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Will BMW mark its centennial with a forward-looking autonomous concept car?

BMW celebrates its centennial in 2016, and there have been rumors that the German carmaker will mark the occasion with some kind of new performance car. But BMW may in fact go in a different direction.

The company may unveil an autonomous concept for its centennial, head of sales and marketing Ian Robertson hinted in an interview with Autocar. Robertson spent most of the interview discussing the challenges BMW may face in putting an autonomous car into production, but noted that BMW’s centennial celebration will focus on the future as much as the past and that “maybe what I’ve been alluding to will be the direction of that.”

What he alluded to was that fully autonomous cars are becoming technologically feasible, but that putting them on the road in large numbers may be more than an issue of technology. Robertson said automotive technology has already reached the “feet off” phase of autonomy, and is just beginning to enter the “eyes off” and “hands off phases.” The next phase will be “brain off,” which would presumably be the point where people could get in a car and, say, take a nap.

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That could be possible within 10 years, Robertson said, but certain issues could mean the technology won’t be implemented until 15 years from now. One of those issues is a “moral dilemma” about how autonomous cars will make decisions. Machines will have to decide whether, for example, to swerve away from an oncoming car or obstacle and risk hitting pedestrians, or avoid those pedestrians and sacrifice vehicle occupants instead.

So far, the behavior of autonomous cars has been controlled largely by pre-programmed responses; software is used to tell them how to react in given situations. But this means cars must be programmed for any eventuality, meaning responsibility is more or less shifted from the person behind the wheel to the person writing the software. One possible solution is artificial intelligence, which Toyota is pursuing for its autonomous cars.

If BMW really does unveil an autonomous concept car during its centenary festivities, which will be held March 7, perhaps the automaker will explain how it plans to solve this “moral dilemma.”