BMW tries out its driverless cars in European big-city traffic
15 Dec 2016
Robot cars, already doing trials on wide American streets and Germany's high-speed autobahns, are now heading for the more crowded streets of a European city centre.
BMW plans to put its first 40 driverless cars through their paces in its home city, Munich, from next year, said Klaus Buettner who is in charge of the company's robot car research.
The wired-up BMWs will travel at speeds of up to 70 kilometres an hour, which sets them apart from the egg-shaped robot cars being tried out by internet giant Google. For safety reasons these drive quite slowly on the broad city streets in California.
Munich folk who find themselves lined up next to a robot car at city traffic lights may never notice that a human being is not in charge. A driver is on hand in each autonomous vehicle to intervene if need be.
"A trained test driver will be behind the wheel of every car," Buettner told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily. This should calm the nerves of fellow road users who might be apprehensive at sharing the roads with cars which drive themselves.
Test vehicles will include cars from BMW's 3 Series and 5 Series, along with limousines from the 7 Series. The only hint that these are not standard models is a discreet badge with the words "connected drive" denoting the robot version.
Depending on the results in Munich, BMW hopes to extend the scheme to other cities both inside Germany and abroad.
A handful of robot BMWs has been doing the rounds this year in Garching, a suburb of Munich.
Their presence mainly on short stretches of motorway and dual carriageway seemingly did not faze locals, so the carmaker decided that the time was ripe to introduce autonomous cars to busier city roads.
Although Munich is flat and mostly has straight streets, the robots will need to both thread their way through narrow, double-parked city thoroughfares and accelerate along busy ring roads where the official speed limit is 60 km/h.
Teaching robot cars to negotiate congested cities full of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists is one of the major challenges for carmakers.
The Munich tests are designed to help BMW engineers gather experience on how robot cars interact with other traffic users, said Buettner.
Typical situations include encounters with pedestrians, who look around before stepping off the pavement on a pedestrian crossing and often make eye contact with car drivers to be sure they have been seen.
The tester on board on a driverless BMWs will occupy the driver's seat and is surrounded by sensors which detect the movements of other road users. The data collected will help the robot system take over piloting the car.
"This is something we will have to teach the computer," said Buettner.
In future a computer will register a pedestrian's head movements and predict whether the person is likely to cross in the path of a car or keep walking along the sidewalk. Some of this equipment will be on board the Munich BMWs.
BMW is not the only manufacturer to announce trials with autonomous cars.
Audi plans to send its vehicles on test runs around its hometown of Ingolstadt, a smaller German city. Mercedes-Benz says it successfully sent autonomous cars through several German cities as far back as 2013 and a spokesman said trials still continue.
Elsewhere, ride-sharing company Uber is trialling a handful of robot prototypes built by Ford in the US city of Pittsburgh. Google and Italian-American carmaker Fiat recently announced that they will launch a fleet of 100 self-driving minibuses.