High above the Las Vegas Strip, BMW's CES setup looks innocent enough: a pair of small i3s and a smattering of various other BMW models parked off in the distance of a parking garage rooftop. In reality, the company was about to freak me out.
First, I got a glimpse of a collision avoidance system using an array of fairly well-concealed external sensors on one of the i3s. BMW set up a bunch of big, soft blocks dressed to look like walls and other hazards — it was a little Super Mario-esque, come to think of it — and told me to punch the gas in their direction. That's a tough command to process, and it took me a second to work up the courage. Tentatively, I approached the first couple of blocks in the car; I got so close that I was sure I'd touch them, but at the last moment, I heard a soft "beep" and felt a moderate application of the brakes that stopped me with probably no more than an inch to spare (BMW is quick to note that the sensors they're using are next-gen and very accurate — these aren't the ultrasonic parking sensors you see on today's bumpers).
The system works in reverse, too, and on the sides — I tried turning too sharply at a corner in such a way that a normal car would've taken a huge, expensive gash across the doors. This i3, though, with its enhanced instincts of self-preservation, slowed to a halt before it could take any damage. The system is designed to still permit you to park in a tight spot without getting in the way; I tried parallel parking with no issue.
You can tell it's designed to be super careful
Next, I tried the company's automatic valet system in another i3, which uses basically the same set of high-definition sensors to map the environment around the car. We've seen a variety of self-parking systems from automakers at CES over the years, but this one seemed to be the most polished: it doesn't require any special equipment or beacons in the parking garage, it'll just autonomously find a spot to park without anyone in the vehicle. It's initiated using an app that BMW has designed for Samsung's Gear S smartwatch, where you can see the status of your car (charge level, for instance) and tap a command to go park. Slowly — like, really slowly, 5 mph or so — the i3 lurched forward on its own, seeking out an open space. It rounded a corner where the other BMWs were parked, found a slot next to an M4 convertible, and eased its way in.
The app can summon the car, too. I rode alone in the passenger seat for this leg of the journey, which was really eerie — there are no words to describe the feeling of sitting by yourself in a car that's slowly moving and turning on its own. You can tell it's designed to be super careful: it moves no faster than brisk walking pace and has the same anti-collision sensors I'd just experienced in another heart-pounding demo. Still, you're at the mercy of a computer, which is hard to get over.
I returned to the anti-collision demo one last time, where BMW staff encouraged me to be way more aggressive. So I was: I drove the i3 like I'd stolen it, but I couldn't get it to hit anything no matter how hard I tried. Any steering angle, any gas pedal input, the car just didn't care. It's an additional margin of safety that I'm guessing will eliminate a lot of expensive fender benders in a few years.
Both of these systems are basically branches of the same R&D effort happening inside the company — autonomous driving, which BMW still believes is a few years away. The sensors required for this level of accuracy still need to get smaller and easier to integrate into the car's bodywork. It's encouraging, though: if a car is tuned into its environment well enough to consistently stop a driver from bumping into things, it can probably stop itself when there's no one in the driver's seat.