CES: "Crashing" a BMW Becomes Convention Hit

Courtesy of BMW
A BMW i3 equipped with collision avoidance in action.

BMW challenges journalists to crash an i3 research vehicle equipped with its collision avoidance system. So far, none have succeeded, but have had a hilarious time trying

With automotive innovations driving much of the dialogue at this year’s CES — the 10 car manufacturers in attendance take up 165,000 square feet of exhibition space — one of the show’s hottest tickets is BMW’s proving range on a parking garage rooftop outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, where journalists have lined up to test-drive BMW’s collision avoidance system on a specially equipped i3 electric car.

The i3 research vehicle is meant to demonstrate the veracity of BMW’s 360-degree collision avoidance system, which uses four lasers to scan the area around the vehicle and automatically bring the car to a halt if it senses an imminent collision. The system is one of several technologies BMW is perfecting as a precursor to a fully autonomous car, which is still years away but thought to be inevitable.

In practice, the demonstration has turned into a hilarious diversion in which stressed journalists, with BMW engineers egging them on, try to “crash” the i3 into soft barriers painted to look like brick walls — only to have the car unnervingly brake to a halt within centimeters of the obstructions no matter how hard they try.

“We basically encourage people to get behind the wheel and crash into things,” BMW’s Moritz Werling, an engineer on the project, told The Hollywood Reporter. “At first, they start really, really slow because they don’t trust the system too much. Then they notice that the car brakes at the very last moment, but still comfortably. After a couple of minutes, they’re driving around trying to hit things and challenge the system — and laughing.”

The collision avoidance system works from all directions — while backing or taking a turn too close to an obstacle, and is at this stage of development meant to keep the car from dinging itself and other vehicles while parking and maneuvering at low speeds. And because the system doesn’t drive the car but only brings it to a halt when a collision with a static object is inevitable, it isn’t encumbered with the liability issues yet to be resolved with more fully autonomous technology. Werling expects the system to be added to BMWs as soon as the laser sensors are available for mass production in the next few years.

Werling was quick to point out that the system is not designed to encourage reckless driving — “you wouldn’t deliberately drive a car into a concrete wall; you would start braking earlier than that. This is not a comfort function to get into tight spots. It won’t change your driving behavior.”

Tell that to the journos gleefully steering a $41,000 BMW into cartoonish brick walls — without either getting so much as a scratch.

Read more CES: Mercedes-Benz Unveils Self-Driving Concept Car