File photo: Workers at BMW factory assemble an i3 electric car / Getty

German carmakers recruiting thousands in attempt to compete with Google’s self-driving car

BMW, Audi and Mercedes are launching huge hiring drives — not for mechanical engineers, but for software ones.

Google’s new autonomous example has spurred the German carmakers into investing in thousands of extra staff with software expertise with an average 5% growth in workforce. This comes after the three automotive giants completed a deal in 2014 to buy Nokia’s maps service for 2.5 billion euros.

BMW’s latest attempt is a car that is designed to look and feel like a normal 5 series, with the appropriate limitations that come with it. The car looks inconspicuous on the road — its driverless functionality is largely limited to Germany’s autobahns, without the technology to negotiate junctions or roundabouts.

The company has told the Guardian that it hopes those cars will be ready for highly-automated driving by 2020.

"We think sometime after 2020 we will be ready for the first highly automated function, which means that the driver will be actually able to do something other than monitor the system – read emails, call somebody, check the news, whatever," said Michael Aeberhard, who runs BMW's project. "But even in this mode, there are situations when the car knows it will reach its limit. Then it will tell the driver, with 15 or 20 second warning: sorry you need to take over.”

Google is moving in a different direction. Their car aims to achieve fully autonomous city driving, reacting to the sudden changes and potential hazards on a busy street. The cars "have sensors designed to detect objects as far as two football fields away in all directions, including pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles –or even fluttering plastic shopping bags and rogue birds,” according to the company's website for the project.

The Google prototype has evolved in the past few years. The steering wheel and pedals are gone, the interior is designed for riding rather than driving, and the rounded body is powered entirely by electric batteries.

1.2 million people are killed every year on the roads, and Google are working on the idea that totally autonomous driving is the only option to eliminate human error. If their lofty ambitions are realised, the German car manufacturers may be left behind in the technological race.