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BMW Takes Self-Driving to the Next Level

BMW Takes Self-Driving to the Next Level

For a while there, the future of driving looked awfully robotic, like our streets were just a few years from hosting hordes of soul-sucked pods, nary a steering wheel or pedal to be seen. But while Waymo, Cruise, Uber and other outfits working to dump the human driver have struggled to deliver commercially viable fleets of robotaxis, their legacy competitors—automakers—have stuck to an evolutionary approach, where the robot gradually takes on more and more of the work. So far, that work has produced systems like Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise, which work the pedals and steering, and require the human to pay constant attention and remain ready to take control at a moment’s notice.

Next year, though, BMW will take the next big step forward, letting its human customers stop worrying about the road by giving the robot a firmer grip on the wheel. In a safety report filed to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in early May, the automaker laid out the broad strokes of its plan to introduce what could become the first system on U.S. roads to qualify as “Level 3” by SAE’s standards. That’s the point of transition from a “driver support feature” (Levels 0, 1 and 2) to an “automated driving feature” (Levels 3, 4 and 5). It’s the point at which you get to call something a self-driving car.

bmw inext will have some level of autonomous driving functionality

BMW’s system—no proper marketing name yet—will debut on the iNext, an all-new, all-electric production vehicle modeled on the 2018 iNext concept, an exuberantly futuristic take on the X5 crossover. The real thing, of course, comes with plenty of caveats. The robo-driving will only engage on limited access highways and in good weather. The car can change lanes to pass other vehicles, but considering it can’t be programmed to speed, that’s unlikely to happen much. (The system maxes out at 85 mph, so at least it can keep up on Texas State Highway 130.)

The driver doesn’t have to watch the road, but must stay awake and buckled in. This level of self-driving will never require an immediate takeover. If anything pushes the car out of its comfort zone, though, like suddenly bad weather, a busted sensor or the end of a highway, it will ask the human to get back to driving.

This level-up is possible largely because when it comes to sensing, BMW is bringing in a ringer. To complement its cameras and radars, the iNext will use a lidar laser scanner to observe its surroundings. Since the first lidar designed for ground vehicles arrived in 2005 (created by Velodyne’s Dave Hall, for that year’s DARPA Grand Challenge), lidar has been too expensive, fragile and difficult to mass-produce for consumer vehicles. That’s why Elon Musk, for one, has dismissed the tech as a “crutch” and said “anyone relying on lidar is doomed.” But a bevy of lidar companies have made strides that are steadily leaving Tesla the odd company out. Last month, Volvo announced it will use lidars made by Luminar in its next-generation autonomy system. Mercedes-Benz has said it will use the sensor in the upcoming, Level 3 version of its Drive Pilot system. Audi has already deployed the laser system in its Traffic Jam Pilot feature, though that’s capped at 31 mph and isn’t available in America.

Now that cost and production are largely in hand—Luminar, for example, sells its sensor for less than $1,000—lidar can play a key role in bringing autonomy to (well-heeled) customers. Camera images are detailed, but reliably turning 2D pixels into 3D understanding is no easy thing. Radar data is so noisy that the standard approach for adaptive cruise control and Level 2 self-driving features is to filter out any object that doesn’t move. Otherwise, the car might slam the brakes every time it came near an exit sign.

bmw inext

The compromise works fine if the driver’s paying attention. It’s also the likely reason inattentive drivers using Tesla Autopilot keep crashing into stopped firetrucks. Letting BMW drivers watch YouTube instead of the road requires data that’s both detailed and easy for a computer to understand. That’s what BMW’s partnership with Israeli lidar maker Innoviz offers: millions of points a second, creating a 3D point cloud that represents whatever it sees.

Another longstanding question around this style of self-driving, though, remains unanswered by BMW’s report to NHTSA (called a Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment). That’s the matter of the handoff, when the computer needs the human to retake control. The report says a camera will watch the driver to ensure they don’t fall asleep, but that’s not enough to keep everyone safe, says Bryan Reimer, a researcher at MIT who focuses on human-machine interaction. BMW’s report says it will use changing lights in the steering wheel, audio alerts and seat vibrations to tell a driver she must take over. But Reimer says simply telling a driver something may not suffice. The matter of getting someone to jump back into driving, at highway speeds, after spending a couple of hours reading, texting or doing whatever, requires complex cognitive and design work. “Nobody knows how to do that,” he says.

bmw inext interior

BMW spokesperson Alex Schmuck says that if the driver begins to fall asleep, the system will fire off “cascading” alerts “to bring the driver back into fallback readiness,” and that “repeated abuse of the system may result in a temporary lockout.” If the driver ignores the barrage, the car will put on its hazard lights, pull onto the shoulder if possible, stop and activate an emergency call.

BMW, Reimer allows, might have a good approach to make sure that doesn’t happen, the kind of proprietary thing it wouldn’t drop in a public document. But the lack of regulation around such self-driving systems means that the automaker doesn’t have to convince anyone outside itself that its new feature is safe. “We should be asking if this really makes sense,” Reimer says. He argues that no automaker should let the human mentally unplug unless they’ve got a self-driving system that can safely handle anything that might happen in a given environment—what SAE designates as Level 4.

BMW, for its part, shows no sign of skipping past this next step. And if Tesla drivers’ love for Autopilot is any indication, it will have no trouble getting customers to shell out for the option that could make the 2021 iNext the ultimate self-driving machine.

Source: www.autoweek.com

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