BMW’s latest idea for the future of mobility is so big, it required a Lufthansa 777 cargo jet to contain it. Or perhaps the plane was just there, like much of its contents, like much prognostication on the future in general, for the sake of provocation and spectacle. BMW landed this flying time capsule in four cities around the world—Munich, New York, San Francisco, Beijing— to show off to its dealers, VIP customers, executives, and select media its vision for the direction it believes the automobile will take at the start of the next decade.
“This vehicle will be in showrooms in 2021,” says Klaus Fröhlich, BMW board member for technology and product development, during an interview near the front of the plane’s tubular capsule.
The vehicle he was speaking about stood amidships, on a rotating platform. A mid-size, SUV known as the Vision iNext, it had roughly the same sixteen-foot dimensions of the brand’s X5—its best-selling, premium, large SUV—but it was distinguished by a number of notable physical, mechanical, and technological features.
First, it is a fully electric vehicle, powered by the forthcoming, fifth-generation of BMW’s battery technology, which focuses on increasing power density—the amount of energy that can be stored in each cell—and thus reducing weight. This vehicle is expected to possess a range of over 360 miles.
Second, the vehicle has rather striking proportions. Because its four electric motors are placed at the wheels, it does not have an engine up front or a transmission tunnel running through its middle, so the hood is much shorter than it would be in a gasoline-powered vehicle, the floor inside is completely flat, and the cargo area that would ordinarily exist only at the rear can be shared with another “trunk” under the hood. The wheels can also be pushed to the car’s corners. All of this makes the passenger cabin far more expansive than it would typically be in an internal-combustion-engine vehicle of this size. The broad expanses of glass running the length of the vehicle add to this airiness.
Finally, the vehicle is meant to be self-driving, which means that not only is the traditional BMW dual kidney shape grille opening given over to a translucent tessellation of shapes that hides a host of RADAR, LIDAR, and camera sensors. It also means that the interior hosts a steering wheel retracts when it is not in use, a giant high-resolution centrally-mounted LCD screen that appropriates navigation destinations right from your linked smart-phone calendar, an artificially intelligent digital assistant that uses voice commands to navigate to (and even suggest) waypoints, and a lounge-like interior that, as BMW design director Adrian von Hooydonk says, “aims to be a desirable space to spend time in,” and “takes inspiration from what we find attractive in boutique hotels.”
This apparently means suede-d front seats and door panels the color of poached salmon, wooden floor and dash trim arrayed in abstract geometric parqueted patterns, a brightly lit and faceted “crystal bowl” storage container hidden under another marquette-d wood-trimmed “coffee table” between the two front seats, and a nubbly, variegated, turquoise jacquard fabric that cascades over the rear seats and into the floor, becoming more textured and polychromatic as it descends.
These interior materials host more standout features, as the “coffee table” and the cushion of the rear bench are impregnated with a matrix of LED fiber optic cables and touch-sensitive sensors that light up when touched. Known by the neologism “Shy Tech” for their appearance only when called up, they can be used to control things like the video feed on the central display, or the music playing through the onboard sound system.
BMW user experience designer Oliver Pitrat stumbles a bit trying to get the prototype system to work and to convince us of its coolness and utility. As he does, we are quick to point out that these same features are readily available, highly functional, and somewhat less likely to be accidentally activated simply by sitting down, via the sophisticated device we carry in our pockets, our smartphone. Oliver Pitrat is not amused by our insolence.
Our jest is just that, but it is also meant to poke at an industry known for splashily introducing options intended to make our life easier and more enjoyable, ones that run the gamut from the hyperbolic to the absurd—from the tiny, skip-prone, vinyl records played by a proprietary Chrysler sound system in the mid-20thCentury, to BMW’s own current gesture control system that attempts to replace the stereo volume knob with a twirling finger motion that wouldn’t be out of place in a third-grader’s mocking miming of semaphore.
Autonomous driving technology is another feature that has been long promised to arrive and to solve our human dilemmas. And at every step since the first prototypical systems were announced in the 1930s, it has been one that has been difficult to fulfill due to technological, regulatory, indemnification, and human behavioral hurdles. BMW, alone among long-term luxury automakers, has made significant and impressive inroads into creating and selling electric vehicles—the brand will have sold nearly 500,000 by the end of this decade. But its promises about autonomous driving have, like those throughout the industry, continued to miss unrealistic deadlines.
This new electric vehicle is interesting, and will soon join others from Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, and Jaguar right in the most popular segment of the contemporary automobile market, which hosts a seemingly insatiable hunger for SUVs. So it will be well positioned to make inroads in battery-powered adoption with mainstream consumers and may represent an important inflection point for the electric car. We hope that BMW can fulfill its other broad and intriguing promises, and that, when it does, the systems it brings to market are as useful and functional.