The autonomous BMW i3 prototype offers an unremarkable drive, but that's actually a good thing.
My first experience in a self-driving car was eight years ago. During a visit to Stanford's Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab, I was given the opportunity to take a seat inside Junior 3, a robotic Volkswagen Passat that could drive and park itself autonomously.
The vehicle showed off its valet parking capabilities while I watched nervously from the backseat. It was, I noted at the time, like "being driven around by a ghost that makes some seriously hard stops." The technology didn't exactly seem close to being street-ready.
My second experience with a self-driving car happened just this week at the 2018 TED Conference, where BMW had laid out an obstacle course in the basement of the Vancouver Convention Center. The five-minute ride in the fully autonomous BMW i3 was markedly more comfortable — and this time, I could actually picture the vehicle taking to the streets.
The car can be unlocked using a smartphone "digital key".
It also has the ability to recognize its passengers — in this case, myself and a fellow rider named Anne. There is an exterior display that greets passengers and allows them to unlock the vehicle, as well as an interior display in the backseat that offers an array of options: starting and stopping the trip, playing music, checking on car speed, and more.
The ride itself was unremarkable, which is perhaps the highest praise that can be given to an autonomous vehicle (especially in light of recent self-driving mishaps on the road). We smoothly navigated around large blocks placed on the course.
Pressing a button on the interior display immediately paused the ride; pressing it again started the ride back up. Unlike my first experience so many years ago, there were no hard stops to be found.
According to an onsite rep, the car could have parked itself in a spot after I left the vehicle (I didn't get a chance to see that in action).
While I enjoyed the ride, it happened in the most controlled experience possible. There were no other cars or pedestrians to contend with, and few opportunities for things to go wrong. That said, the experience gave me at least a little confidence in the near-future promise of autonomous cars.
No word yet on when a fully autonomous BMW i3 will go on sale.