BMW intends to introduce a fully autonomous car to the market as early as 2021. The “iNEXT” will drive not only on highways, but in cities as well – while the driver is busy with other things. We spoke with Elmar Frickenstein, who is responsible for the development of autonomous driving at BMW.
Mr. Frickenstein, serial production of a self-driving car by 2021 – that sounds ambitious.
Of course it is. The BMW iNEXT will combine automated driving, digital networking, electric mobility and a futuristic design. With it, we intend to bring highly automated driving to urban environments. Automated mobility will usher in a new era for the automotive industry.
How far along are you?
We are often asked, “When will there be autonomous driving?” The answer: “It already exists.” In 2006, a BMW drove the Hockenheimring autonomously. In 2011, one of our cars drove on autobahn 9 from Munich to Nuremberg without human intervention. In 2014, we had an M235i prototype drift while at its dynamic limit. Today, the BMW i3 and the 7 series self-park, while prototypes can master interchanges and lane changes.
And where are there still problems?
Digitalization and automation constitute the greatest challenge the automotive industry has ever faced. We are continuing to develop the stages of partial automation – only in this way can we achieve autonomous driving. We have to wait for the development of the legal and technical framework. This is under discussion with governments and responsible authorities, and we can expect solutions soon. We should also allow time for the social dialogue.
This is about taking control away from drivers – why should they want that?
This will not come all at once, like the big bang. There will be many intermediate steps. Driver assistance systems nowadays work so well that they gain trust after a few minutes. Drivers want assistance in monotonous situations: in a traffic jam, in slow-moving traffic, or at traffic lights. And if you want, you can simply turn off the system and drive yourself, as you do now.
How will you guarantee safety in all of this?
The system creates a portrayal of the traffic situation, calculates risks, and safely directs your car through traffic. It uses at least two different measuring principles for every direction, such as laser and radar or laser and camera, to compensate for any weaknesses of a single sensor. The driver sees important information on a map. In addition, swarm intelligence is analyzed: for years, all BMWs have been sending in traffic data, of course only with the customer’s consent. Over six million vehicles are already networked. And every component is protected with security algorithms.
You work together with Intel and the camera technology specialists at Mobileye. How important is this cooperation for you?
We have to work more closely together with the IT and consumer electronics industries, as well as semiconductor manufacturers. Together with our partners, we acquired the market leader Here in order to gain access to highly precise maps with real-time data. The know-how of Intel and Mobileye is absolutely essential for the technical solutions which allow us to take our hands off the steering wheel – and soon take our eyes off the road.
What other technologies does autonomous driving need?
The exchange with traffic systems and other vehicles creates an enormous volume of data. Artificial intelligence, or machine learning, enables cars to learn with every kilometer driven. This requires cutting-edge technology in wireless networks, processors, and software. We need a new generation of much more powerful chips, and a 5G wireless standard to guarantee stable and fast connectivity.
Elmar Frickenstein is head of the Fully Automated Driving and Driver Assistance division at BMW.