BMW 5 Series

Intelligent systems stand to make our cars safer and greener while cutting our journey times.

Today's cars are packed full of processors but soon they'll be talking to each other while communicating with speed cameras and traffic lights too. We'll see what the future holds in bringing us better, safer and greener cars.

Fifteen years ago, BMW proudly announced that their new 750i saloon had more onboard computing power than NASA used to put man on the moon. In reality, that's really not saying a lot, given that back in 1969, when Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface, the microprocessor hadn't even been invented. However, today's motors truly are powerhouses of computing with chips controlling the engine, lights, entertainments system, ABS braking, dashboard instrumentation, brakes, airbags and security system. Beyond this, though, today's state-of-the art cars offers so much more in the way of intelligent systems as we're about to see. This on-board computing may be impressive but current research aims to enhance this local intelligence by providing communication to other cars and the transport infrastructure. We'll investigate the initiatives currently in the research labs to see how this technology will reduce congestion and pollution while making our journeys safer and more enjoyable.

Intelligent cars: the state-of-play

An average car contains over 50 processors with top-of-the-range motors boasting many more. While they're not as powerful as the chips in your PC, many are based on similar cores to those you'd find in a smartphone or tablet so they're not exactly slouches. Given that cars contain many more than you'd find in these portable computing platforms, it's clear we're talking of some serious computing power. To find how all this processing muscle is used, we'll start by looking at some of the latest intelligent systems to impact the world of motoring.

BMW's ConnectedDrive range of features has just been upgraded with the introduction of new facilities aimed at bringing improved levels of comfort, safety and performance. First available in the 5 Series is the Driving Assistant Plus system which now includes the Traffic Jam Assistant and an enhanced version of the Parking Assistant. As the name suggests, the Traffic Jam Assistant comes to the fore in stop-start tailbacks on motorways. It maintains a pre-set distance to the vehicle in front and, when necessary, slows the car to a halt. It also takes over the steering, helping the driver to stay in their lane, even round bends, provided they are holding the steering wheel with at least one hand. Parking Assistants aren't a new concept but BMW's latest version takes it to a whole new level in helping the driver to parallel park. Like previous versions, it performs the necessary steering manoeuvres, but it now also controls the accelerator and brake pedal and selects the correct gear. All the driver has to do is signal left or right, accordingly, hold down the Parking Assistant button, and the car will autonomously manoeuvre into the parking space.

Meanwhile, across most of their range, Volvo now offers Pedestrian Detection and is progressing other systems such a cyclist and animal detection. However, the system doesn't only detect pedestrians who are already at risk. Using a combination of radar and cameras, pedestrians are tracked and their pattern of movement analysed to predict if they're about to step into the road. If an emergency situation occurs, the system first sounds an audible warning and flashes a light in the windscreen's head-up display. If the driver fails to react and a collision is deemed imminent, the system takes over by carrying out an emergency stop.

While airbags have done a lot to improve safety in vehicles, the fact that an airbag has inflated indicates that a serious incident might have taken place and that the occupants may require assistance. Recognising this fact, several motor manufacturers – including Ford, Volvo, and BMW including Mini – have introduced a system that calls either the emergency services or an emergency call centre when an airbag is inflated. Some systems also sense the activation of the emergency fuel pump cut-off, or the seat belt tensioners, to indicate that an accident has taken place, and some have an SOS button. In addition to placing a hands-free call, the system also uses the car's GPS capability to accurately report its location and so ensure that help will soon be on its way.

Our look at the state-of-the-art is only the tip of the iceberg but nearly all today's systems have one thing in common – they are entirely self-contained. In a way this parallels the world of computing prior to the introduction of the Internet. Just as the introduction of connectivity transformed computing out of all recognition, many experts believe the same will happen to the world of motoring. To find out what this could mean in practice we've delved into current research that aims to enhance a car's on-board intelligence by allowing it to communicate with the world at large. See also: Ford Sync review.


Intelligent cars: a safety drive

simTD stands for Safe and Intelligent Mobility – Test Deutschland, and is a German research project supported by many of the countries' top car manufacturers and research centres. Its aim is to promote what they refer to as "car-to-x" communication with the purpose of improving both safety and efficiency. The mysterious “x" in that catch phrase relates either to direct communication to other cars, or linking to roadside equipment such as traffic lights and variable road signs, via a central control centre.

