Wednesday, 15 February 2012 13:39

Hands-off auto drive BMW


A number of car manufacturers (and search engine providers for that matter) are looking at options for cars that drive themselves; BMW is the latest to remove human hands from the equation of travelling along a motor-way.

Google has been dabbling with driverless cars and in the cold climes of Scandinavia Volvo has been playing with auto-drive car platooning trains of vehicles.  BMW now shows off a new auto-drive system travelling down the busy A9 motorway from Munich, with a somewhat smug looking 'driver' sitting hands off the 5 Series Saloon steering wheel.


The man behind the unused wheel is Dr. Nico Kämpchen, Project Manager of Highly Automated Driving at BMW Group Research and Technology, and his confidence in letting the car negotiate the heavy traffic by itself comes from having already completed some 5,000 test kilometres utilising the technology involved.


Much of this testing was performed on the race track as part of the development of BMW TrackTrainer program, the aim of which was to provide electronic co-pilots armed with super accurate GPS data and predefined race lines to aid in the further development of systems such as adaptive cruise control and Emergency Stop Assist.  The constant comparison of GPS and video data with the digital maps and internal vehicle data was used to automatically guide a vehicle around the legendary North Loop of the Nürburgring on 21 October 2009. Then on 25 May 2011, the  second generation version of the BMW TrackTrainer performed a similar feat at the Laguna Seca Raceway in California, demonstrating that fast and dynamic automated driving is indeed possible.


The next step was to take to the motorways.  BMW combined intelligent software algorithms with a range of sensors to further resource into advanced driver assistance systems.  Redundant fusion of various sensor technologies such as lidar (visible Light Detection and Ranging), radar, ultra sound and video cameras that monitor the environment around the automobile.   Redundant does not mean 'superfluous' - to ensure that the vehicle situation is precisely assessed, at least two different measurement methods must be used in every direction.  In this way the developers at BMW Group Research and Technology can be sure that a potential weakness in one method is counterbalanced by the strength of the other method.  

Negotiating the challenges of a car infested motorway is somewhat more challenging than controlling a single vehicle on a closed race track.  'This is an entirely new situation and experience for the driver - it is a strange feeling handing over complete control of the car to an autonomous system.  But after a few minutes of experiencing the smooth, sovereign and safe driving style, drivers and passengers begin to relax somewhat and trust the independent system,' says Kämpchen.' Nevertheless, the driver is still responsible for the situation at all times and must constantly keep an eye on traffic and the surroundings.'

To ensure that the automated research vehicle functions smoothly and with agility in real traffic, the car must be endowed with strategies to react appropriately in daily traffic situations. The basis for these strategies is comprised of two parts: first, pinpointing the position of the vehicle in its own lane is essential and second, the car must be able to clearly recognize all vehicles and objects in its immediate surroundings.

By accessing digital maps, the camera and the localisation data of the extremely precise GPS, the automated vehicle prototype can determine its location in its own lane, and it also receives exact information about the characteristics of the route ahead, including the number of lanes that section of the motorway has. This information is supplemented by data from the forward-looking camera integrated in the lane departure warning system. Objects in front of the vehicle are detected by the radar sensors of the adaptive cruise control system with the Stop&Go function and by a laser scanner as well. The same is true for objects at the sides or rear of the vehicle.


The system can autonomously control acceleration and breaking, and most importantly assess and react to other vehicles in the vicinity, allowing merging and overtaking with adequate safety distance and the ability to change lanes when necessary. Performance wise the system has been tested up to 130 kmh, however, via both data and reading real-world signs, the system also obeys all speed and passing restriction zones along the way.


So is it just a matter of time before control is removed entirely from the driver, not for the foreseeable future was the theme stressed by local BMW representatives when talking about how this technology will be integrated into production line vehicles.  'Our motto at BMW remains 'Sheer driving pleasure', and we would never take away the simple fun of driving a vehicle from our customers, we would never seek to make the driver redundant'.


This research is aimed at boosting the level of driver assistance systems, enhancing features such as Emergency Stop Assistance where the car will, via various means and sensors, detect a problem with the driver, such as loss of consciousness and begin to safely slow the car, steer around bends and appropriately avoid traffic to get the car to stop on the side of the road, with hazard lights flashing.


BMW' stated intention is to design car systems to mimic the human body, taking information from a number of sources (sensors as senses) to advise intelligent options for the driver.

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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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