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Despite U.S. Fatality, BMW to double self-driving car testing fleet and U.S. Congress unveiled $100 million spending bill for autonomous car reserach

March 22, 2018

MUNICH (Reuters) - BMW will not change its strategy on autonomous vehicle testing despite the death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driving car during tests by ride-hailing firm Uber [UBER.UL], senior executives said on Wednesday.

 

The German carmaker added it would double the size of its autonomous vehicle testing fleet to around 80 this year.

 

“Our estimation about autonomous driving technology remains unchanged even though this appears to be an extremely regrettable accident,” Klaus Froehlich, BMW’s board member responsible for research and development, said of the fatality.

 

“The path to autonomous driving is a long one. I have spoken about a mission to Mars,” he said, adding BMW was conducting its own tests under a high level of security.

Froehlich said BMW’s self-driving cars would undergo a test regime equivalent to 250 million driven kilometers (155 million miles).

 

Of this, 20 million km will be on real roads, while a giant supercomputer will simulate traffic scenarios in a virtual test regime equivalent to 230 million kms, Froehlich explained.

 

Self-driving cars will appear sooner if cities dedicate special lanes for autonomous cars in ring-fenced areas.

 

“In a dedicated space for only autonomous vehicles, it is easier to anticipate what other vehicles and traffic will do,” Froehlich said. “This makes it easier to program vehicle reflexes and may even allow a car to have fewer sensors and less processing power than a vehicle which needs to navigate normal traffic with things like bicycle couriers.”

 

BMW plans to launch an autonomous vehicle in 2021. Introducing a vehicle earlier than this is not plausible, since chipmakers and software designers have not yet developed a computer capable of processing the sheer volume of data generated by a self-driving car, Froehlich said.

 

BMW is preparing for a new era of on-demand mobility where customers locate and hail vehicles using smartphones. Ride-hailing and car-sharing could be replaced by fleets of autonomous cars, once self-driving cars are roadworthy, Froehlich said.

 

A spending bill unveiled on Wednesday night includes $100 million for a highly automated “vehicle research and development” program and will include funding for assessing the job impact of self-driving cars.

 

The new funding includes $60 million for grants “to fund demonstration projects that test the feasibility and safety” of self-driving vehicles, the spending agreement said.

Under the measure, funding will go to automated vehicle proving grounds, local governments or academic institutions but not to private companies.

 

The funding includes $38 million for U.S. agencies to conduct research into self-driving cars, including cyber-security issues.

 

The U.S. Transportation Department is “expected to prioritize research topics that fill gaps in research being conducted by the private sector” and “have the strongest potential to advance the safe deployment” of advanced vehicles.

 

Congress is also setting aside up to $1.5 million to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the impact of self-driving vehicles on U.S. employment, including the potential pace of job losses among truck, taxi and other commercial drivers, as well as the potential safety risks surrounding commercial autonomous vehicles.

 

Companies including Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car Waymo unit, General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co, Tesla Inc and other are aggressively pursuing automated vehicle technologies.

 

In January, GM asked the U.S. government to allow a fully autonomous car - one without a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator pedal - to enter the automaker’s first commercial ride-sharing fleet in 2019.

 

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