Fatal Accident: How is BMW Actually Misleading Us With Autonomous Driving?

A fatal accident in Römerstein between Reutlingen and Ulm involving a BMW made headlines. Not only did one person die, nine others were seriously injured and had to be taken to hospital by ambulances and emergency helicopters.

However, the stickers on the BMW iX caused some confusion. One read “ELECTRIC TEST VEHICLE,” while the other – as shown in the cover image – contained the BMW logo, a camera symbol, a QR code and a link underneath www.bmw.com/autonomousdriving.

What would an innocent observer or an emergency worker who has to secure the car on site and free possible passengers assume? That the vehicle is probably an electric car that can drive autonomously. This means that at least two procedures apply to emergency services:

  1. Securing an electric car that can lead out to a battery fire with specific fire behavior in the event of an accident, and where the corresponding wiring must be pinched off.
  2. Ensuring that the autonomous car does not react unexpectedly in this situation, such as trying to start.

Ausbildung eines Autonomen Autos

In the U.S., for example, manufacturers of autonomous vehicles are required to conduct training with local emergency responders before operating without a safety driver so they know how to handle the vehicle in the event of an incident and what to expect. So Waymo, Embark and others have released training videos and materials.

A police officer, paramedic or firefighter who thus comes to this accident will take stickers like the one on autonomous driving seriously. However, it is not yet known that the emergency services in Germany have already been trained in handling autonomous cars. The sticker can thus lead to confusion, as was also evident in the reports on the accident. All media reported an accident with an “autonomous car”. This confusion can lead to delays at the scene of the accident and thus damage to those involved in the accident if the emergency services first have to find out how to proceed with such a vehicle.

Autonomous driving or what?

Only after a delay did BMW then emphatically state in a press release that the case in question was not an autonomous and certainly not an autonomously driving car. There was only a Level 2 driver assistance system in the car, in which a driver must maintain control and an overview at all times. This means that there must have been a driver in the vehicle, and that the car had been manually controlled. A human being caused the accident.

If you follow the link of the sticker, you will be redirected to another link in English, which says “Data Processing automated Vehicles”. Does this make you smarter? Not quite. Does the data processing happen in the car? Only switching to the German version seems to make it clearer what it is about: it is primarily a data protection notice. The vehicle collects data through various sensors, and a lot of blah-blah is used to explain how much BMW cares about data protection and the safety of its vehicles and new technologies.

In other words: instead of writing http://www.bmw.com/datenschutz on the sticker, they prefer to disguise it because it doesn’t sound so great and would upset the residents if they understood what exactly is happening. Instead, they prefer to write autonomousdriving on it in English.

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Who actually uses these cars?

But this raises another question: such a test vehicle, equipped in part with very expensive sensors, was not manned by the safety drivers required in the U.S., for example, and sometimes another engineer, but appeared to have had four adults and a one-and-a-half-year-old toddler on board. All were injured in the accident.

How is this possible? To what extent is it common practice at BMW to use specially equipped test vehicles for what appears to be private use? Again, to make the comparison with the U.S.: there, from a certain development phase of the technology onward, employees are encouraged to use the vehicles for both business and private trips. However, only ever as a passenger, with a safety driver still on board. Only in a further phase – with the appropriate license – may the safety driver be dispensed with.

So what does BMW really have in terms of technology?

After BMW had so vehemently denied that the car causing the accident was an autonomous vehicle, the question now arises as to what exactly BMW’s technology actually is and why it even puts such misleading stickers on these cars?

Vehicles with such stickers have already been spotted several times (here, here, here, here or here). Most of them lacked the visible sensors that are common in the USA and China, but they always had these stickers. Were these all data processing vehicles? Is this all chimera that BMW has to show in terms of autonomous driving? Do they stick this on the vehicles to make the public believe that they’ve made progress that they don’t even have? And are they intentionally or unintentionally misleading the emergency services, who may lose time during the operation because the stickers suggest things that would require different behavior?

All these pretending stickers now make us doubt the second sticker as well: was that even an electric car from BMW? Or is BMW also making us believe that it is, because everyone is so keen on electric mobility at the moment and BMW doesn’t want to be sidelined? You would almost think so based on the strategy of technology openness.

Bonus: The burst myth of German diligence

You can’t shake the feeling that even the smallest parking accident involving a Tesla immediately causes a big media fuss, because the Autopilot must surely have been to blame. And with that, the German public quickly gets excited about how recklessly and lawlessly American companies would behave and endanger people. Even though many of the accidents allegedly blamed on the autopilot were ultimately human error and the autopilot was not activated at all.

This cultivated the myth that this could not happen to German manufacturers, because they would abide by the law and, above all, would only carry out their tests under the strictest safety conditions. And that myth is now gone, because the headline read “Autonomous car causes fatal accident” – and that came from BMW.

In fact, the use of misleading labels such as the “www.bmw.com/autonomousdriving” is more a sign of a lack of diligence.

Summary

  • A BMW test vehicle caused a fatal accident in Germany;
  • The vehicle had a “www.bmw.com/autonomousdriving” sticker;
  • However, confusingly, the vehicle is not an autonomous car;
  • The vehicle had been manually controlled
  • The driver seems to be allowed to use such a test vehicle equipped with sensors for private trips;
  • The stickers affixed to the vehicle are causing confusion among observers and emergency personnel as to what type of vehicle it really is;
  • BMW does not appear to have advanced autonomous driving technology on hand

This article was also published in German.

3 Comments

  1. >BMW does not appear to have advanced autonomous driving technology on hand

    I don’t understand how any of what was said in the article leads to this conclusion?

    This entire writeup looks rather attention seeking than an actual journalistig piece.

    Like

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