The auto industry is having a harder time than ever when it comes to autonomous driving. BMW even unleashes its two new top models iX and the i7 / 7 series on customers without the announced driver assistance level three. On the other hand, things are very different on our own factory premises.

Because the new BMW i7 / 7 Series luxury sedans can already drive autonomously on the production site in Dingolfing. Drivers on the road can only dream of that. Contrary to the flowery announcements made by many a car manufacturer in the past five years, little has happened in the field of highly automated driving in real everyday life. First Audi made a mistake with its current Audi A8, then Tesla cut its autopilot and then BMW also stopped the previously announced driver assistance level three for the market launch of the electric flagship model BMW iX. A few months ago there was another surprise; In contrast to its main competitors, the Mercedes S-Class and EQS, the BMW i7 / 7 Series, which will be launched in the autumn, will also start without assistance level three. As with the BMW iX, this should only be delivered in the next two years when sufficient data has been collected. Admittedly, the luxurious Mercedes double pack of S-Class and EQS does not really offer driver assistance level three, because the system currently only works in Germany at speeds of up to 60 km/h in construction sites and traffic jams. The customers had once imagined this to be very different.

They dream of an autonomous driving system such as that offered by the new BMW 7 Series and its electric twin i7. However, only on the company premises of the production facility in Dingolfing. The reason is simpler than expected, because BMW uses a completely different technology in its Bavarian flagship plant. “We have a different approach than with autonomous driving because we don’t use sensors from the vehicles. The car itself is virtually blind. Instead, we installed sensors along the routes that we use to move the cars in the plants,” says project manager Sascha Andree. On the one hand, a sensor infrastructure is used that helps to locate the vehicles and at the same time recognizes obstacles in the factory environment. On the other hand, a movement planner sends controlled commands to the driverless vehicles via mobile radio. The automated journeys in the plant are initially carried out within the assembly area and then to various logistics areas on the site. The finished vehicles drive themselves to a parking lot, from where they are transported by train or truck to dealerships in Germany and abroad.

The technology itself does not only come from BMW itself, but in particular from two resourceful companies. The South Korean startup Seoul Robotics and the Swiss company Embotech have coordinated the factory and vehicles in such a way that the vehicles move around the factory premises as if by magic. Seoul Robotics’ lidar detection software uses the static surveillance sensors to create a digital twin of the environment, including object classification and positioning for the vehicles. Embotech’s timetable planning software steers, brakes, accelerates and parks the driverless vehicles. The exact routes are calculated in real time. Particularly interesting: individual programming or training of the vehicles is not required. Instead, each vehicle is able to react independently to the respective surrounding situation.

“This approach, in which two young startups work with an OEM like the BMW Group on a single project, has probably never happened before,” says HanBin Lee, CEO of Seoul Robotics. The BMW Startup Garage discovered Seoul Robotics as a potentially interesting technology supplier. Later, Embotech was also brought on board. “Without the BMW Startup Garage, it would not have been possible for us to have our solution evaluated and tested,” says Alexander Domahidi, co-founder and CTO of Embotech.