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Blue sky thinking: What it's like driving a semi-autonomous car in Wellington

Inside the BMW X5.

There’s a leap of faith required when you first get behind the wheel of a semi-autonomous vehicle.

I’m a true gadget nut, but barrelling along the Wellington motorway in a BMW X5 with the wheel turning under my hands as the SUV’s assisted driving system assumed control, my faith in technology was stretched to the limit.

Just when I feared the car was about to veer into the neighbouring lane and sideswipe a fellow motorist, its system of cameras and sensors gently guided me back to the middle of my lane and automatically reduced my speed to match the car in front. 

This is what is known as ‘level 2’ autonomous driving. The car can simultaneously control steering and speed but requires you to stay attentive and ready to take back control. You need to keep your hands resting lightly on the steering wheel too. It uses the same underlying technology but is a world away from the fully-autonomous ‘level 5’ driverless cars we have heard a lot of hype about.

The driverless route

I’ve seen a level 4 car on the road in California, a Waymo car that was traversing the wide and well-marked boulevards around Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, its test driver sitting passively watching on, hands in his lap. Level 4 is considered fully-autonomous, but not in every driving scenario. Humans still have to occasionally take back control, hence the steering wheel remains a fixture.

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Those cars won’t be on our roads for years. Laws will have to change to make them legal to drive us and many of our roads wouldn’t currently have good enough surface quality and road markings to accommodate them.

But the sooner we smooth the way for a driverless world the better. April was a month of carnage on our roads with at least 45 people killed in crashes, the worst toll in a decade. Dangerous and distracted driving was responsible for the bulk of those deaths.

Autonomous computer systems don’t get distracted or experience road rage. They stick to the speed limit and know where they need to go. They know exactly when to brake. Most experts agree that when we see widespread use of driverless cars on roads, tens of thousands of lives will be saved every year globally.

In the meantime, increasingly sophisticated semi-autonomous driving systems are available, albeit it mainly at the luxury end of the market. The BMW X5 M50d I took for a drive through Wairarapa costs around $178,000 (the range starts at $135,700 for the xDrive30d).

The BMW X5 looking moody on a Wairarapa beach. Photo/Peter Griffin

Sensory overload

You are mainly paying for BMW’s state-of-the-art engineering and design and the 6-cylinder quad turbo diesel engine that gives the SUV a surprising nimbleness given its bulk. But luxury cars in its class feature more technology than ever before when it comes to assisted driving.

The X5 is all contoured metal and glass on the outside, but hidden in its body are cameras and ultrasonic sensors to detect other vehicles, objects and road markings.

Those are essential to providing the driving assistance technology, which is at its best when you are on long stretches of motorway, such as the ones that circle and intersect Auckland. An advanced version of cruise control also uses them when in traffic to brake on your behalf. The cameras and sensors give you cross traffic alerts when you are edging out into traffic and blind spot warnings when overtaking.

Ultimately, semi-autonomous driving is currently a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The fact I had to rest my hands lightly on the X5’s steering wheel at all times meant I wasn’t really able to relax any more than if I was fully in control.

A warning light flashes if you take your hands away entirely. If you don’t rest your hands back on the wheel, the car will apparently slow and pull over to a stop, a feature I wasn’t brave enough to test for myself.

A drive out of Wellington during a sun shower saw a lot of reflection off the road, which seemed to boot the X5 out of semi-autonomous mode. Results were much better in the dry when there were bright, clear road markings on either side of the lanes for the cameras to detect.

A decent heads-up

But more impressive for me are features like the X5’s heads-up display, which have been a feature common to premium cars for years now. Rather than glancing down to check the speedometer or the in-car GPS screen, the speed indicator and map is displayed on the windscreen in front of you. Your full attention can be given to the road ahead of you.

It’s particularly useful if you aren’t sure where you are going – the map is constantly in your line of sight. The X5’s heads-up is one of the best I’ve tried and replication of its map display on the cockpit-like display behind the wheel as well as on the 12-inch GPS display in the centre of the dash means you have several places to glance for navigation assistance.

Then there is the parking assistant function, which is a godsend given the X5’s bulk. Line up to manoeuvre into a parking space and the cameras around the X5 are used to stitch together a 360-degree virtual image from above, looking down on the car. It effectively allows you to safely park just by looking at the screen, which will also give you coloured alerts when the ultrasonic sensors detect you are too close to surrounding objects. 

Going a step further, you can train the X5 to park on your behalf. It will learn your parking procedure, then next time you just press the parking assist button, it will do it for you, remembering up to 50 metres of your parking approach and even braking automatically if a cat or child suddenly wanders into your parking space.

Automation is playing an increasing role in modern cars. I never once touched the BMW’s headlights controls – sensors detect the ambient light and approaching traffic and will dip the headlights for you. Windscreen wipers and air-conditioning systems are similarly automated using sensors.

Those features, for me, add up to more than semi-autonomous driving on the open road. It is navigating Wellington’s awkward parking spots, blind corners and narrow roadways that give me the most trouble. In a big vehicle, taking the fear out of parking is particularly appealing.

Many of these safety features have already moved down market and BMW rivals such as Audi and Mercedes have semi-autonomous models available too. But the car company that’s arguably done the most to push semi-autonomous driving is the same one pushing electric cars – Tesla.

It’s $135,000 Model S also sports level 2 semi-autonomous driving with its Autopilot feature, which will even let you summons it from where you parked it, great if you’ve forgotten where in the shopping mall carpark you left it. Many of those semi-autonomous safety features will appear in the Tesla Model 3 when it debuts here in the second half of the year, probably for close to $60,000 (it currently retails for US$35,000).

The BMW X5's parking assistant.

Eyes off

The next phase of autonomy is level 3, which BMW and others are set to incorporate into their vehicles. Audi’s A8 is technically already there, though the features aren’t available on New Zealand roads yet. With level 3, all of the ‘safety critical functions’ can be handled by the vehicle under certain traffic or environmental conditions, but the driver is still required to monitor the situation and take over when needed. That’s proving controversial. Will a disengaged driver be able to quickly retake control and make safe driving calls in an instant?

That’s raised the issue of trying to ensure drivers don’t just switch off when the car is doing the work, a real issue according to researchers. Keeping your hands on the wheel is a common requirement and BMW has a camera in the dashboard that monitors your face to make sure you are attentive and facing forward.

The X5 also comes with Gesture Control – you can move your fingers in a circle to turn the stereo volume up and down, accept an incoming phone call by pointing or reject it with a wave. Another camera, mounted above the gear shift detects your hand movements. I found it awkward to use. More successful is BMW’s voice assistant which is great for plotting new directions on the GPS. If you prefer, support for Apple CarPlay lets you use the Siri digital assistant through BMW’s iDrive system, which powers its well-appointed infotainment system.

For me, you simply can’t beat the classic rotary dial in the BMW’s centre console which lets you scroll to the function you need, bringing up controls on the centre display. That, in conjunction with pre-programmed hot buttons was the most effective way to get things done quickly and safely.

We’ve still got a long way to go on our autonomous driving journey, but driving is certainly becoming safer and more comfortable as car companies augment our driving abilities with impressive semi-autonomous and intelligent driving technology that will be with us for some time to come.

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