BMW iX to get Level 3 autonomous driving update shortly – Report

Update: ‘Parking Assistant Professional to debut on the iX’ section added.

BMW launched its first all-electric SUV, the BMW iX, in the UK and other global markets last year. However, contrary to the claims made at the time of the project’s announcement back in 2018 in the form of the iNext concept car, the iX doesn’t feature the level 3 autonomous driving system at launch.

In a Forbes article published in November 2021, Frank Weber, head of R&D at BMW, confirmed that the next-gen BMW 7 Series (arrives this year) would have Level 3 autonomous driving technology. The same article confirms that an optional software update would make the BMW iX Level 3-ready.

Factors affecting the development

As per the information Weber gave Topgear in June 2021, BMW was working on the technicalities of equipping the Level 3 autonomous driving system in the iX, for which the vehicle needs to undergo 700 million kilometres of (simulated and real-life) testing before type approval. All the new generation BMW cars, including the iX, are currently equipped with a Level 2+ autonomous driving system. 

According to Weber, the technology stack for the BMW iX is a Level 3 system, which means that the current iX’s hardware and software are ready. Its computers can process data 20 times faster than the current production BMWs. However, regulatory and geographical barriers prevent BMW from making any bold self-driving claims.

The Forbes report unravelled more interesting details. While Europe has regulations in place concerning Level 3 autonomous cars, the U.S. doesn’t. Also, the transition from Level 2 to 3 is huge — in case of any safety incidents, the liability shifts from the driver to the system in Level 3 cars. EU’s regulations urge carmakers to take responsibility for crashes for Level 3 cars. Many brands are simply not ready for this level of commitment.

BMW iX rear three quarter
The Level 3 autonomous driving system will make its way into the iX, perhaps later this year or next year. Image: BMW

Weber told TopGear last year that BMW was eyeing a clearer regulator framework for the application of the Level 3 autonomous driving system for the iX. Currently, as per EU, cars with a Level 3 autonomous driving system can only be driven up to the speed of 38 mph (60 km/h) after engaging the system. Given the unpredictability of traffic and pedestrians, say in a town centre, where the iX has to make its way through cars or pedestrians from all directions, it is hard to achieve Level 3 at the moment. As Weber puts it, “You have to prove you are at or better than a human driver’s safety.”

Driver assistance systems on the BMW iX

The Level 2+ system in place in the iX bridges the massive gap between Level 2 and 3. Currently, the production-spec BMW iX employs five cameras (including an 8 MPix front camera), five radar sensors, and 12 ultrasonic sensors for assessing traffic signs, other vehicles, and pedestrians for its driver assistance systems. The driver assistance systems include the latest versions of active cruise control with distance control and steering and lane control assist.

BMW iX interior
The BMW iX features active cruise control with distance control and steering and lane control assist. Image: BMW

Here, the active cruise control calculates the distance between another vehicle in the front and adjusts the distance between two cars. On the other hand, the steering and lane control assist takes information from lane markings and vehicles moving ahead and maintains the directional stability of the vehicle. All these works are done with the help of data sourced from the front and side-mounted cameras and sensors.

What is a level 3 autonomous driving system in general?

Defined by SAE International, the level 3 autonomous driving system is a combination of various driver assistance systems and artificial intelligence. This combination allows the car equipped with it to make decisions based on its consistently changing surroundings (other vehicles, traffic signs and pedestrians) on its own.

Compared to the level 2 autonomous driving system, level 3 is an advanced step, as it eradicates direct involvement of the driver for controlling the support features when they are engaged. In the level 2 system, the driver needs to constantly monitor the support features by steering, braking and accelerating, some things which a level 3-equipped car can do by itself when all pre-set conditions are met. However, for the optimal working of the system, at least one person must be seated inside the vehicle to take control of the vehicle in emergency systems, especially in case of system failures.

Parking Assistant Professional to debut on the iX

While the introduction of Level 3 Autonomy remains delayed due to regulation concerns, BMW is adding a useful feature to the iX in March 2022. According to BMW Blog, the brand is gearing up to roll out the Parking Assistant Professional feature to the iX very soon.

Current BMW cars get the Parking Assistant feature that can identify parking spots and then park the vehicle autonomously, albeit only at short distances and when you’re near the parking. BMW says that the new will allow the iX to park itself over a longer distance, up to 200 meters. The system will use GPS and other Level 2 sensors to store the last 200 meters that the iX covers.

BMW iX will learn and memorise your familiar routes and initiate self-parking once you arrive at a recognised location. As the Parking Assistant Professional detects a starting point, the system will assume control at the touch of a button (on the steering and/or centre console). It will accelerate, steer, brake and even slot into reverse gear. Since it is a Level 2 system, the driver must stay alert, monitor the surroundings and intervene If required.