BMW announced this morning that it will "bring solutions for highly and fully automated driving into series production" by 2021, just five years from now. The plan is a partnership with Intel, which will supply processing power, and Mobileye, the Israeli supplier of driver assistance systems and sensors that supplies a large percentage of the auto industry.
The German auto giant has been working on self-driving cars for some time — as have many automakers — and had previously said that it would launch an electric, autonomous flagship vehicle in 2021. The announcements have all come as a part of BMW's 100th anniversary celebrations, which have seen the launch of three concept cars from BMW (and its brands Mini and Rolls-Royce) that prominently feature self-driving tech. So far, though, no fully self-driving car is available to consumers.
"Fully" is the key word in BMW's news today. Production vehicles today already offer various forms of partial automation like dynamic cruise control and lane keep, and more advanced systems like Tesla's Autopilot and GM's Super Cruise are either in production or near it. But a fully self-driving car — something akin to the Google car — is an entirely different level of capability and complexity where you simply summon your vehicle, get in, and let it take you wherever you want to go without needing to intervene or pay attention.
Regulatory challenges still loom large
The technology for that kind of fully self-driving car is advancing rapidly, but regulatory challenges still loom large. The US Department of Transportation is in the process of drafting guidelines that would aim to stop individual state laws on autonomous driving from getting out of sync, and there are still many questions to answer about who's liable in a crash when a car is in control of itself.
BMW's news comes just hours after it was revealed that a Tesla crashed into the side of a truck's trailer in early May while in Autopilot mode, killing the driver. While Tesla's vehicles share some sensors with more fully automated cars, Autopilot is not a full self-driving system — in fact, the company issues many warnings reminding drivers that they must remain alert and ready to take over. A fully self-driving car, by contrast, would likely allow a driver to take their attention away from the road.
Before 2021, BMW and its partners plan to move pretty quickly: it says it will have test vehicles ready in the "near term," with full autonomous fleets ready for extended test drives next year.