The man behind the unused wheel is Dr. Nico KÃ¤mpchen, Project Manager of Highly Automated Driving at BMW Group Research and Technology, and his confidence in letting the car negotiate the heavy traffic by itself comes from having already completed some 5,000 test kilometres utilising the technology involved.
Much of this testing was performed on the race track as part of the development of BMW TrackTrainer program, the aim of which was to provide electronic co-pilots armed with super accurate GPS data and predefined race lines to aid in the further development of systems such as adaptive cruise control and Emergency Stop Assist. The constant comparison of GPS and video data with the digital maps and internal vehicle data was used to automatically guide a vehicle around the legendary North Loop of the NÃ¼rburgring on 21 October 2009. Then on 25 May 2011, the second generation version of the BMW TrackTrainer performed a similar feat at the Laguna Seca Raceway in California, demonstrating that fast and dynamic automated driving is indeed possible.
The next step was to take to the motorways. BMW combined intelligent software algorithms with a range of sensors to further resource into advanced driver assistance systems. Redundant fusion of various sensor technologies such as lidar (visible Light Detection and Ranging), radar, ultra sound and video cameras that monitor the environment around the automobile. Redundant does not mean 'superfluous' - to ensure that the vehicle situation is precisely assessed, at least two different measurement methods must be used in every direction. In this way the developers at BMW Group Research and Technology can be sure that a potential weakness in one method is counterbalanced by the strength of the other method.
Negotiating the challenges of a car infested motorway is somewhat more challenging than controlling a single vehicle on a closed race track. 'This is an entirely new situation and experience for the driver - it is a strange feeling handing over complete control of the car to an autonomous system. But after a few minutes of experiencing the smooth, sovereign and safe driving style, drivers and passengers begin to relax somewhat and trust the independent system,' says KÃ¤mpchen.' Nevertheless, the driver is still responsible for the situation at all times and must constantly keep an eye on traffic and the surroundings.'
To ensure that the automated research vehicle functions smoothly and with agility in real traffic, the car must be endowed with strategies to react appropriately in daily traffic situations. The basis for these strategies is comprised of two parts: first, pinpointing the position of the vehicle in its own lane is essential and second, the car must be able to clearly recognize all vehicles and objects in its immediate surroundings.
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The system can autonomously control acceleration and breaking, and most importantly assess and react to other vehicles in the vicinity, allowing merging and overtaking with adequate safety distance and the ability to change lanes when necessary. Performance wise the system has been tested up to 130 kmh, however, via both data and reading real-world signs, the system also obeys all speed and passing restriction zones along the way.
So is it just a matter of time before control is removed entirely from the driver, not for the foreseeable future was the theme stressed by local BMW representatives when talking about how this technology will be integrated into production line vehicles. 'Our motto at BMW remains 'Sheer driving pleasure', and we would never take away the simple fun of driving a vehicle from our customers, we would never seek to make the driver redundant'.
This research is aimed at boosting the level of driver assistance systems, enhancing features such as Emergency Stop Assistance where the car will, via various means and sensors, detect a problem with the driver, such as loss of consciousness and begin to safely slow the car, steer around bends and appropriately avoid traffic to get the car to stop on the side of the road, with hazard lights flashing.
BMW' stated intention is to design car systems to mimic the human body, taking information from a number of sources (sensors as senses) to advise intelligent options for the driver.