I Tried to Crash a BMW But It Wouldn't Let Me
Autonomous, smartwatch-controlled valet mode and in-car gesture control is the future of luxury.
Images: Derek Mead
Trying to take a selfie while simultaneously trying to crash a BMW is "probably not a good idea," a press person for the Bavarian automaker tells me. Too bad. This car is my selfie stick, and I'm here to beat the selfie meme to death with it.
My uncle once told me a story of a guy who, after some sporting event and many beers, went on a parking lot rampage, smashing his Beetle into as many cars as possible. Had he been driving the BMW i3 test mule I drove yesterday, he'd have caused nary a dent.
I'm sure you can crash this car if you try hard enough—flying off a cliff maybe, or waiting 'til you hit highway speeds before simply yanking the wheel to the right—but zipping around a Las Vegas parking lot with a handler egging me on, I couldn't get the little Bimmer to hit even a single obstacle. Oh well.
The tech (trade name: ActiveAssist)is part of BMW's ongoing efforts to showcase just how well it can make drivers less stupid, and it's genuinely impressive. Laser sensors embedded around the car constantly map the vehicle's surroundings, and the system automatically applies the brakes if you're in danger of backing into a pole or ripping a mirror off on a wall. As BMW's Dr. Moritz Wurling said, there's a reason parking garages are covered in paint.
In normal usage, the system is a nice driving aid for everyday things like pulling into a tight space. After intentionally making a terrible attempt at parallel parking, I was able to pretty recklessly jam forward and backward knowing that the car would automatically slam the brakes when I got too close to a wall, which let me seesaw into place with ease. But even when gunning the car at a static object—I'd say I got it up to 15-20 mph, so not exactly fast, but fast enough in a tight area—the system took over and yanked the car to a stop without a problem.
Wurling said the tech is still in development, and it's not clear yet when it might hit roads in a car you can buy. But who needs parking assists anyway? How about a car that can just park itself?
Another concept on display was an i3 city car that can navigate a parking garage, find an open spot, and park itself, all without human interaction. When you want it back, you just ping the car and it comes to pick you up automatically. Naturally, this auto-valet feature is controlled with a smartwatch.
The tech is conceptual enough to have no launch date, according to BMW automated driving expert Georg Tanzmeister. But it certainly works, as I learned while taking a solo ride in the passenger seat. Being driven around by a bot remains a very strange but not necessarily unsettling experience.
The system requires detailed maps of a parking structure to work, which Tanzmeister said could potentially come with mapping software if the auto valet system ever heads to market. From there, the car uses its laser sensor array, not GPS, to navigate space and search for an open spot. In controlled but realistic circumstances, it worked fine.
Now, at this point you've got to be thinking, "Who really need a smartwatch robo-valet and the ability to park like a half-drunk toddler with zero repercussions?" Well, as you may have heard, BMW's target demographic is rich people, and in the super-competitive luxury auto sector, the arms race over automation and convenience reigns supreme.
That fact was no better evidenced than by the marque's new interior systems, which include a tablet that allows the back seat passenger to control everything from the seat angle to the radio and navigation. As BMW engineer Markus Ablassmeier noted, chauffeurs are a big deal in booming Asian luxury markets, and catering to someone who only ever rides in the backseat is key.
Tablets are one thing, even if they're for a tycoon, but BMW's gesture-sensing tech is simply cool. While it's limited to just a quartet of gestures—a swipe, a twirl, and one- and two-fingered jabs—being able to draw a circle in the air to turn up the volume or swipe an annoying phone call away with a flourish is a charming portrait of future luxury.
The gesture controls are at least a year or two from entering even the highest-end models, so we'll all be relegated to pushing buttons the old-fashioned way for a bit. But if you're good and wealthy, rest assured that you're not that far away from being able to answer a phone call from your yacht captain by making militant cobra-strike gestures at your dashboard.