also revealed just how much work will be required to develop dependable, safe Level 5 autonomy.

“I needed less than five million kilometres to develop a (regular) 5 Series,” he said. “For autonomous driving Level 5, I have to do 150 million kilometres, and I can’t do it on a road.”

Mr Froelich said a 500 petabyte (or 500 million gigabyte) computer mainframe is being constructed to simulate on-road conditions.

Another element needed to create a feasible Level 5 driving is a fast, stable mobile network, and Mr Froelich confirmed that BMW has moved to secure its position within that new network (known as 5G).

“Where you have to download very detailed maps and so on and so forth requires 5G, and we have found an association for 5G promotion,” he said. “That’s the one challenge. The other challenge is safety – it’s very important that we have protection against hacking.”

To this end, BMW is building its own network of connected cars, via an embedded SIM that has been placed in every BMW since 2009.

“All BMWs in production are fully connected,” he said. “It’s between nine and 10 million cars. We have more connected cars than anyone else in the industry.”

This network of connected vehicles, in conjunction with the 5G network, will allow BMW to forward high-resolution map information to its vehicles that is accurate to a square centimetre, and will provide incredibly detailed road condition information in real time.

If the network goes down or a sensor fails – there are up to four back-ups for most sensors, according to Mr Froelich – the car will be able to rely on a 20km map that is constantly kept up to date.

“The car can drive in the first failsafe mode without being connected, but perhaps we will reduce speeds (with software),” he said.

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