Easy ride: A semi-autonomous BMW car being demonstrated on a German autobahn. It can accelerate, brake, and overtake slower vehicles on its own.
Tucked away in the basement of an iconic office tower shaped like four engine cylinders, engineer Werner Huber is telling me about the joy of driving. We’re here at BMW headquarters, in Munich, Germany—capital of Bavaria, and arguably of driving itself. But Huber oversees strategic planning for advanced driver assistance systems, so in a way, his job is to put an end to driving—at least as we know it.
“I think that in 10 to 15 years, it could be another world,” Huber says. He’s not willing to predict exactly what driving will look like then, but he’s certain humans will be doing a lot less of it.
For many people, automated cars call to mind those high-tech vehicles with a rotating periscope on top that Google has been driving around California. But Huber and executives at other European automakers say the automated driving revolution is already here: new safety and convenience technologies are beginning to act as “copilots,” automating tedious or difficult driving tasks such as parallel parking.
“Driverless” technology will initially require a driver. And it will creep into everyday use much as airbags did: first as an expensive option in luxury cars, but eventually as a safety feature required by governments. “The evolutionary approach is from comfort systems to safety systems to automatic driving,” says Jürgen Leohold, executive director for research at Volkswagen Group in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Both BMW and Volkswagen are among the companies already demonstrating cars that drive themselves. In 2010, Volkswagen sent a driverless Audi TTS up Pike’s Peak at close to race speeds. Like similar vehicles from Google, these automated vehicles use some combination of GPS, radar, lasers, ultrasonic sensors, and optical cameras to create a constantly updated, 360-degree model of the surrounding environment, which an in-car computer can use to navigate.
But European automakers say their strategy is to move toward greater levels of autonomy incrementally, depending on what does well in showrooms.
Buyers of European luxury cars are already choosing from a menu of advanced options. For example, for $1,350, people who purchase BMW’s 535i xDrive sedan in the United States can opt for a “driver assistance package” that includes radar to detect vehicles in the car’s blind spot. For another $2,600, BMW will install “night vision with pedestrian detection,” which uses a forward-facing infrared camera to spot people in the road.
Lasers, cameras, and other sensors are the most expensive part of autonomous driving systems. Some experimental self-driving cars are estimated to carry more than $200,000 worth of cameras and other gear. Those costs are also leading automakers toward a gradual approach that starts with sensor technologies and then extends capabilities to control driving tasks as well. In the high-end Mercedes-Benz CL, for instance, cameras not only tell a driver when he or she is leaving the lane but actually help the vehicle steer itself back. Several automakers already sell cars with so-called adaptive cruise control that automatically applies the brakes during highway driving if traffic slows. Next, BMW plans to extend that idea in its upcoming i3 series of electric cars, whose traffic-jam feature will let the car accelerate, decelerate, and steer by itself at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour—as long as the driver leaves a hand on the wheel.
The market for “advanced driver assistance” technologies was $10 billion last year, according to New York’s ABI Research, but it projects that the figure will reach $130 billion by 2016.