Elmar Frickenstein, senior vice-president autonomous driving, BMW Group.   
    Picture: MARK SMYTH
Elmar Frickenstein, senior vice-president autonomous driving, BMW Group. Picture: MARK SMYTH

There are more questions than answers when it comes to autonomous vehicles at the moment.

Following all the grandiose announcements, the reality of implementation is starting to make many in the industry wonder how plausible all the promises are, at least for now.

Recently we chatted to a number of auto industry executives, who have all spoken about life beyond the PR statements and it is clear that the full self-driving car is much further away than some would have us think. And when it does appear driverlessly in front of you, it will only be in cities that have infrastructure specifically tailored to mitigate the risks.

This all became more obvious while talking to Elmar Frickenstein, senior vice-president autonomous driving at the BMW Group during the Frankfurt Motor Show. He has been with BMW for more than 30 years but has only been in the driving (perhaps we should say driverless) seat of autonomous vehicles for the past year.

Industry issue

He points out that autonomous technology is not a BMW issue, it is an industry issue, which is why the company has teamed up with Intel and Mobileye as its core technology suppliers as well as Continental and Delphi. But these are all suppliers to the industry, so Frickenstein says BMW has also asked other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to work together on the technology. So far Fiat Chrysler has joined but he is confident that others will follow.

"As an OEM we can develop the cars but we cannot launch the car to the end customer or a fleet," he says. "Maybe in small cities." He suggests that in 2021 the company will be able to launch a level 4 autonomous vehicle but only in three or four cities around the world.

One of the big reasons for this is that of the lack of human judgment, the ethical issue if you will. Frickenstein is cautious not to make the same mistake that his counterpart at Mercedes-Benz did when its head of driver assistance systems, Christoph von Hugo, said in 2016 that a future autonomous Mercedes would prioritise the safety of its occupants over those outside the vehicle.

BMW is using a fleet of 40 7 Series models to test its autonomous tech.  Picture: BMW
BMW is using a fleet of 40 7 Series models to test its autonomous tech. Picture: BMW

Not surprisingly, there was a furore and Merc had to clarify its position.

We even spoke with Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler, just after the controversy started and he confirmed that it was "an ethical issue that we have to talk about as a society".

Frickenstein agrees, telling us that the "technical approach today is that an autonomous vehicle is not able to make an ethics decision".

He says that while a computer knows where every object around a vehicle is, it can only see the "green carpet", effectively the route that it can take between those objects.

He says it will not be possible to have a solution in the next five to 10 years.

The company says the steering wheel will remain for those who want to drive.   Picture: BMW
The company says the steering wheel will remain for those who want to drive. Picture: BMW

In the meantime, it is all about transferring the technology. He says the next generation of BMW cars will be fitted with a new architecture and electrical systems.

The debut of an electrical architecture prepared for level 2-5 autonomous driving will be in 2020 or 202.

The company is testing much of this technology in a fleet of 40 7 Series models, but he says there are major limitations. Real-world testing would need to have 240-million kilometres of accident-free testing. "That’s impossible," he says. Only 5% of testing is done in the real world, leaving 95% to be analysed through computer simulations.

Driving lines

But BMW did start early. More than 10 years ago it developed what it called the Track Trainer, a driverless car that was used to find the best driving lines on the Nurburgring as well as other racetracks. Professional test drivers would then have to follow it to replicate the lines.

However, BMW is not about autonomous driving, at least not all the time anyway. "We don’t want cars without a steering wheel or pedals. We don’t want robot cars," says Frickenstein.

That will be a relief to many who fear a future full of driverless pods, but it is clear from our discussions with the industry in the past few months that that future is starting to look further away than some thought.

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