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Why BMW considers Europe a driverless car latecomer

BMW's autonomous iNext vehicle is supposed to hit the roads in 2021. (Photo: BMW)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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A BMW exec explains why billions of dollars are burned in AD development, Waymo ushers in a new era and Tesla once again makes questionable headlines: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

If you were following events at the LA Auto Show last week, you probably noted the headlines surrounding the self-driving iNext vehicle BMW which was featured. Newsworthy? No doubt about it. But to me, some things that Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s head of development, told Bloomberg at the LA Auto Show were far more revealing.

Fröhlich announced that BMW is currently talking with “two or three big carmakers” about joining BMW’s driverless car alliance. BMW initially forged a consortium with Intel and Mobileye, which was later joined by Fiat Chrysler and Continental, among others. According to Fröhlich, many companies now realize they will have to discard earlier versions of their tech and replace it with jointly developed software. “They have to invest the first billion, already knowing that this tech will not survive,” he said. “You have a lot of sunken costs.” Now that’s probably one of the most compelling arguments for creating driverless car alliances that I have heard so far.

In a rather straight-talking manner, Fröhlich also shared his view of who will become the world’s leader in automated driving. “China has good companies, software, hardware companies; they are expanding to very powerful chipsets, and there’s a political will, it’s very clear,” Froehlich said. The USA, he feels, lags behind due to its patchwork legal situation in different states, which leads to “a little bit of anarchy”. Even worse, he considers European regulators too slow in updating laws to catch up with other regions.

It’s fair to criticize a lack of political will when it comes to advancing new technologies (something we regularly do). But I think it’s a little thoughtless to criticize the U.S. or Europe for having an extensive legal process. The reason there won’t be legal “anarchy” in China is because there is no democratic process standing in its way. Public trust, however, needs to be earned – and a public discourse about the challenges of automated driving is certainly an important part of getting there.

Episode One: After the Waymo launch

After months of speculation and preparation, Waymo finally unleashed the world’s first commercial autonomous ride-hailing service “Waymo One” in four suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. Since Wednesday, 400 lucky members of Waymo’s Early Rider program can summon a self-driving car with their smartphone and use the service across an area of 100 square miles (259 square kilometers). That’s only the size of about 36 soccer fields but as we wrote a couple of weeks ago: “One small step for Waymo; one giant leap for driverless mobility.”

A Verge reporter who was given a test ride of the Waymo One service summarized his experience as “uneventful” and “more mature” than previous rides. He also noticed that it occasionally took the car a couple of extra seconds to make left turns – a hint that reports of Waymo vehicles struggling with unprotected left turns were not unjustified.

Interestingly enough, a three-mile, eight-minute ride cost the Verge reporter a little more than seven dollars. “That’s about what I would pay using Uber or Lyft,” he noted – and this may not be pure coincidence. As Waymo will slowly expand throughout Arizona and other states, they will make sure to give their “conventional” competitors a run for their money.

Do not disturb: Tesla’s latest Autopilot hiccup

Is Tesla doing enough to prevent misuse of its level 2 Autopilot feature? Although Tesla customers are told that they must remain vigilant at all times, the advanced driver assistance system has been confused with a fully autonomous feature time and again.

A particularly blatant example of human abuse of the technology happened last week when the California Highway Patrol spotted a man apparently sleeping at the driver’s seat of this Tesla Models S – going 70 mph down Highway 101. The police officers realized that the Autopilot was probably engaged. They pulled in front of the car and gradually started braking, slowly bringing the Tesla to a halt.

You cannot blame the Autopilot itself: it did what it was supposed to do and may have prevented a crash. But clearly, Tesla’s measures to ensure the driver’s alertness don’t function properly. Tesla updated the system this summer so that a warning beep sounds every 15 to 20 seconds if a sensor doesn’t detect hands on the steering wheel. As YouTube videos proof, it is easy to cheat the sensor using an orange or a water bottle.

The reason why you don’t read stories of misuse about Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise every week is that they monitor the driver’s head position with optical sensors. What’s stopping Tesla from installing something similar?

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                       

René Tellers

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

 

 

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