A deadly accident in Florida involving a Tesla Model S, whose driver crashed recently while using the electric sedan’s autopilot function, has exposed a fatal flaw in early self-driving cars.
But German carmaker BMW still believes self-driving vehicles can improve traffic safety once the technology is fully mature. To that end, the company launched an autonomous vehicle partnership on Friday with U.S. chipmaker Intel and Israeli sensor technology developer Mobileye, a vendor for Tesla’s autopilot system.
“In our estimation, the state of the technology today does not lend itself to mass-produced vehicles that can autonomously travel the roads safely without the assistance of drivers,” Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s head of development, told Handelsblatt at the partnership’s launch event in Munich.
With the right technology autonomous driving will make traffic on the streets safe for everyone. Klaus Fröhlich, Development Chief, BMW
“But with the right technology autonomous driving will make traffic on the streets safe for everyone. I am convinced that it will very quickly become a reality in certain regions,” Mr. Fröhlich said.
The partnership seeks to introduce a fully automated mass-produced vehicle – known as BMW’s “iNext” model – by 2021.
The official project launch came one day after Silicon Valley-based Tesla disclosed that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was opening a probe into the performance of its autopilot system during the crash, which occurred May 7, allegedly while the vehicle driver was watching a Harry Potter film.
Mobileye and Tesla have publicly disagreed over the causes of the crash, which Tesla characterized as “the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where autopilot was activated.”
Despite the tragedy, Mr. Fröhlich views the United States among the countries where regulations for self-driving vehicles will emerge first.
“While in some countries, for instance in Europe, a regulatory basis is still being sought," he said. "My assumption is that countries like China and the United States will set standards very rapidly,” he said.
But it remains to be seen what impact the U.S. investigation of the fatal Tesla crash could have on regulations there. The NHTSA had planned to announce guidelines for self-driving vehicles as early as this month.
Regardless, the BMW development chief expects standards introduced in the next three to four years to be based on “a relatively simple state of technology.” For the foreseeable future, that means “the driver will continue to sit at the wheel and be able to intervene.”
With its iNext project, BMW’s seeks not only “a breakthrough” in autonomous vehicles, but also plans to “set new standards” in other areas of automotive innovation, Mr. Fröhlich said. These include integrating electric vehicles with the power grid, and electric drive technology.
But key technological advances are required for the project’s success.
“Above all I need the industrialization of a completely new sensor technology, which partially must still be developed,” Mr. Fröhlich said. What is missing, he explained, “is a millimeter-precision, high-speed measurement to scan all objects that surround a car and interpret the environment, for instance, to rapidly enable an evasive maneuver.”
To function safely in European cities packed with pedestrians, such sensors “must work like the human brain,” he added.
Once the technological and regulatory foundation is firmly established, BMW believes there is enormous potential to offer autonomous ride-sharing, taxi and chauffeur services.
“The cost structures of ride-sharing critically depend on whether it is offered driverless or with a driver,” said Mr. Fröhlich. “Billions are at stake.”
With aggressive tech companies like Goggle, Uber and others already competing for an early edge, however, the onus is on the auto industry to develop a common standard to underpin the technology’s safe mass rollout, stressed the BMW development chief.
“Alone the liability question requires a comprehensive standard for manufacturers,” Mr. Fröhlich said. In creating the conditions for full commercialization with such a standard, “we in the auto industry must take a step back from our competitive positions,” he warned.
“When we consider the ‘end game’ with autonomous driving, vehicles from different manufacturers must be equipped with compatible systems for absorbing and processing information,” Mr. Fröhlich said.
Nevertheless, such “robot taxis” are “central for the business model of this industry,” he added, noting that companies such as Uber, backed by artificial intelligence researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, are putting enormous resources into developing the technology.
“The Americans have used their research landscape and begun to industrialize artificial intelligence,” Mr. Fröhlich said. But even though “the processing power of machines is already significantly superior to the human brain,” he argued that the human brain remains “more efficient at using its computing power.”
But how can BMW compete against its tech rivals?
“It’s a question of whether the interface to the mobility of tomorrow will be controlled by those who possess billions of customer data points or those who know how to build autos,” Mr. Fröhlich said.
BMW has “clearly defined the areas in which we must position ourselves,” he added, such as high-resolution, real-time mapping. Toward that end, BMW, together with Audi and Daimler, last year acquired Nokia’s mapping unit Here for $3.1 billion (€2.8 billion).
“Now we are working on the industrialization of sensor technology and data processing,” he said. “That’s why we have agreed to a cooperation with the market leaders in the area, Intel and Mobileye.”
Markus Fasse covers the aviation and automobile industry for Handelsblatt. Garrett Hering, an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this article. To contact the authors:[email protected]