By Jaclyn Trop
September 21, 2018

Automakers agree that cars one day will be electric, autonomous, and easily shareable. What that looks like is less clear.

This week, BMW presented its Vision iNext concept, an avant-garde model meant to serve as a guidepost for generations of its self-driving vehicles. The car traveled to four cities – Munich, New York, San Francisco, and Beijing – in five days in the belly of Lufthansa cargo plane, revealing a living room-themed interior bolder than any near-term concept shown by a major automaker.

Rather than control functions through buttons and touchscreens, iNext uses what its designers call “shy technology” – digital capability built into wood, cloth, and other surfaces. For example, passengers can operate the infotainment system by tracing symbols with their fingers into the handwoven Jacquard cloth upholstery that covers the seats and side panels.

Harnessing artificial intelligence and connected technology, the car’s occupants can “use it in completely different ways than just driving it,” Klaus Fröhlich, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Development, said during the concept’s New York reveal inside a cargo plane at John F. Kennedy Airport on Monday.

BMW will launch a production version of iNext, a battery-powered crossover similarly-sized to its X5 mid-size utility vehicle, in 2021. It will be the first vehicle to feature autonomous technology developed with Intel, Mobileye, Continental and Magna. “The traditional automobile has definitely turned into a smart car,” said Fröhlich. “We want to be a leader in this field, too.” But it’s difficult to say how much of the technology embedded in the Vision iNext concept will wind up in the production model.

The iNext, which fit into the blue plush-carpeted Boeing 777F with room to spare, showed utility vehicle-like proportions, sleek body panels without creases or handles and paintwork that faded from dark rose to warm copper. Sensors embedded in BMW’s traditional kidney-shaped grille will help the car steer itself.

Designers used high-end living rooms and boutique hotels as the inspiration for the interior, said Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW Group’s senior vice president of design. “We wanted to do a design that was warm and welcoming,” he said. Rolls Royce-style coach doors swing open from the center to reveal a living room configuration, with a wooden coffee table in place of a center console and a four-person couch for a back row. A flat, free-floating display screen looks like a television, while the use of hardwood flooring in front and carpet in the back aims to evoke separate rooms in an apartment.

Continuing the theme of creating respite from the outside world, the iNext uses fewer screens than even cars on the road today. Using “smart material,” like sensors beneath the optic fibers in the jacquard, BMW said it aspires to allow passengers to control the car’s audio, climate, and AI functions every place their hand can reach. “We want this technology to be visible only when you use it,” van Hooydonk said. For example, rear seat passengers can trace their index finger in a circle along the upholstery to start the audio system and tap three fingertips to stop it.

A concept BMW calls “intelligent projection” turns any surface into an interactive display, projecting movies, books, photo libraries and even a virtual keyboard that can type and write emails by detecting the user’s finger position. Though the technology exists, managing the size and strength of the beam and road vibration mean that this feature likely won’t be ready for the first-generation production model, according to Olivier Pitrat, senior user interface designer at BMW.

“The industry is exploring the use of different materials around and inside the car,” “Conductive seat material as an input is definitely further out on the timeline than something like voice or gesture recognition which are beginning to appear in more vehicles today,” said Jeremy Carlson, an analyst at IHS Markit, “but it would be premature to rule out conductive surfaces completely as a possible new input mode.”

iNext, which will use the automaker’s fifth-generation electric drivetrain and batteries, will be positioned as a luxury electric car with semi-autonomous driving capabilities, a Tesla challenger. BMW is investing heavily in electrified models, planning to offer 25 hybrid and electric vehicles by 2025. But market share is far from guaranteed. This month, Mercedes-Benz and Audi debuted their first full electric vehicles, Mercedes-Benz EQ C and Audi e-Tron, for the 2019 model year.

However, the iNext gives BMW a head start in working with higher-level autonomous systems, said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. “Designing the vehicle to allow for different levels of autonomous technology is wise because the timing on fully-capable self-driving cars remains uncertain,” Brauer said. “It can enter the market now and still be viable when full-autonomous cars are fully vetted.”

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