Is BMW Ready for a Driverless World?

Most automakers agree that the future of cars is autonomous, and BMW is no exception. The British Government is currently investing millions of pounds into the development and testing of driverless technology, while companies like BMW and Mercedes are investing their own money into creating machines that will take over the task of driving. Much like the mid-century space race, the race to driverless vehicles is officially on.

BMW has officially thrown its hat into the ring, with its recent announcement that it will release a self-driving car in the year 2021. Elmar Frickenstein, the company’s Senior VP of autonomous driving, made the announcement at a panel discussion in Berlin in March. According to the company, it will be a “Level 5” autonomous vehicle, meaning it will be able to drive by itself in any geographical location. They also recently announced the release of a Level 3 vehicle in 2021, meaning it can handle most of the driving tasks but may require a driver to intervene occasionally.

The Luxury Autonomous Vehicle Race

This announcement puts the German automaker in close competition with their biggest rival: Mercedes, who plans to start selling autonomous vehicles by the year 2021. While BMW has been the world’s best-selling luxury automaker for the past decade, Mercedes has been inching in on that title. During the first 9 months of 2016, Mercedes sold an impressive 1.54 million cars; BMW only sold 1.48 million.

While the two luxury companies appear to be racing to the driverless finish, there is one way they’re letting collaboration spur innovation: through the sharing of data. Audi, Mercedes, and BMW acquired the digital map making company HERE in 2015 in order to create HD maps that would aid their autonomous technology.

Despite this, BMW is clearly looking to make its mark in the autonomous vehicle race, as other automakers have only announced plans for a Level 4 vehicle. The German automaker is amongst the first to announce plans for a Level 5, completely self-driving car. In fact, it’s surpassed only by Tesla, with plans to have a Level 5 car drive itself across the United States before the end of 2017.

Is the World Ready for Driverless Cars?

Though we’ve widely accepted the possibility of driverless vehicles, they are still the subject of hot debate. There are both legal and technical implications that must be addressed before these self-driving vehicles officially hit our roads. Will we ever be comfortable enough to kick back and relax while our cars take us where we need to go? And if there were ever an accident, who is to blame? These are all questions that must be ironed out before we can rely on completely driverless cars.

UK Leading the Charge

In the past couple of years, the UK Government has made it clear that it wants to pave a smooth path for autonomous automakers looking to test vehicles. This is in stark contrast to countries such as the US, which require approval at the state level.

The Government is also in the midst of conducting its own research: for example, they’ve invested money in trialing driverless pods – namely, how technology uses data to interact with other users and the surrounding environment.

Ministers hope this progress will continue when they push through the proposed Modern Transport Bill, and changes to the Highway Code and insurance policies are expected to roll out this summer.

How Will the Process Work?

The Department for Transport (DfT) has already issued a Code of Practice for how manufacturers like BMW can test driverless cars on UK roads. This code dictates procedures, guidelines, and requirements for all organisations looking to test fully autonomous vehicles. For example, even vehicles designated as Level 5 must have a manual override available at all times, and a test pilot must always be in the vehicle.

Those who want to test vehicles will need a full licence, issued by the Government, and a comprehensive understanding of how automated technology works. And those who thought they could catch up on their reading behind the wheel will be disappointed to know that the Code of Practice stipulates that all testers must presume they’re driving the car under normal, non-autonomous conditions.

Will the Infrastructure be Ready by 2021?

The biggest hurdles left for BMW are the insurance implications if a vehicle gets in an accident. One option would be to extend motor insurance to cover product liability, which will protect motorists if something goes wrong when they’re not in control. Some manufacturers, such as Volvo, have announced they will self-insure. Unsurprisingly, UK insurance companies are beginning to announce unique policies that protect customers from software failures, and also from cyberattacks or hacking.

We’ll continue to learn more about the technicalities of these vehicles as we go along. For now, the autonomous driving race looks promising with BMW behind the wheel.


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