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BMW's New AV Development Campus Emulates Silicon Valley

by Stephen Lawson
BMW's new facility for connected and autonomous vehicle development has as much to do with work culture as it does with location. But it helps to be next to the autobahn.

The German automaker opened the site on Wednesday. It's in Unterschleissheim, about half an hour's drive from BMW headquarters in Munich, but it may operate more like a campus in Silicon Valley.

Managers and staff, software and hardware experts, and developers of AVs and driver-assistance systems will all work together at the site, BMW noted in an April 11 announcement. The 23,000 square meters of office space will be designed on an open-plan basis rather than using sub-divided offices and cubicles.

With all the teams based there, products can go all the way from research to production. BMW's Research and Innovation Centre is also nearby. A software developer could write new code and immediately test it out on a vehicle a short walk away, the company noted.

Whether that car can hop onto Autobahn 92, which runs straight through Unterschleissheim, may be up to German regulators. But BMW cited access to the motorway network as a benefit for the rapid development it hopes to spark among the 1,800 employees there.

This is the first time a carmaker will use so-called "agile" methodology systematically across an entire specialist area, in this case autonomous and semi-autonomous cars, according to BMW.

Agile development, a product of fast-moving Silicon Valley corporate culture, is designed to let employees from all areas and levels of a company form teams, share ideas and try things out quickly rather than methodically going through stages of testing and approval. New features evolve through a rapid series of iterations.

BMW is far from being the first car company to adopt, or claim, agile development.

As software and data connections become increasingly important in vehicles, automakers need to compete with startups both to develop features and to attract engineers. BMW wants its new campus to help it hire talent in fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analysis.

Tesla, itself a Silicon Valley creation, has been called agile for both its product development and the frequent over-the-air software updates to cars already on the road. In 2015, Ford partnered with agile software company Pivotal to develop its Ford Smart Mobility connected-car platform and said Pivotal had helped it speed up development from months to weeks. General Motors also says it's adopted some of the agile approach.

BMW has announced it will introduce both fully and partly self-driving vehicles in 2021. That year, it will sell cars with Level 3 autonomy, which can drive on divided highways at up to 81mph, and run an urban ride-hailing pilot with fully driverless Level 5 vehicles. It's developing that technology in a partnership with Intel and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The company already offers BMW Personal CoPilot Driver Assistance, which requires the driver to maintain control but includes adaptive cruise control, braking assistance, lane control, blind-spot radar and other features.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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