avatarby Kris Carlon2 weeks ago0 comments

Letting go of the steering wheel while driving is not usually a good idea. When you’re behind the wheel of a brand new BMW speeding along the freeway it’s an even worse idea. But when that car is a BMW 5 series with self-driving technology, letting go is exactly what you’re expected to do.

If you’ve never driven an autonomous vehicle before, that moment of release is a bizarre one. Not only do you have to give up control of the vehicle in which you’re sitting, but you also have to disengage that part of your brain that screams at you to pay attention and grab the wheel.

It’s an odd habit to break, but once you realize the car is doing a better job of paying attention to an otherwise boring aspect of driving than you likely would, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.

Those possibilities – what you do in the car now that you don’t have to worry about driving it – is what BMW wanted to showcase with its autonomous vehicle demo at CES 2017 this week. Once you have engaged the self-driving mode, currently only available on freeways or in bumper-to-bumper traffic, those options become apparent.

Not only can you have a conversation with your passengers and take your eyes off the road, but there are a whole host of options available from BMW as well.

In our demo we were prompted to see further information on nearby attractions and landmarks – conveniently narrated to you so you can enjoy the view outside – make reservations for dinner, add items to your daily schedule (stored in the Open Mobility Cloud) and use a voice assistant for queries.

For now only Cortana and Alexa work, but IBM Watson is in the works and when I asked about Google Assistant integration the response was “we’ll see”. BMW wants its customers to be able to use whichever virtual assistant they use at home.

All of your relevant information is accessed via the Open Mobility Cloud. BMW promises no third party apps or services will ever be able to contact your vehicle directly, instead needing to be funneled through the OMC.

When you no longer have to focus on driving the whole time, you can actually get a whole lot done. Commuting stops being a time suck and can instead become very productive, allowing you to get a jump start on your day before reaching the office, catch up on your favorite series or plan out your day. Shopping with Amazon Prime Now was also featured in our test drive.

In case you were wondering, the drive itself went seamlessly. When the car took over there was no change in acceleration, no awkward steering wheel movements; we just kept barreling down the highway at 60 mph just as if I were still driving.

Alerts sounded to catch my attention when a car doing a lane switch nearly cut us off, but the BMW didn’t brake or swerve because there was nothing dangerous about the maneuver – it simply wanted my attention just in case. It took a surprisingly short amount of time to feel comfortable with the whole not-driving thing and disengaging autonomous mode was equally seamless.

Parking the BMW was equally fun, but again, I didn’t have to do anything. As we returned to the parking lot, a robot greeted us and directed us to an available spot. We got out and the car reverse parked itself. It took a few more attempts than I would have, but being able to get out and let the car take care of itself was great. You can also call the car to leave its parking spot and come and meet you.

BMW realizes the generational shift to autonomous driving will require a rethinking in the way car manufacturers design vehicles. So BMW also showed us a concept “sculpture” of how it thinks future automobiles will look.

As you can imagine, there was an emphasis on screens, with far fewer controls within easy reaching distance because most of them will be unnecessary for the driver of the future. The cabin was spacious and felt more like a futuristic lounge pod than an automobile cockpit.

Perhaps the coolest part of this concept though was the presence of a holographic display called HoloActive Touch. Rather than fumbling with buttons and dials, menu items can be selected with floating virtual buttons that even provide haptic feedback through ultrasound to simulate touch.

Like autonomous driving itself, getting haptic feedback from a virtual button is weird at first but then very quickly becomes natural. And this is exactly how it should be. For most folks, the concept of self-driving cars might seem strange, but the experience itself is very natural.

BMW plans to add a fully autonomous driving mode to its vehicles by 2021, thanks to a partnership with Intel and Mobileye.

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