Driverless Car: Will BMW Be Any Safer Than Tesla?

Tesla may be grappling with its driverless car woes, but that hasn’t stymied BMW from unveiling its own line of self-driving cars.

BMW on Friday signed a deal with chip manufacturer Intel and Mobileye, a computer vision firm, to manufacture driverless cars, or “robot cars,” as BMW calls them. This partnership was announced on the same day the U.S. officials began an investigation into a fatal car crash involving a Tesla Model S.

However, as a Good Samaritan move, the companies have pledged to make the results of the research available to other car makers (including Tesla) and electronics firms to help standardize technologies used in autonomous vehicles.

Despite the transparency, the auto industry might still be in trouble. It remains to be seen whether the production of self-driving cars will go as planned, as the government has yet to respond to the death of a driver, who was killed while driving the Tesla Model S.

Most automakers and technology companies, including Google and Uber, are working in tandem to make the driverless car a reality. The government’s verdict against Tesla, or any self-driving technology, could put a damper on those efforts.

According to Tesla’s apologetic blog post that its CEO Elon Musk shared on Twitter, the company admitted that the system uses new technology and still in a public beta phase.

“What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents,” Tesla stated in its blog post titled A Tragic Loss.

Meanwhile, BMW, Intel and Mobileye will join hands to work on systems and components required to make driverless cars a reality. For starters, the trio will work on making these driverless cars safe to maneuver along major roads as well as in suburban and inner city areas.

BMW said the collaboration would mean it could put robot cars into production by 2021.

“Together with Intel and Mobileye, the BMW Group will develop the necessary solutions and innovative systems for highly and fully automated driving to bring these technologies into series production by 2021,” the three companies said in a joint statement on Friday. The three firms said they were “convinced that automated driving technologies will make travel safer and easier,” according to Reuters.

BMW has already started recruiting experts in machine learning and artificial intelligence. The company will integrate computer-driven assistance systems such as cruise control, emergency braking, lane-keeping support and automatic parking into its new line of driverless cars.

“With a fully autonomous vehicle, BMW could launch a ride-hailing business without having to pay drivers, giving car companies a competitive edge over ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft which are eroding car sales by making part-time use as convenient as ownership,” said Klaus Froelich, a board member in charge of development in BMW, in an interview with IOL earlier.

“For years people have been saying the technology is ready, and it’s one of my pet peeves, because no it’s not,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on autonomous driving issues, according to a report by AP.

However, Walker Smith also said it would be unfortunate if public sentiment swung so far against driverless cars that people would never benefit from their lifesaving potential. “On the day the Tesla driver died, he said, approximately 100 other people died on US roads. No one knows how many of those deaths could have been prevented by cars that could predict crashes before they happen and brake by themselves. Driving today is dangerous, and there is no panacea. Every solution creates its own set of problems,” Smith said.

Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said the accident is a huge hit to Tesla’s reputation, putting driverless car technologies in jeopardy.

“They have been touting their safety and they have been touting their advanced technology. This situation flies in the face of both,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s shares dropped 3 percent in after-hours trading to $206.25 after the government said it would investigate how Tesla’s Autopilot system performed at the time of the incident.

As many big companies are betting big on driverless cars, it may become a reality but that depends on if the law is on the side of Tesla.

[Photo by Mark J Terrill/ AP Images]