Level up: Why we cooperate with BMW on automated driving

You can call it episode two: Last Friday, BMW and Daimler announced in Berlin that they are launching five joint ventures that will offer mobility services such as solutions for car sharing, the search for parking spaces, and many more.

Today we announced our intention to enter into a second new partnership. The field of activity is completely different, but the partner is the same and the motivations at least similar. We are planning to work together with BMW in the future on the next technology generation for driving assistance systems and on systems that enable conditionally automated driving on highways and automated parking functions. Why does this alliance make sense? The answer is simple: Because automated driving is a future-oriented technology that will radically transform our industry — and because in the long run we will be not only stronger but also more successful as partners than we would be alone.

What we can already do today: partial automation

The vision of autonomous driving is not only as old as the automobile itself — it’s also a central component of our strategy at Daimler. In addition, Mercedes-Benz has always been among the pioneers in the area of active safety, driving assistance systems, and automated driving. As a result, the vehicles you can see at your Mercedes-Benz dealer today can already do a great deal. Thanks to our active distance assistant DISTRONIC, the active steering assistant, the active lane-change assistant, and many other innovations, we have already come very close to our goal of automated driving.

By means of our currently available systems, a Mercedes-Benz can, for example, maintain the correct distance to vehicles ahead and drive partially automated on highways and country roads, as well as in cities. Our systems also assist the driver with lane changes, evasive maneuvers, and braking. And many models can be driven in and out of parking spaces via remote control from a smartphone — with the Remote Parking Assist.

At Mercedes-Benz, we call these features Intelligent Drive. And they are available in all of our vehicles, ranging from the compact class to the premium class. Thanks to Intelligent Drive, we have reached the level that we engineers call SAE Level 2 or “partial automation.” This means that the car can already react automatically in many predefined situations — however, a human driver must always monitor traffic as well as the vehicle’s surroundings and be ready to react if necessary.

Why the road to automated driving is like climbing a mountain

It’s clear to us that in an area as sensitive as automated driving, we will always strive for the best possible solutions when it comes to the reliability of the systems involved. Safety is our top priority — and that also means we will never put an innovation on the road if we are not 100 percent convinced of its safety. Still, we have reached Level 2 sooner than many expected us to. We’ve already made significant progress on the road to automated driving.

But above all, we have learned that the development of these systems is a bit like climbing a mountain. Taking the first few meters from the base station to the summit seems easy. But the closer you come to the goal, the thinner the air around you becomes, the more strength is required for each further step, and the more complex become the challenges you have to resolve in order to make progress.

From Level 3 to the summit

We are more than ready to continue along this strenuous path. But we believe that we can make progress more successfully and efficiently if we are not alone. We also believe that BMW is the perfect partner for us as we climb the next few meters. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that we have now signed deals with the development of several automation stages up to Level 4. Level 4 means “high automation”: The driver does not even need to be ready to take over control of the vehicle — he or she could even be sleeping. The aim of our partnership is to develop systems that make automated driving scalable and take it to the next level in a variety of contexts — in China and in the USA as well as on the German Autobahn A8, which connects the BMW Tower in Munich with our headquarters in Stuttgart.

A shared platform instead of isolated solutions

One thing is clear: BMW and Mercedes-Benz are competitors — and we will stay competitors. Our competition has been a major factor that has repeatedly spurred us to deliver top performance and put both of us at the leading edge of the premium segment. The partnership we are announcing today will not become a new joint venture. And don’t worry — it won’t create a vehicle that sports BMW’s “double kidney” radiator grille as well as the Mercedes star on its hood. Instead, we are planning to work together with BMW to develop a scalable and reliable platform that will bring optimal benefits to the customers of both brands. As part of this cooperative venture, we are also open to further partnerships that can contribute to the success of this platform.

It makes sense to distribute the technological and financial challenges of automated driving across a number of shoulders. It’s also clear that our other existing partnerships and ongoing projects are not affected by our intended cooperation with BMW. For example, as we have planned and already announced within the framework of our cooperation with Bosch, this year we will launch the first pilot for testing self-driving vehicles (Level 4/5) in urban surroundings in San José in Silicon Valley.

Our timeline is sporty

In spite of all the differences between BMW and Mercedes-Benz, we are also similar in many areas. For example, our colleagues from Munich also have many years of experience in the areas of driving assistance and automated driving. BMW has worked on highly automated driving for a long time, and opened its Autonomous Driving Campus in Unterschleißheim – a suburb of Munich – in 2017, where BMW is consolidating all of its areas of expertise related to automated driving. The automation technology that the experts there are now working on will go into series production for the first time in the BMW iNEXT model in 2021.

The Memorandum of Understanding that we have signed ensures that we will pass the next milestone on the road to automated driving together. Our goal is to make the new technology generation available to our customers as early as the mid-2020s. This means: The timeline is very sporty, both for BMW and for us. That makes it all the more reassuring to have a strong partner at our side.

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This blog post was written by Dr. Michael Hafner. He is the Head of Driving Technologies and Automated Driving in the Research & Development unit of Mercedes-Benz Cars.