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BMW unveils self-drifting car in Las Vegas

Tue, 07 Jan 2014

BMW is using the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to showcase the latest technology to fall under its ConnectedDrive banner. It’s called ActiveAssist and BMW is hoping it will draw a line under road accidents in the future.

But that’s not what’s grabbing the headlines in Vegas. No baby, most of the world’s online media has latched on to the idea that BMW has essentially unveiled the world’s first self-drifting car. So much for drawing a straight line under things.

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BMW’s research and technology team:

“The prototype can pilot its way at high speeds and with exceptional precision on a slalom run between cones, adheres to a marked out circular course regardless of the friction coefficient of the road surface, and executes an obstacle-evading lane change to perfection.”

But perhaps even more interesting, BMW goes on to say:

“Even when deliberately provoked into oversteer – the clearest way of highlighting a vehicle’s dynamic limit – the highly automated prototype follows its path safely and along almost identical lines time after time.”

It’s a significant development, as it represents a major step forward for the promise – or in some people’s eyes, threat – of autonomous driving technology. Whereas previously, motorists may have had visions of autonomous driving supporting urban driving and being reliant on other vehicles, BMW is clearly seeing things differently.

ActiveAssist would appear to have the potential to think for itself, reacting to changes in grip and adjusting the car’s settings accordingly.

In other words, a number of sensors are constantly delivering information to the car’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, opening the steering in cases of understeer and using counter-steering and brake input in the case of oversteer. Currently, the intelligent DSC systems restore stability by braking individual wheels.

Indeed, BMW claims the technology already exists in current models:

“The programmable electronic steering required to make this possible carries out carefully targeted, rapid and flawless adjustments, and is fitted as standard on all current BMW cars.

“The prototype illustrates the BMW Group’s aspiration to offer its customers a highly automated driving experience exuding emotional appeal – even at the car’s dynamic limit.”

That said, we’re still a while off seeing this kind of technology in our everyday road cars. Last year, BMW teamed up with Continental Tyres, with a view to seeing its first highly automated cars on trial by 2015.

Aside from the technical obstacles, there’s the small matter of the legal system, with European laws currently insisting that drivers are in control of their cars at all times. Not that this is stopping the likes of Elon Musk and his electric car company, Tesla Motors.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Elon Musk said that Tesla’s planned autonomous car would allow the vehicle’s computer to handle 90% of the car’s control, with a fully autonomous vehicle taking longer to develop.

His vision is to deliver a 90% autonomous car within three years, whilst analysts predict the major manufacturers will take 10 to 15 years to develop self-driving cars. Much of the hesitation is down to concerns over potential liabilities from accidents, not to mention the cost.

What do you think: would you like a car that can drive – or even drift – itself? Or would you be too worried about letting the machine take control?

On Bing: see pictures of the BMW ActiveAssist

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