BMW, Intel and computer vision firm Mobileye have signed a deal to develop autonomous vehicles.
The three firms will collaborate on the systems needed to make cars that can navigate without any help from a human driver.
The vehicles will be capable of driving safely along major roads as well as in suburban and inner city areas.
BMW said it hoped the collaboration would mean it could put robot cars into production by 2021.
The research partnership was announced on the day when US officials begin an investigation into a fatal car crash involving a Tesla Model S, to which self-driving technology could have contributed.
BMW said the trio would develop computer and sensor systems that gradually reduce the part humans play in driving a car. Ultimately, it said, it hoped to produce vehicles that could operate entirely autonomously without any people onboard.
Achieving this, said BMW, would make it possible for fleets of unmanned vehicles to operate safely. This, it added, could spur the creation of novel ride-sharing services in urban areas or lead to the creation of long-distance delivery services that employ robot-driven trucks.
In a statement, the three firms said they were "convinced that automated driving technologies will make travel safer and easier".
They pledged to make the results of the research available to other car makers and electronics firms to help standardise technologies used in autonomous vehicles.
Early work would focus on a "highly automated driving" prototype which BMW said it planned to demonstrate this year. More extensive tests of this technology across lots of vehicles were planned for 2017, it added.
The autonomous car that emerges from the partnership would be likely to be electric and called the iNext, it said. Other vehicles in the i-range include the i8 hybrid and the i3 all-electric vehicle.
Before now, BMW has shown off concept cars that use autonomous technology and it is already working with Baidu in China to produce a self-driving car suited to that market.