Rise of machine

To the other drivers on the A9 motorway between Munich and Nuremberg, the silver BMW 5-Series is as good as invisible, sharing the road space with the usual throng of trucks, buses, motorbikes and other drivers in similar German products.

But a closer look would reveal that the driver isn’t holding the steering wheel at all, and if they could look into the footwell, they would see that his feet aren’t touching the pedals either.

This is an autonomous 5-Series, the product of BMW’s Highly Automated Driving project and its manager, Dr Nico Kampchen, is behind the wheel - despite having virtually no input into the driving process.

The test vehicle has already completed more than 3,000 miles of development driving, and once in the motorway environment where it is designed to operate, all that the driver needs to do is push a button.

“This is an entirely new situation and experience for the driver - it is a strange feeling handing over complete control of the car to an autonomous system.

“But after a few minutes of experiencing the smooth, sovereign and safe driving style, drivers and passengers begin to relax somewhat and trust the independent system,” says Kampchen.

“Nevertheless, the driver is still responsible for the situation at all times and must constantly keep an eye on traffic and the surroundings,” he adds.

Combining technology such as Emergency Stop Assistant and Adaptive Cruise Control, some of which is already available on production cars, the 5-Series is constantly monitoring its surroundings and can react and deal with any potential situation.

The team explain that dealing with traffic merging onto the motorway was the biggest challenge, but the test car can slow to allow this to happen or even change lanes. Overtaking, emergency stops, changing road surface and weather conditions - all of this is dealt with automatically.

And while this might seem like the stuff of fantasy, the biggest hurdle to overcome is essentially in the minds of the consumers.

Handing over complete control to computer software is a big step - even though we climb aboard airliners that do just that on a regular basis - and it’s easy to think that this will result in a general disengagement from the process of driving that isn’t necessarily seen as progress.

Yet the truth is that computers don’t make errors, only humans do, and a world in which a computer can respond in split seconds to a situation you may not even see developing can only be a good thing for every road user.