We are pumping along at around 120km/h in a 5-Series sedan on the autobahn near Munich. Nothing unusual there, except perhaps the lack of speed.
It’s what happens next that’s unusual. The indicator chimes in, the car changes lanes effortlessly and then, 500 metres later, it takes the exit onto a different autobahn, and then merges with the heavy traffic with no apparent effort whatsoever. And it does it all by itself with no input from BMW’s Michael Aeberhard, sitting in the driver’s seat.
That’s because Mr Aeberhard is not driving BMW’s latest take on autonomous cars and it’s not called an Autonomous Car, because BMW is pulling up just short of that. Instead, it’s being dubbed Highly Autonomous Driving, largely because completely autonomous driving is a) bad for a company that sells driving pleasure for a living, b) urban driving is far more complex and carries far greater risk and c) the highway stuff is the most boring anyway.
While Google has taken the high ground with its own autonomous car, the tech giant has found itself with few customers amongst the major car makers because, like BMW, they’ve all been working at the problem themselves and are, in many ways, more advanced than Google.
This Highly Autonomous Driving prototype combines 12 sensors pointing out of the 5-Series with all the cleverness of BMW’s latest ConnectedDrive system, with its SIM integrated into the car and permanently attached to the Cloud rather than relying on plug-in phones or dongles.
What they have ended up with is a 5-Series that looks close to a normal one, but has a collection of strange looking small add-ons here and there, according to Aeberhard, BMW’s Sub-Project Leader for Highly Automated Driving.
It uses 12 sensors, with the key new additions including four laser scanners (one each for the front, back and sides) and a highly accurate Differential GPS system. Oddly, when Mercedes-Benz is rolling out its forward-facing stereo camera as a production breakthrough, Aeberhard claims the BMW doesn’t need it and makes do with an additional mono camera facing forward through the windscreen.
Its main computer constantly analyses the data from its LIDAR, ultrasound, radar and digital cameras to understand the conditions around it, then matches them to the hyper-accurate GPS setup and even the driver’s own pre-set route preferences. It “sees” all other traffic up to 200 metres in front of its bonnet, along with all traffic beside and behind itself.
This sort of thing is not new for BMW, either, with its BMW Group Forschung und Technik R&D think tank sending one up the A9 autobahn from Munich to Nuremburg with no driver intervention back in 2011.
Inside, it’s not that different from a normal car, except for a large, red emergency stop button on the console, the extra forward-facing camera and a large mapping screen, containing the lane and location of every vehicle the car has detected.
Its throttle inputs are smooth, it brakes gently, having noticed the need for it sooner than most people, and it has more manners than almost anybody I’ve ever driven with. It lets people in front of it, it backs off at slip roads, and instead of slowing down as radar cruise usually does, it first detects whether it can safely and legally overtake, then moves out to pass before pulling back in to a slower lane.
According to Aeberhard, the Highly Autonomous Driving prototype is a natural progression from a production 5-Series that’s already capable of self-steering to stay inside its own lane, self-braking in emergencies, maintaining distances with radar cruise and controlling its throttle and braking in start-stop traffic conditions.
“This is a technology study that we started in 2011,” he said.
“We wanted to learn what technologies we needed to drive autonomously on highways and we surprised a few people internally by realising this goal with a lot of production parts.”
The Highly Autonomous Driving prototype can brake, accelerate and overtake on its own, in unfailing compliance with the road rules, and even backs off slightly where slip roads join the highway to allow space for merging traffic.
“We have already clocked up around 10,000 test kilometres, so this research vehicle can operate fluidly in road traffic without attracting attention.
“The Differential GPS is a key because normal GPS has time-of-flight principal, but with errors, but so is ConnectedDrive, because it delivers any changes to the road conditions or infrastructure to the car in real time.
“With normal GPS, you take the position from the satellite through an atmospheric link. This is more accurate because it uses the web and accelerometers as well, and fixed objects collected as data, like road sensors or signs.
“That’s only going to be more accurate as Galileo (the European-owned GPS system) and the Russian GPS come on stream as well. We can work with all three satellite systems, plus the Differential systems.
“So we combine this accuracy with the ability to detect cars and trucks 150 to 200 metres ahead. We can detect lane markings up to 80 metres ahead and from there draw a digital map so the car has an accurate view of the road signs and markings.”
The core idea and internal technology for the Highly Automated Driving prototype came from BMW’s earlier TrackTrainer and its Emergency Stop Assistant, and it’s difficult to imagine two more diverse core philosophies.
The TrackTrainer was developed to autonomously lap racetracks within a handful of second of pro-driver speeds, teaching people the correct racing lines, braking points and throttle pick-up points. The entire BMW board was sent around the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife in the TrackTrainer and reportedly came away impressed, but visibly shaken. The Emergency Stop Assistant, on the other hand, was developed to stop the car safely and quickly if the driver is suddenly incapacitated with, for example, a heart attack.
The next step in development for Group Forschung und Technik is stretching its German motorway prowess across Europe, which will mean stopping for toll gates and roadworks and even more accurate navigation mapping. It signed a two-year joint agreement with key technical supplier, Continental, in January this year to fit a fleet of prototypes with near-production versions of this car’s technology.
Read the latest news and reviews on your mobile, iPhone or PDA at carsales' mobile site…