BMW's Autonomous Car Can Drive Better Than You

Can you recover from a spinout? BMW's ActiveAssist can.

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BMW is throwing its hat into the autonomous car ring, with a concept technology that can take the wheel when the going gets tough and a promise that "highly automated driving" will be commonplace by the year 2020.

At CES this week, the automaker demonstrated a prototype of a new driver-assist technology that can control a vehicle under the most demanding conditions. Called ActiveAssist, it's not just designed for around-town jaunts, but for precise control "up to the vehicle’s dynamic limit."

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BMW put ActiveAssist to the test on the track.

According to BMW, prototypes equipped with ActiveAssist can travel "with exceptional precision" even at high speeds. During testing, ngineers put it through a slalom run, forced the car to hydroplane on a wet track, and even made it change lanes to avoid an obstacle. Every time, the car performed flawlessly.

Most impressively, ActiveAssist can regain control of the vehicle even after a human driver deliberately causes it to lose control. By automatically braking, accelerating, and steering as appropriate, BMW says its prototype can get out of a spin the same way an expert driver would. In engineering tests, the car recovered from human error every single time.

And that's probably the technology we'll see in the near-term. Cars that can drive you to work while you read the newspaper might be years away, but BMWs that take control of the steering wheel and brakes when the car starts to skid could be just around the corner.

In fact, BMW says its vehicles all already feature the necessary components to implement many of the features of ActiveAssist, including electronic power steering and the sensors used for stability control.

The automaker says that ActiveAssist will be put into real-world trials on European roadways by 2015. What BMW calls "highly autonomous" vehicles—those that can negotiate road construction on a highway with minimal driver input, for example—are expected by the year 2020.

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