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Why the BMW iX isn't ready for level 3 autonomous driving

BMW promised the iX would have level 3 semi-autonomous tech. But it doesn't

Published: 03 Jun 2021

Back in 2018, BMW showed the iNext concept car and told us when the real thing launched in 2021 it would be ready for 'level 3 autonomous driving'. Well, it has launched, as the iX. But the autonomous driving (AD) remains a mirage. 

BMW isn't ready. It joins the ranks of carmakers that promised AD by now. Tesla, Nissan, Mercedes, Audi… none of these high-profile AD cheerleaders have anything for sale.

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I asked BMW's boss of R&D, Frank Weber, why not. "With level 3, the driver gives responsibility to the vehicle. We have to type-approve a vehicle that has done 700 million kilometres of testing. You have to prove you are at or better than a human driver's safety." 

That testing takes a very long time, he says. But surely that's no surprise. So why did they over-promise?

"It's still happening. But level 3 is competing against more and more capable level 2+ systems [where the driver is still responsible]. There is a huge technical step between level 2+ and level 3."

Weber, like all engineers in the field, agrees it's much too hard at the moment to have autonomous drive in towns. Speeds are slow but the car has to make its way among traffic from all directions, and pedestrians and crazed Deliverooists. "I never said we could do that," he says.

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"The industry and legislators are learning. Next year we will launch level 3 capability. But we need clear regulator framework. In the EU, a car can only drive at level 3 below 60km/h (38mph)." 

Hmmmm. It'll only work at those low speeds. But you can activate it only on high-speed roads: dual-carriageways and motorways. It's hard to see the point. Except as a baby step into some distant future.

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