This is the self-driving electric BMW of the future

Meet the BMW Vision iNext
by Paul Horrell | Sep 16, 2018

Is it just a show car?

Squint beyond the concept-car flourishes, and this is the autonomous, electric BMW crossover for the road ahead. The production version, BMW says, will happen in 2021.

They’re calling this “your favorite space”. A bit of a swerve from “the ultimate driving machine”, eh? It’s all about the cabin, the cocoon. Most of all, about the way autonomous and connected travel should give you the most precious luxury of all: more time.

As we’ll see, BMW’s claims of fully autonomous capability aren’t for all roads all the time, not in 2021. Even so, given it’ll be competent enough to take over on expressway stretches or busy suburban arterials, it seems likely it could indeed net you a whole lot of new me-time. Or us-time with your passengers.

Talk me through the design…

BMW i design chief Domagoj Dukec stresses, “Technology must be a human experience. Design enables this. It’s a human necessity to have a favourite space. This car can drive autonomously so you must trust the technology.”

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But just to remind you it’s trustworthy, it’s got the hard shell of a crossover. Or maybe that just reminds you it’ll be a shield even when the autonomy fails. Anyway.

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“It’s bold, but the simple surfaces and fading paint [coppery at the front, rose-gold behind] make it gentle. With the thin pillars it’s like a tree house on wheels.” Well that sure makes a change from the usual ‘looks like it’s moving when it’s standing still’ car-designer cliches.

At the front the double-kidney grille is enormous, and its two halves are siamesed together. So not a double-kidney…and not actually a grille. Electric cars don’t need so much cooling, but they do need low-drag surfaces. So it’s a smooth panel. This car also needs a big clean surface through which it can aim the beams and sensors for autonomous driving. There’s the new job description for the ‘grille’.

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Lots of tech inside?

Inside, says Dukec, “Different rooms have different characters, like home.” So the front is a buff suede, the rear a blue woven jacquard. The seats curve unbroken into the doors.

Technology washes around the whole cabin, but its controls don’t impinge on the louche look of the furniture. Strictly no knobs or buttons then; the interfaces are hidden. And they’ve a fab new coinage for that: “shy-tech”.

For instance, in the rear, backlit LEDs embedded below the upholstery surface illuminate to trace your fingertip strokes across the cloth. Draw a quaver to activate the stereo, then swipe to change tracks, or pinch to alter the volume. That veneered coffee-table console in the front is also sensitive. A projector is hidden in the rear headlining, able to sense and direct images onto surfaces you move around the cabin.

Will it still drive like a BMW?

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As with other recent BMW concepts, the iNext gives the person at the wheel, the part-time driver, a choice of two modes. ‘Ease’ is the autonomous one. The steering wheel and pedals retract, and the dash screens are given over to entertainment. The head restraints fold to promote conversation between the front and back. Switch to ‘boost’ mode and the wheel and pedals come back out.

BMW’s head of R&D, Klaus Fröhlich, says DIY driving will always matter in this as in all the firm’s cars. “The driver-oriented interior is still at its center. We invented that.”
Either way, the electric drive serves up a range of 644-odd kilometers. Come to think of it, probably the human, by having more fun, would go less far.

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