Talk me through the self-driving.
The possibility of fully autonomous driving proves slippery. R&D chief Fröhlich tells Top Gear that his firm will have developed the sensors and processing capacity to make it technically possible for self-driving in most places by 2021.
Already there are some routes in Germany where autonomous BMWs travel daily. Going to new routes needs mapping. “The high-definition maps are not a problem,” says Fröhlich pointing out that BMW has a stake in mapping company HERE. “But you also need a real-time map from swarm intelligence.” In other words, cars must start to let each other know via the cloud every small obstacle on the road, as they crop up.
He says hands-off expressway driving is already legal in the US and China. Current BMWs will do that, and the upgraded system being introduced in several BMWs soon, he claims, will be “much much better”.
But he acknowledges city driving is different, not just because of legislation but about the degree of autonomy that’s allowed. In cities, autonomous cars have to dice it with normal vehicles, and two-wheelers and walkers and animals and skateboarders and what-have-you. “An autonomous car must itself be predictable,” says Fröhlich.
But it also has to avoid being too timid. “If the car always just stops [when it sees a pedestrian or other potential obstacle] then other cars will crash into it.” That won’t be such a problem in new Chinese cities, or some US ones, because vehicles are effectively separated from walkers and cyclists. “You don’t need all this computing power to calculate the trajectories of all those pedestrians,” he adds.
Non-vehicular traffic isn’t the only issue. “Also the system must work in the rain. The sensors must not ice up. And often you can only drive onward if you break some rules.” As other autonomous driving engineers do, he mentions the problem of having to cross a solid line to get around a set of road works.
He is clear on one question that often crops up around the self-driving car: Whose fault will it be when it does crash? The person in the driving seat, or the car manufacturer? “The responsibility, legally, is with the carmaker.”
Which is another reason why he says they must eventually co-operate over the software and protocols, although he adds that the Vision iNext is BMW’s own effort.
So when’s full-time self-driving going to come?
So you’ve got legal issues, insurance issues, and simple traffic issues all to be overcome. In Europe’s historic cities, Fröhlich says it’s obviously going to be after 2021 when we see a fully self-driving BMW carrying the public. He won’t give a firm date. But he does say tell Top Gear it’s actually “very soon.”
Why? Because although lawmakers in Europe have been slow to allow autonomous cars so far, Fröhlich says that will change when they see the advantages. “If cities can solve their problems—congestion, pollution, accidents—using my car, of course they will allow it.”
Seems a bit late doesn’t it?
This is the firm’s technical flagship. “The iNext will be the best we will have at BMW in 2021,” BMW i chief Robert Irlinger told us. “The best autonomous drive, the best electric drive and batteries, the best interface, the best interior technology, the best connectivity. And when you bring these things together, you get extra benefits.”
Of course BMW’s rivals will have had their purpose-built electric crossovers on the market for some years. BMW had a strong early position with the i3. Has it blown that?
Well, the iNext won’t actually be the first electric BMW crossover. There’s an electric X3 at the end of 2019.
There’s also a low-slung sedan, the i4 (think, if you will, Tesla Model 3) which was previewed by the Vision i Dynamics concept at the Frankfurt show in 2017 and comes to the market in 2020, with a claimed range of over 563km and 0-100kph time of 4.0 seconds. By 2025, BMW will have launched more than 12 pure-EVs, including a Mini in 2019.