While the intelligent onboard systems that are found on today's cars use a wide range of sensors to detect road conditions, both radar and cameras are limited in how far they can see. The main purpose of the communication technology developed in simTD is to extend the vehicle's horizon. A classic example is advanced warning of road works with information on the distance to the construction site, any associated speed limits and lane restrictions. This allows drivers to react in a safe and timely manner or perhaps choose an alternative route. While this sort of information is relatively static, and this feature isn't a vast improvement over ordinary satnav systems, the fact that cars are able to transmit information as well as receive it means that much more immediate information can be made available. In the case of stationery vehicles on a motorway, caused perhaps by a truck shedding its load, the situation would be reported by the first suitably equipped vehicle on the scene and the information would immediately be reported to approaching vehicles.

simTD also supports direct communication from one vehicle to another. One application is the so-called electronic brake light. If a car ahead breaks suddenly, an alarm will show on the following car's dashboard, even if the car is hidden by fog or round a corner so that the normal brake light couldn't be seen. Another use of vehicle-to-vehicle communication is for emergency vehicles to make their presence known to nearby vehicles, thereby prompting them to take evasive action, well before their siren is heard. See also: BMW ConnectedDrive review.


Intelligent cars: cutting pollution and congestion

While simTD aims to make motoring safer, it also endeavours to reduce congestion and, in so doing, reduce the environmental impact of transport. Perhaps one of its key features in this area is the Traffic Light Assistant. Using direct communication between a car and the lights, a driver is told what speed to drive in order to avoid having to stop at the next junction. Needless to say, fuel efficiency is improved by not wasting energy in unnecessary braking. In addition, the system provides the traffic light with information from approaching vehicles on their speeds and positions. The lights then use this data to calculate optimised signal sequences that will operate most efficiently in the current traffic conditions. Yet another application, that both cuts down on futile journeys and avoids the frustrating experience of driving to a car park only to find it's full, is real-time information on the availability of spaces in nearby car parks.

A similar Intelligent Transport System has been the subject of research in the USA, funded by the Department of Transportation. While this programme promises a whole raft of benefits, a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is one of its main aims. Here the AERIS Project (Applications for the Environment Real-Time Information Synthesis) is researching the provision of real time information, via infrastructure-to-car and car-to-car communication, to assist the driver in making “green" choices, that is decisions which will have a positive effect on fuel efficiency. Needless to say, warnings of congestion and suggestions of alternative routes are key features but, by being integrated with the broader transport system, drivers are even informed of public transport alternatives that might cut their journey times and also reduce pollution. Somewhat more contentiously, the project is also investigating eco-signals and eco-lanes. Eco-signals (i.e. traffic lights) adjust their timing to maximise the efficiency of approaching vehicles but, more controversially, could give priority to cars based on their environmental credentials. Similarly, eco-lanes on highways would be restricted to those vehicles deemed least polluting or for regular vehicles operating more economically, for example by driving more slowly. See also: Pure enters in-car tech market with Highway stereos.

Intelligent cars: the driverless car

According to some researchers, the only sure fire way to make cars safe would be to remove the driver from the loop completely. In some quarters, it would also be considered the ultimate in comfort and enjoyment although the Jeremy Clarksons of this world would surely take issue with that sentiment. Unlikely as it might sound, considerable progress has been made in developing driverless cars.

As long ago as 1997, ten Buick LeSabres travelled autonomously at 65mph, in a so-called platoon, on a section of the Interstate 15 near San Diego, California. With each vehicle separated from its neighbours by 6.5 metres, the highway could carry 4,300 vehicles per lane per hour compared to a more typical 2,000 for ordinary vehicles. In addition, it was shown in wind tunnel tests that if a closer separation could be achieved, the cars' aerodynamic performance could be improved with a consequential improvement in fuel economy by as much as 25%. Impressive as this sounds, the concept is hindered by the fact that it only works if all the cars on the road are equipped with intelligent systems for autonomous control and the highway also had to be prepared so that it could communicate with the vehicles.

Both these drawback were overcome in a demonstration of a fully autonomous car in September 2013. The car in question, a modified Mercedes Benz S500 called the Intelligent Drive research vehicle, drove itself the 100km from Mannhein to Pforzheim in Germany. The trip, organised to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first ever long distance car journey, made by pioneer Bertha Benz, followed her exact same route. In driving autonomously along ordinary roads, both in rural areas and in town centres populated with ordinary cars, Mercedes achieved a first. This feat involved the car dealing with several complex situations – traffic lights, roundabouts, pedestrians, cyclists and trams – using an array of sensors including stereo cameras, long- and short-range radar, and GPS.

If you think this will remain the domain of the research scientists for years to come, using cars far removed from those in the showroom, think again. According to Mercedes “this trailblazing success was not achieved using extremely expensive special technology, but with the aid of near-production-standard technology, very similar to that already found in the new E and S-Class". With indications that similar technology could be available by the end of the decade – legalities permitting – it looks like the era of self-drive cars might just be drawing to a close.

See also: Kenu Airframe review: smartphone car vent mount.