Three giants—BMW, Mobileye, and Intel—has teamed up to hold an event in Munich to announce the development of a standard platform for autonomous driving. But the three-way partnership event became somewhat sombre and low-key.

Ironically, Tesla’s first fatal crash—involving a Tesla driver using his car’s auto-pilot mode—has triggered one of the first questions asked at the BMW/Mobileye/Intel press conference last Friday.

The accident, revealed last June 30 and currently under investigation by U.S. auto-safety regulators, is likely to direct more scrutiny toward autonomous driving technology, which thus far has evolved with little oversight.

Top management of each partner company were on hand to discuss a ground-breaking initiative to develop an “open platform” for autonomous driving. The companies said the platform is being developed not just for themselves, but as a potential industry standard for others to join. No names of other carmakers or technology suppliers were mentioned, however. Harald Krüger, chairman of BMW’s board, noted that it is too early to tell who might join, but stressed that this is “a strategic approach” forged by the three companies.

Tesla Munich 01 Figure 1: Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (left), Harald Kruger, chairman of BMW's board (middle), Amnon Shashua, Mobileye Co-founder CTO (right).

Transparency needed

During the press conference, BMW’s Krüger said repeatedly that “safety comes first.”

Speaking of the Tesla accident, Amnon Shashua, Mobileye's co-founder, CTO and chairman, said, “Companies need to be very transparent about limitations of the system. It’s not enough to tell the drivers to be alert; it needs to tell them why they need to be alert. It’s not just a lawyer talk.”

He added, “I think a company as reputable as BMW does things right in that respect.”

BMW’s Krüger, calling the accident “really very sad,” reiterated, “That’s why we are taking steps”—toward 2021—to develop autonomous cars. “[Autonomous driving] technologies today are not ready for serious production,” he stressed.

Level 3 or Level 5?

That statement, however, raises more questions. For example, when can regulators regard autonomous cars as “safe enough”? More important, how will they determine that? What testing standards for verification and validation exist today for self-driving cars?

Asked about which levels of autonomous cars (Level 3 or Level 5) might be ready in 2021, Mobileye’s Shashua said both. Level 3 autonomous cars—defined as “eyes-off”—will "be limited to highways, but on a highway, you are completely safe.” He added, “That means you can really take eyes off, and there is a significant grace period from the time when the system is compromised until you really need to take control. And if you don’t take control, the system will know how to stop aside slowly in a safely manner.”

At the same time in 2021, Level 5 autonomous cars are also coming. Shashua added, “We are envisioning fully autonomous driving in a geo-fenced area. Take a city like Munich. A certain [geo-fenced] area provides safe, completely Level-5 [“driver off”] autonomous driving.”

Mike Demler, senior analyst at The Linley Group, after the press conference, told EE Times that he expects “the first deployment of Level 5 will be constrained to a pre-defined route.” He added, “I think that’s more restrictive than ‘geofenced.’”

Regulatory bodies need standards

Shashua also discussed that regulators are pushing the standardisation effort for autonomous driving. “We need to work with regulatory bodies. And they need to see the standardisation emerging.” Mobileye CTO cautioned, “It could create chaos in this industry if each car manufacturer decides on a different set of sensing, a different set of software stacks, a different set of validations and so forth.”

In short, “BMW’s idea of leading toward standardisation, of course in discussions with all other car manufacturers, I think, will be very important. This will push the industry overall further into the future,” he concluded.

As for how much funding each partner is contributing to the partnership, the three companies remained vague. Mobileye said it will dedicate 100 people to this project, out of the company’s 700-people employees. Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich said Intel is providing “several hundred people and several hundred million dollars” to the collaboration.