German automotive companies BMW and Continental have teamed up to develop self-driving car technology, or as they call it, an “electronic co-pilot” for cars. The main goal of the joint venture is to develop and test technologies that would usher in an era of highly automated driving on European freeways from 2020, with fully automated systems expected from 2025.

Scheduled to run from early 2013 to the end of 2014, the goal of the joint project will be to develop a number of prototype vehicles capable of highly automated freeway driving. When completed, these prototype vehicles will take to European motorways and German autobahns with a selected group of trained test participants behind the wheel in order to test the automated driving functions in typical driving conditions that will include intersections, toll stations, roadworks and national borders.

Both companies have experience when it comes to semi-autonomous systems, with Continental having worked for some time with Mercedes on adaptive cruise control and emergency braking assistance systems. It also participated in the EU research project called HAVEit, where it was responsible for developing a highly automated assist system for driving around traffic jams and roadworks.

Like Google and Audi, Continental also took one of its self-driving car testbeds to Nevada in early 2012, where it became the first automotive components supplier to receive Nevada DMV permission to test on public roads and recorded over 15,000 miles (24,000 km) of highly automated driving.

Meanwhile, BMW has previously demonstrated its BMW TrackTrainer, a self-driving track car that used high-resolution GPS and video data to navigate around race tracks fully autonomously, and the Emergency Stop Assistant, which has some novel attributes, including monitoring the driver for incapacitation. If the vehicle senses through biosensors that the driver is having a medical emergency, such as a heart attack, then it will take over operation and bring the vehicle to a safe stop on the side of the road and call for help.

In mid-2011, BMW also tested a self-driving car on the A9 Motorway between Munich and Nuremberg, where the car mixed in with traffic and obeyed the traffic laws. The BMW test vehicle was equipped with 360-degree LIDAR (laser radar), radar, sonar, and computer vision systems using cameras to detect other cars and monitor traffic. In comparison to the Google self-driving car, which sports a large spinning LIDAR unit on its roof, the autonomous BMW appears much like a standard model.

The joint venture will allow the two companies to pool their previous research and expertize when developing the prototype vehicles. Continental will provide driving environment sensor systems and a safety system designed to ensure the safe operation of the vehicle even in the event of a malfunction, while BMW will build on its TrackTrainer and Emergency Stop Assistant technologies and supply the vehicles.

By concentrating on automated freeway driving, the companies hope to make the technology safe, attractive and affordable for customers. However, they anticipate autonomous driving technologies will be rolled out in stages, with partially automated driving possible from 2016, highly autonomous systems available from 2020, and fully autonomous systems appearing in vehicles from 2025.

BMW and Continental aren't alone in thinking that self-driving car technology will be a major part of our mobility future. Earlier this year Cadillac, Audi, and Mercedes Benz introduced advanced automation and “active driver safety” technology in their automobiles.

Sources: BMW, Continental