In BMW’s long term future, keen drivers are still wanted… but not needed
LOS ANGELES, USA — What next after Project i, BMW’s push into the electric car market? iNext, of course.
BMW launched the Vision iNext concept car to the media in the heart of Los Angeles’ fashion district one day before the LA Auto Show got underway. It showcases the various ideas that the premium carmaker says will safeguard its future as the car industry enters a period of upheaval — most notably the ability to drive itself.
“We are in the heaviest transition period for the automotive industry, with electrification, autonomous driving and digitalisation of the customer interface,” said Harald Krueger, the chairman and chief executive of BMW (below, third from left).
Klaus Frohlich, the board member in charge of development at BMW, said that building electric cars is already “no problem” for BMW.
The company has consistently delivered on its sales targets for electric and plug-in hybrid cars, and is already rolling out its fifth-generation of electric drive systems.
Mr Frohlich said the upcoming plug-in version of the latest X5 sport utility vehicle would have a battery-only range of 100km, while Mr Krueger told CarBuyer that in California, one in two 5 Series models is a plug-in.
“In a nutshell, electromobility is already the new normal for us, so we needed a new challenge: to offer safe autonomous driving by 2021,” Mr Frohlich (below) said.
That’s where the iNext comes in. BMW says the production version will have a range of 700km, and be a powerhouse — Frohlich promised that it will offer “best-in-class acceleration, best power-to-weight ratio, and a very, very low centre of gravity.” That last characteristic improves cornering stability.
But the iNext will also do something no production BMW can do: drive itself.
The brand says it will offer two operating modes called Boost and Ease. Boost is the manual driving mode, for the last few miles of a journey or simply when you feel like taking the controls for pleasure, as BMW customers are expected to do. “The joy of driving is at the heart of our brand. That will not change with autonomous driving,” Mr Krueger said.
The Ease mode will offer Level 3 autonomous driving. That’s when the driver can take his hands off the wheel and his eyes off the road, but should be ready to take back control at any moment.
BMW has stated that it wants this feature to enter production by 2021. Full autonomy, which doesn’t need driver involvement at all, will be technically ready by then too, but its roll-out will depend on regulations, Mr Frohlich said. “There are still crucial legal and regulatory hurdles to clear before we will be able to drive fully autonomous in all cities, but we will have the technologies ready in ’21,” he said.
The iNext shows how BMW expected people to use their cars when they don’t have to drive. The steering wheel and pedals retract in Ease mode, while the front passenger seat’s headrest flips down to enable the occupant to face rear passengers more comfortably.
The windscreen meets an extended glass roof to make the cabin feel more airy, and the compactness of electric drive frees up more space.
“We have roughly the footprint of an X5 and the height of an X6, but through the electric drive we offer much more interior space than we normally used to in this vehicle class,” said Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW’s overall design chief.
Mr van Hooydonk said cars will change the most inside over the next five years, and the iNext provides early clues how. “If you look at the interior, you’ll find it was not inspired by car design at all. Rather, it was inspired by architecture, or the design of boutique hotels.” When the car is driving autonomously, the passengers can turn toward each other and have an analogue conversation, he quipped.
In the iNext, climate control ventilation is still there but no longer visible, he pointed out, and the dashboard is dominated by a large but thin flatscreen. BMW is also experimenting with smart materials: the wood in the centre console and rear seat fabric are touch surfaces that let users operate the touchscreen menus.
Mr van Hooydonk stressed that his team is earnestly working on these ideas. “I cannot guarantee that it will make it 100 percent through, but everything you see here is a serious intention,” he told CarBuyer.
In fact, much is riding on the concept machine.
“iNext for us is much more than a car. It will be in BMW Group product portfolio the technology leader, from which we spread out into different brands. It’s the spearhead of innovation really, for us,” said Mr Krueger.
Don’t think of it as a game changer, in other words. Instead, it shows that BMW understands the game is changing anyway, and that its players have to adapt to suit.
However many of its ideas do make their way into a future BMW, Mini or Rolls-Royce, at least one of the iNext’s abilities was already demonstrated at its launch. When Harald Krueger stood up to introduce the car, it rolled silently onto the stage, with no one behind the wheel.