BMW’s Autonomous Driving Campus is home to 40 autonomous driving vehicles at different levels. Picture: BMW
BMW’s Autonomous Driving Campus is home to 40 autonomous driving vehicles at different levels. Picture: BMW

Start-up ideas that are open source will drive the BMW Group’s new autonomous vehicle think-tank outside Munich, the car maker’s board member for development has told us.

The centrepiece of BMW’s hopes to morph into a tech company, the 23,000m2 Autonomous Driving Campus opened recently, concentrating 1,000 connectivity and autonomous driving developers in one location.

Fifteen months in the making, the Unterschleißheim site will eventually host 1,800 developers, with BMW ramping up as the 2021 launch of the Level 4-capable i-Next electric car approaches. "Welcome to the new Silicon Valley here in Bavaria," BMW’s Group’s senior vice-president for mobility, Elmar Frickenstein, said.

"For us, autonomous vehicles (AVs) is one of the most important challenges in the auto industry. It’s about bringing a completely new system to the street," Frickenstein said.

"We tackled extreme challenges — challenges we have never faced in the automotive industry. It’s open plan with large-scale scrums and we need the ability to co-operate with the best technology partners."

BMW is already recruiting more information technology specialists, software developers, artificial intelligence researchers, machine learning boffins and data analysts to fill up the rest of the campus.

The company is testing and analysing data in a controlled environment. Picture: BMW
The company is testing and analysing data in a controlled environment. Picture: BMW

"We need the best software developers in the world, especially people who are experts in artificial intelligence," BMW’s board member for development, Klaus Fröhlich, said. "We need further generations of chip development. We need this start-up culture and we need to invest in this as a start-up culture. We have start-up funding of €500m.

"We need to identify the weak spots and develop a safe process and a car that will work with all customers in all conditions, not only in Arizona where there are no pedestrians."

That was not the first shot Fröhlich has fired across Uber’s bows, having previously lambasted the Silicon Valley ride-hailing firm’s self-driving development programme at BMW’s annual accounts conference in April.

"At the moment, with the quality and ability of the sensors and the computer processing speed and performance, there is no possibility to have highly autonomous cars without accidents," he said in April after an Uber prototype killed a female pedestrian in Arizona.

BMW has teamed up with Intel, MobilEye and the Here digital mapping system it part owns, and the AV research group has recently been joined by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Now BMW has moved to create a new working culture for its tech boffins that it insists is more akin to Silicon Valley than a structured German operation.

"The benefits for the development experts employed here are clear: flexibility, efficiency, a high level of autonomy and short distances," said Fröhlich.

"This means, for example, that a software developer working at the new campus can immediately test out freshly written code in a vehicle that is just a short walk away. We have to think like a start-up and act like a grown-up.

"We are not doing an IT project for four years. We are doing a lot of sprints. We will then learn whether we are on the right track or not. We will do them here and translate this to the rest of the group."

BMW already has a fleet of 40 Level 3, Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous prototypes and has promised to double that before the middle of 2018.

"With the i-Next in 2021 we will not only offer the most innovative generation of EV but we will have a connected car and we will use this for pilots to test fully AV driving [where the framework conditions exist].

Autonomous cars generate terabytes of data. Picture: BMW
Autonomous cars generate terabytes of data. Picture: BMW

"We will use it in these regions for fully automated driving, then we will roll it out into our portfolio. Then we need a scalable back end. We need a … huge amount of data.

"We have already more data volume stored here compared to my whole development in the Fiz [BMW’s technical development centre in Munich]. Forty cars have generated double the data compared to the rest of the entire new vehicle test fleet."

Fröhlich warned to expect everything to change in the car industry in the next decade, as electric cars and automated driving technologies converged.

"Autonomous driving in all its facets will change the auto industry as will the electrification. We’ve always said it will come and we don’t know when.

"In the last three years we’ve invested a lot in this topic and we have the same mind-set [as with electrification]. You need to put in a lot of effort until something moves and now we’re opening this campus. We’ve solved the first puzzle.

"This is a project where we can show the digital expertise and without that we cannot implement this project."

It was looking at automated driving the same way it viewed electric cars, when it launched a standalone i brand.

"This is the goal we are pursuing in a systematic way. We have created a schedule timeline. The project i was with respect to electrification and now there is project 2.0 and that’s AV," Fröhlich said.