BMW questions feasibility of driverless cars

BMW Vision Next 100 concept. (AFP Relaxnews pic)

Ian Robertson, BMW’s special representative to the UK, was speaking to a summit of the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

While highlighting the Bavarian motor manufacturer’s leading role in the development of autonomous drive technology, Robertson conceded that for some it may never be morally acceptable to hand over decision-making power, especially in difficult circumstances, to a machine.

Robertson told the gathering: “Imagine a scenario where the car has to decide between hitting one person or the other — to choose whether to cause this death or that death. What’s it going to do? Access the diary of one and ascertain they are terminally ill and so should be hit? I don’t think that situation will ever be allowed.”

Most talk so far has centred on whether the technology will work, and how soon it appears on public roads. Robertson’s statement takes the whole autonomous vehicle conversation to a deeper level.

BMW is believed to have more than 40 vehicles undergoing testing of driverless systems on public roads on journeys routinely of 1,000 km. Although most of these journeys pass without incident, Robertson admitted the onboard engineer has to intervene an average of three times per journey at the moment.

The former BMW sales and marketing chief sees that ratio as good but said perfection is the eventual goal. Robertson conceded: “If we are working towards a ‘brain off’ scenario, where perhaps we expect travellers to even sit in the back of the car and relax, then that clearly isn’t possible today, despite what some might tell you. But I believe that in the long term, the regulators will step in and set boundaries about how far we can go. It might be to allow it only on motorways, as they are the most controlled environments.”

In the past, Robertson has said that he could not see BMW producing a car without a steering wheel, believing that there will always be the option for occupants to drive the vehicle themselves.