Interview: Dr Nicolai Martin, SVP, BMW Automated Driving Development

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Dr Nicolai Martin is in charge of BMW’s Automated Driving Development department. It is his job to deal with quandaries such as: what degree of automation is useful? What does the future of automation really hold for the customer?  What route should BMW taking toward automated driving? He recently answered a series of questions put to him by the company’s press department, providing an interesting insight into its AD and ADAS philosophy.

“What I ultimately want to do is find long-lasting solutions to relevant, real-life problems and drive progress. On the one hand, we actively promote the development of innovative technologies and conduct research that is virtually of academic standard. But we also carefully consider which of the potential applications we’re actually going to implement in order to offer customers worldwide genuine added value,” he summarizes. “At the end of the day, our overriding aim is to delight our customers. It’s a fascinating balance that isn’t always easy to get right.”

As to why AD and ADAS are beneficial to customers, he notes, “Automation basically enhances comfort and safety, as the system drives the car consistently, whereas we as humans tend not to. Our customers appreciate this assistance, which eases their workload in some cases.”

Backing up this claim, he provides the example of data gathered from drivers using BMW’s Driving Assistant Professional systems in Europe: “They are driving with the longitudinal guidance function activated for approximately 50% of the time. The figure for lateral guidance is lower, but it is still used for 30% of the driving time at present. That’s a lot. The conclusion we draw from this is that we have created a function that truly offers added value.”

He also feels that the level of ‘intelligence’ displayed by a vehicle will become increasingly important as a buying consideration for customers. Rather than simply having functions for the sake of it, the practical useability of these capabilities must be apparent.

“What started out with more minor features, such as automatic control of the lighting functions, has today already progressed to assisted longitudinal and lateral vehicle control,” he points out. “When driving from Munich to Tuscany for a holiday, for example, not only does the system take care of switching the headlights on and off when passing through the numerous tunnels en route, it also keeps the vehicle within the speed limits and at a safe distance from vehicles ahead. If we go further and add all the possibilities offered by connectivity and the driver’s semantic knowledge, the car will turn more and more into an intelligent companion or even friend that helps and excites the driver.”

Pace of adoption
BMW has already deployed around 40 driver assistance functions in its vehicles, from the aforementioned lighting control to intelligent cruise control, and Martin remarks that these have helped the company achieve some impressive five-star NCAP ratings. However, there is as yet, no global standard for what is and isn’t permitted in terms of automation and as a result, he explains, systems’ “characteristics or availability may vary depending on local legislation”.

He continues, “In the USA and China, for instance, we offer a ‘hands-off’ option, which lets the driver take their hands off the steering wheel (up to 60km/h|37mph), although they must continue to monitor the driving situation and remain responsible for the car. This function is deactivated (after several warning signals) if the driver is no longer paying attention.”

Beyond driver assistance functions, “We are also working hard to ensure our vehicles are capable of highly automated driving – i.e. Level 3 – and are making very good progress here,” says Martin. “We have already introduced driverless parking for vehicles in the form of the Remote Control Parking function. However, here too the driver has to monitor their vehicle and the area around it via smartphone or the vehicle key, and they are still responsible for the vehicle. This means Level 4 functionality is within reach when it comes to parking, i.e. the vehicle can look for a space and park itself in a car park, for example.”

Despite this progress, there is a clear caveat that such capabilities will only be released into the wild when they are properly matured, in contrast to the approach taken by companies such as Tesla, who actively beta test their AD technology on customers’ cars. “We will not offer Level 3 functionality (where responsibility passes from human to machine) in our vehicles until it is absolutely safe and offers added value. Just because a vehicle is Level 3-capable, that certainly doesn’t mean that Level 3 automated driving is either permitted or possible everywhere,” he says.

“We are therefore actively deliberating when the right time would be, as we only want to offer relevant and, most importantly, completely safe functions. This means we have also scrutinized our ambitions with a critical eye and are now continuing our work intently based on a revised roadmap.”

Overall, he says that BMW is, “developing automated driving with a clear objective: to offer our customers greater safety and comfort”.

He continues, “The BMW Group primarily sees technology as an enabler for using automated driving and parking functions to create a positive and emotionally engaging experience for our customers. That is a clear priority for us. At the same time, technology must never take all the decision making away from the driver. Finding the right balance between safety for everyone and added value for the individual is important to us.”

This brings up an interesting point, harking back to BMW’s marketing slogan of ‘the ultimate driving machine’. How does a brand that leverages a reputation for driver engagement adapt to the seemingly diametrically opposed concept of driving automation?

“In my view, BMW will in future embody the ideal blend between the world of automated driving, or ‘Ease’ as we call it, and the pleasure of driving yourself, known simply as ‘Boost’,” he explains. “Every customer should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to take the wheel and enjoy some dynamic driving pleasure or prefer to hand over the driving task in certain stressful or joyless driving situations – such as traffic jams, stop-start traffic or parking – and use that time for something else. In the process, a BMW will provide its driver with optimum assistance and backup at all times. It is clear to me that a BMW will consist of both dimensions in the future.”

New tools
Martin reveals that BMW’s iX EV will be the first of the company’s vehicles to offer automated driving and parking functions based on a new kit of technologies. “This toolkit will enable continuous improvement and expansion of the driver assistance functions and, in the medium term, highly automated driving (Level 3). We will continue with the rollout of the toolkit and deploy it, for example, in the next-generation BMW 7 Series and BMW 5 Series models.”

Seamless integration of assisted functions into the overall driving experience is also a key consideration. “In the BMW iX we are also creating real added value for customers by grouping together individual automated assistance functions intelligently and according to relevant driving situations. At the same time, we have reduced controls to the essentials, ensuring that the driver can activate the optimal degree of assistance quickly. Our focus here is on overall, intelligent automation, simplification of system status and intuitive operation.”

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About Author

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Lawrence has been covering engineering subjects – with a focus on motorsport technology – since 2007 and has edited and contributed to a variety of international titles. Currently, he is responsible for content across UKI Media & Events' portfolio of websites while also writing for the company's print titles.

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