Dramatic accident in Baden-Württemberg: Monday afternoon (August 15) a BMW SUV ran into oncoming traffic on the B28 and rammed several vehicles. One man died and nine others were seriously injured.

The opposite statements are explosive:

︎ According to the police, the car involved in the accident should be be an autonomous electric test vehicle – i.e. a car that also drives itself.

▶︎ However, BMW told BILD: “We are currently in the process of investigating the exact circumstances. Of course, we are in close contact with the authorities. One thing is already certain: the BMW test vehicle involved was not an autonomously driving vehicle.”

Only level 2 driver assistance systems were on board, which are already installed in series vehicles from many manufacturers.

Whether the BMW really drove itself or was steered by the 43-year-old at the wheel is now part of the investigation by the Tübingen traffic police.

Crash on the B28: BMW iX (right) and Mercedes Vito are completely destroyed

Photo: Simon Adomat/dpa

Stages for “self-driving” cars

In autonomous driving, manufacturers and legislation distinguish between different levels, also known as levels. The higher the level, the more the car can and can do itself.

Level 2 systems, as in the accident BMW, are, for example, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, etc. All just functions for “semi-automated driving”, where the driver must always have his hands on the steering wheel.

The step from “partially automated driving” (level 2) to “highly automated driving” (level 3) is huge. Also legally. Because at Level 3, the responsibility for an accident is transferred to the car or the manufacturer.

Nevertheless, the driver must always be “ready to take over and perceive”. So he is not allowed to sleep or climb on the back seat. He must not even move the seat back too far.

The manufacturer is liable in the event of a system failure. The driver or owner is liable if he was not willing to take over and an accident occurs. The vehicle therefore saves every moment when the Drive Pilot is switched on and off again.

Level 4 (“fully automated driving”) would be the all-round carefree package: the driver relinquishes control of the vehicle completely and becomes a passenger. The car manages certain routes completely independently and can then drive without passengers. The passengers can sleep, play games on their smartphones or read the newspaper.

This is how it is tested

For example, while masses of autonomous test cars are already doing their rounds in the USA, the German authorities are much more cautious.

And they are probably also proving that they have the right instincts: between June 2021 and mid-May 2022 alone, the US traffic safety agency NHTSA was notified of almost 400 accidents involving autonomous or partially self-driving vehicles.

One of the most tragic: An Uber test vehicle ran over in 2018 in Arizona, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg pushing her bike across the street. A safety driver was behind the wheel to intervene in an emergency. However, she watched “The Voice” on her cell phone and reacted much too late. Herzberg died a little later in the local hospital.

Can something like this happen to us too? On the A9 in Bavaria, there has been the so-called digital test field Autobahn since September 2015, where test drives take place. Highly automated test drives are already being carried out, for example by VW and the US start-up ARGO AI. The testers use a closed course at Munich Airport, but also drive through the city in Hamburg and Munich with upgraded ID.Buzz.

The upgraded ID.Buzz from VW and Argo AI has over 30 sensors.  It is being used to test Level 4 on public roads in Hamburg and Munich

The upgraded ID.Buzz from VW and Argo AI has over 30 sensors. It is being used to test Level 4 on public roads in Hamburg and Munich

Photo: Ingo Narenschee/VW

The highest safety precautions apply: Tests are only possible with special permission. A driver who monitors the car is always behind the wheel. The test cars have an emergency stop button in the cockpit in case something goes wrong. So far nothing is known about incidents with autonomous test vehicles in Germany.

Only Mercedes is allowed to level 3

Officially, average Otto car drivers in Germany are only allowed to drive exactly ONE model “highly automated” according to Level 3. Namely the Mercedes S class with the “Drive Pilot” system electric EQS ​​to follow soon.

Soon also with Drive Pilot: the Mercedes EQS

Soon also with Drive Pilot: the Mercedes EQS

Photo: Daimler AG

How does the S-Class do it? With an army of sensors that constantly keep an eye on the road and traffic: Twelve ultrasonic sensors monitor the front, sides and rear, four cameras are in the exterior mirrors, a stereo camera in the front, one in the rear window, plus radar sensors and lidar in the grille – one Type laser radar.

However, even in the S-Class, autonomous driving is only possible under ideal conditions: only on the motorway, with clearly visible lane markings and only up to a speed of 60 km/h, more is not yet permitted.

If the general conditions are right, the car reports by sound and light signal that it is ready to partially drive itself and takes over the steering, accelerator and brake at the push of a button. When the car says that the driver should take over again, there are ten seconds to react.

When will this hit the streets? Level 3 will become more and more established in the coming years. The necessary laws for stage 4 have already been introduced. However, it may be a while before private customers drive fully automated.

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