Tech Innovation

Robot drivers? BMW, Intel and Mobileye dream of fully autonomous cars

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

It’s strange to think that, when my five year-old son reaches the age when he can legally drive a car, he might not need to. Today, a semi-autonomous Tesla can already drive itself without any driver input. Imagine what car technology will be be capable of in 12 years time.

You might not have to imagine. Or wait that long. Because BMW Group, Intel and Israel-based Mobileye are joining forces to bring ‘Level 5’, fully autonomous cars into production by 2021.

The U.S Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) classifies vehicle automation using five levels. ‘Level 1’ describes Function-specific Automation, such as basic cruise control, adaptive braking, automatic headlights and lane departure warning systems. None of these systems are connected and none enable you to take your hands safely off the wheel.

Lane Departure Warning system
Lane Departure Warning Systems offer driver assistance not true automation.

‘Level 2’ is a step-up to Combined Function Automation and encompasses features such as adaptive cruise control (which auto-adjusts vehicle speed to keep a safe distance to the vehicle ahead) and automatic parking. “This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions,” says the NHTSA. In the case of Parking Assist technology, you can temporarily take your hands off the wheel.

‘Level 3’ is where things start to get interesting. Defined as Limited Self-Driving Automation, this is where Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving technology fits into the grand scheme of things. Equipped with radar, ultrasonics, GPS navigation and video cameras, the Model S and Model X offer hands-free driving on Autopilot. However, drivers are still expected to monitor their journeys, ready to take back control manually if needed.

BMW iNEXT autonomous driving
Even in an advanced Level 3, semi-autonomous car, the driver still needs to be ready to take back control.

In ‘Level 4’, fully autonomous cars the driver’s role can be limited to setting the sat-nav and putting their feet up, as vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” Unlike Level 3, drivers can be ‘eyes-off’ and don’t need to be ready to assume manual control.

All of which brings us to ‘Level 5’, a level of autonomy that doesn’t require a human driver at all, or a steering wheel for that matter. This Highly Automated Driving (HAD) approach opens up opportunities for fleets of robot vehicles in the future — driverless lorries on our motorways, self-driving Uber cars instead of taxis, perhaps even autonomous buses and robot couriers.

Working together, future BMW concepts (based around the BMW iNEXT model) will feature Mobileye’s advanced EyeQ5 camera/sensor technology, and take full advantage of Intel’s in-vehicle, cloud computing and machine learning know-how.

BMW concept car on the street
BMW has some stunning car concepts as it looks ahead to the next 100 years.

“Highly autonomous cars and everything they connect to will require powerful and reliable electronic brains to make them smart enough to navigate traffic and avoid accidents,” said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. “This partnership between BMW Group, Intel and Mobileye will help us to quickly deliver on our vision to reinvent the driving experience.”

It’s a huge undertaking and, as Krzanich points out, there are significant challenges to solve.

“How can you teach an autonomous car to react to unpredictable human drivers who might be drunk, texting or speeding?” he asks. “How and when will there be detailed, accurate maps of all the roads in the world? How do we make the world’s roadways smart so they can communicate with and warn cars about hazards and traffic?”

But considering advances in automotive technology over the past five years, it’s possible robot cars could be rolling off the production line by 2021. So when my son reaches the age of 17 in 2028, he might never get to kangaroo an old hatchback in an empty ASDA car park, stall the engine at a set of traffic lights or need to practice his parallel parking.

In a highly automated or fully autonomous car of the future, he’ll just sit back, play on his iPhone 13S and let technology do the driving.

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