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BMW says it will have the technical know-how to develop Level 5 autonomous vehicles by 2021, but won’t allow its vehicles to make life-or-death decisions in an accident.

Speaking to media at an event in Munich, Dr. Ian Robertson, BMW group board member, said regulation is likely to slow the rollout of full autonomy.

“We will enable the cars for Level 5 [by 2021], but I doubt that early on in the next decade that it would be regulatory available,” Robertson said.

“The first step of this is that the ethical part of this is going to be one of the things that is more and more thought about, so I doubt that the car will be able to make decisions based on life and death.”

One of the core questions surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) is how it will value human life – how it could save one life over another or, perhaps, many lives instead of one.

In an automotive application, for example, AI could be forced to decide between risking its occupants’ life by careening into an oncoming car, or swerving to avoid the crash and collecting pedestrians instead.

“What you will get is that inevitably, if there is an accident that is going to happen, the car will slow to the slowest position, but it won’t be able to say that if I swerve this way I will hit that person or if go that way that will happen…

“And that won’t be true Level 5, because true Level 5 is the person is in the back, the person doesn’t have control.”

Other manufacturers have approached the problem differently, suggesting it’s their job to ensure the vehicle see such a situation in the first place, or arguing vehicles should protect their occupants above all else.

These questions are less about technical ability, instead focusing on an as-yet undetermined ethical code for AI.

Either way, abdicating responsibility for these decisions would technically disqualify a vehicle from being Level 5 autonomous – something that doesn’t seem to worry BMW.

Unlike some groups like the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which relies heavily on network connectivity for autonomy, BMW will equip its vehicles with the computing power to make self-driving decisions, without relying on the 5G connection expected to form a part of the brand’s autonomous back-end.

“The car must have the ability to make its own decisions, that can’t be reliant on the back-end… what we will have is connectivity for a back-end assessment system, but the control system is in the car at that moment in time.”

The current Level 2 or 2.5 systems in BMWs will be expanded with Level 3, 4 and (limited) 5 capacity by 2021. Even so, BMW says its current capability for semi-autonomous driving could be extended further, if not for driver attention issues.

“One thing that we have been very clear that some other companies have not be so clear on, is saying how long will it take the driver to get reengaged in the circumstances before losing concentration and at the moment that is about a minute, more or less, if we made it ten minutes, which are more than capable of doing, if there are a set of circumstances that you need to be engaged [with taking over driving], the time it takes to understand the situation it is much longer.”

Robertson also argues it will take a ‘very, very long time’ before autonomous driving capability will become commonplace.

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