BMW: Join autonomous group now

FRANKFURT — BMW AG has imposed a year-end deadline for potential industry partners to join the autonomous vehicle alliance it leads together with suppliers Intel Corp. and Mobileye NV. It believes more carmakers will follow Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in joining.

The German automaker aims to develop a scalable Level 5 self-driving system for its upcoming iNEXT model and then work backward to an easier configuration by subtracting complexity. It’s meant to ensure the company can respond flexibly to different regulatory environments.

“Other OEMs — whether they are capable of designing it on their own, or need it as a customer — have to decide in the next couple of years which train they want to board. There will certainly be very many carmakers that dock onto some sort of cooperation, because the expense involved is very high,” explained Klaus Friedrich, head of research and development.

After roughly nine months of defining the management team, the strategy and the technical concept, Froehlich said the company has been on the hunt for partners, especially those that can bring a good geographical balance of its key markets including the U.S., Europe and China.

Froehlich expects only one more Tier 1 partner to limit organizational complexity, but he believes there room for much more than one automaker to join. “We think that the OEM partnering has just started,” he said, adding he believed on the basis of discussions held that FCA was only the first.

“All those that knock on our door in 2018 would be able to acquire the system (as a customer) but they cannot make an engineering contribution,” Froehlich said, adding that new members would only be included if they were to develop specific applications such as a robotaxi fleet.

BMW alone is investing a “billion-euro amount in the high single digits”, for example to build a new IT center with up to 500 petabyte computational power, tenfold the data its entire development division currently requires. This would calculate the tens of millions of kilometers of virtual testing required before the system could be validated for use.

“The main problem is the computational power, Intel has to develop at least two generations of microchips before a chip normally used for a mainframe can be employed in an automobile,” Froehlich said.

“We can already autonomously pilot a car faster around a track than a race car driver, that’s easy. (But) imagine you are driving down a street with 50 pedestrians – for every single one you have to calculate where they are likely to walk, so you need enormous computing power.”

In addition to the original members BMW, Intel and Mobileye that founded the alliance in July 2016, the alliance came to later include Tier 1 suppliers Continental and Delphi. In August, Fiat Chrysler became the first manufacturer to join.

“If we want to be finished in 2021, then we cannot [acquire a new] partner in 2018. Why? Because all the development work will have to already be assigned otherwise it won’t be completed,” he told reporters during last week’s Frankfurt motor show. “We have a deadline, which is the end of December this year.”

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