From remote driving to a mixed reality video game, BMW shows off its latest technology

As we drove up to BMW’s new tech centre, we passed a massive strip mine right next door.

That’s not by accident: the company said it chose the site – the dumping ground for 2.2 million cubic metres of soil that had been excavated to build the mine – because it didn’t want to mow down trees or take land that could be used for farming.

Called the Future Mobility Development Centre, the facility, located about 280 kilometres from BMW headquarters in Munich, covers 600 hectares (1,400 acres) – and is the company’s largest testing ground.

It has 25 kilometres of tracks which recreate multilane highways, country roads and an urban downtown. Right now, the main focus in all that space is on testing semi-autonomous technology.

BMW showed off a few things they’re working on. Some could be coming soon – although not immediately to Canada. Some we may never see in production.

Level 3 self-driving

There are five levels of automated driving, according to SAE International, the engineering association that sets voluntary standards for the automotive and aerospace industries.

Right now, most companies’ driver assistance systems, including Tesla’s Autopilot, are Level 2 – they don’t ever completely take over the driving.

But BMW’s Level 3 system is designed to let you take your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road – while it’s active.

Similar to Mercedes-Benz’s Level 3 system, it activates only if you’re travelling less than 60 kilometres an hour and are following another vehicle. It’s meant to let you watch shows or catch up on email while stuck in traffic jams.

I tried it in an i7 EV on the closed test road surrounded by cars driven by BMW staff.

It felt unsettling to take my hands off the wheel. It felt more unsettling when the engineer encouraged me to watch soccer highlights on the infotainment screen.

When we came up on a wooden pallet abandoned in our lane, the car came to a complete stop just in front of it – it didn’t drive around it – and warned me that it would be handing me back control in a few seconds.

The company has said it will start offering this in Germany next year on some 7-Series vehicles. There’s no word on when we could see it in Canada.

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BMW shows off its Level 3 self-driving technology as a show plays on the screen. The technology is designed to let the driver take their hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road while it’s active.Tom Kirkpatrick/Courtesy of manufacturer

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Tom Kirkpatrick/Courtesy of manufacturer

Remote driving

Who needs valet parking if your car can find its own parking spot?

Level 4, where your car can drive without a driver at all on certain routes, is still years away (although there are robotaxis on the roads in some U.S. cities). So, car companies have found ways to get your car to park itself without making it fully self-driving. One, which companies including BMW and Mercedes-Benz are working on, requires special parking infrastructure equipped with cameras and sensors.

But BMW and Valeo, a French automotive technology company, are working on a workaround – instead of your car parking itself, somebody could park it for you using a remote control.

An operator – in this case, me – sits at a station with a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal (that also slows or stops the car when you ease off it) and video monitors showing the front, rear and overhead views of the car (all the information comes from the car’s existing cameras and sensors).

I sat at the station and started driving – slowly, the fastest I got was five kilometres an hour – and through a window, we could see a BMW iX EV with nobody inside it slowly crawling through the course. I was able to get the car around the course and back it to a parking stall without hitting any pylons.

While I was only about 20 metres away, the tech uses 4G or 5G technology so, potentially, my car could be parked in my local mall parking lot by somebody in a call centre in another country, BMW said.

It might not be just for parking. Thorsten Schmitt, BMW technical project manager for automated valet parking said that remote driving could, in the future, be used anytime your vehicle needs to be somewhere and you can’t drive it – for instance, if you’re at work but a family member needs the car where they are, or if you can’t drive home if you’ve been drinking.

It’s being tested in Germany, but legislation to use it on roads there won’t be passed in a year or two, Schmitt said.

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BMW’s remote driving allows an operator to sit at a station with a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal and video monitors showing the front.UWE FISCHER/Courtesy of manufacturer

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UWE FISCHER/Courtesy of manufacturer

Driverless test cars

When new cars are being developed, equipment like brakes and steering need to be tested on a track over and over again. For a human driver, that can get boring. Humans also need to take breaks.

So instead, BMW gets the cars to drive themselves – sort of. They equip the car with antennas that send signals to a control truck. The truck sends directions to the car. The system uses a GPS that’s accurate down to a centimetre. So they can send the car on the exact same path, over and over again – day and night.

Since brakes, steering and acceleration in modern cars are already controlled electronically, BMW can test any car.

I rode in the back seat – in reach of an emergency stop button I didn’t need – while the steering wheel steered itself and the car drove at 60 kilometres an hour along a figure-eight track in a huge paved lot. There were no pylons – the car knew the track.

BMW is using it now for vehicle development, but it’s not true self-driving technology. The cars need someone to send them instructions and a steady signal to work.

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The technology in BMW’s driverless test cars allows vehicles to drive themselves. The cars are equipped with antennas that send signals to a control truck and the truck sends directions to the car.UWE FISCHER/Courtesy of manufacturer

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UWE FISCHER/Courtesy of manufacturer

M Mixed Reality

Ever play a driving video game where it almost felt like you were really driving?

Well, BMW let me put on a virtual reality headset and chase coins on a virtual racetrack in a virtual world – while I was driving a real car on a paved lot. The car is the controller for the game.

To start, I strapped into a BMW M4 and put on the headset. When the game started, I could still see the interior of the car, but, through the windows, the rainy day was replaced by a pitch-black sky and a brightly coloured virtual racetrack with cheering fans in the stands.

As I wound along the track – I stayed to about 20 kilometres an hour, but Phillip Goss, the engineer in the passenger seat, said I could have gone faster – I tried to collect giant coins floating in the air along the track. I lost points if I hit the virtual sides of the track.

Anyone standing outside watching would see the M4 making sharp turns in an empty lot – with no pylons or lines marking the course.

I’ve tried VR headsets before and haven’t ever found that what they showed me was any improvement over reality – but when the game was over, I was disappointed to see the grey real world.

Because it’s not safe to drive with a headset on real roads without a BMW engineer making sure you’re not hitting real curbs and lampposts, the game won’t see production.

But drivers at the BMW M Driving Academy near Munich can try it for 600 Euros (about $880) as part of a half-day package.

In the future, the tech could be used for driver training to simulate dangerous maneuvers – for instance, hairpin turns – without actually risking a driver’s safety.

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A driver in a BMW test vehicle wears a headset for the automaker’s M Mixed Reality technology. The system, as tested by this article’s author, allowed drivers to chase coins on a virtual racetrack in a virtual world, while driving a real car on a paved lot. The car is the controller for the game.UWE FISCHER/Courtesy of manufacturer

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The view from inside a virtual reality headset as we drive with the M Mixed Reality. The technology could be used for driver training to simulate dangerous maneuvers without actually risking a driver’s safety.Courtesy of manufacturer

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The view from inside a virtual reality headset as we drive with the M Mixed Reality.Courtesy of manufacturer

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