BMW looks to the future with shape-shifting Vision Next 100 concept

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The BMW Vision Next 100 concept looks forward to the features of tomorrow's autonomous car(Credit: BMW Group)

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BMW's Vision Next 100 concept car might look like someone came to the tires and got a bit confused, but there is definite method to what seems like automotive madness. Developed as a celebration of the BMW Group's centenary, the Vision Next 100 is the company's attempt to take a long-term look at what the car of tomorrow might look like after autonomous drive technology has fundamentally changed automotive design.

The Vision Next 100 made its world debut at the BMW Group Centenary Event in the Munich Olympic Hall on March 7 to mark 100 years since the company first appeared on the commercial register. According to the designers, the idea behind the vehicle isn't just to spur the imagination, but to create a car that anticipates a time when self-driving cars are a mature technology, city streets are more crowded, time is a premium commodity, and connectivity and interactive technology has been freed from the confines of the dashboard display.

The Vision also reflects the growing desire by consumers for bespoke products. In recent years, advances in technology have allowed people to order all sorts of personalized goods and many digital devices can learn from their owner's behavior and adapt to accommodate it.

The same idea is behind the design brief for the Vision Next 100. According to BMW, the concept is able to alter itself to meet the driver's desires and habits, not just in terms of tweaking the suspension or switching off the traction control, but in physically altering the car itself on the go and anticipating and even improving the driver's performance.

BMW says that the styling of the Vision Next 100 was meant to reconcile the petrolhead and the comfort-loving with "blend of coupé-type sportiness and the dynamic elegance of a sedan." Its dimensions are those of a compact, but the interior is that of a luxury BMW sedan. It also has a copper color scheme that the designers say symbolizes the connection between the driver and the technology.

For easy access, the scissor wing doors open automatically and the steering column retracts into the dash thanks to sensors that recognize the driver as they approach. Pressing the BMW logo on the dashboard closes the door and extends the column again.

However, the most striking visual cue for the Vision Next 100 are what appears like fender skirts on steroids. BMW assures us that the wheels are there, but they're hidden underneath a sort of intelligent mesh of triangles that shift and change the shape of the body as the wheels turn to help cut down the drag coefficient to 0.18.

This shape-shifting architecture blends in with BMW's goal of making the Vision Next 100 a showcase for potential interactive technologies. A major example of this is the concept's ability to switch between full autonomous mode, called "Ease," and a more driver-centered mode called "Boost."

In Boost, the Vision Next 100 configures itself around the driver as they take control of the vehicle. This isn't just tweaking some settings. Instead, the steering wheel and seat shifts and the vehicle itself morphs to indicate the ideal driving line, steering point and speed, and the center console angles itself toward the driver. In addition, the driver can interact with the car by means of gesture control.

In Ease, the concept car alters itself for full autonomous mode. The sees the steering wheel and center console retract, the headrests turn sideways, and the seats and door trim merge into each other. This allows the driver and passengers to face one another and relax as the car takes over the task of handling the commute or long road trips. In addition, the head-up display switches to personalized content and entertainment, and augmented displays highlight the passing scenery.

The Vision Next 100 even has its own digital majordomo called the Companion, which uses sensors and artificial intelligence to study the driver and help to both improve their skills and adjust the car to their preferences. Over time, it can even anticipate and take over routine tasks, leaving the driver to higher level decisions. Represented by a small, gem-like element next to the windscreen, the Companion lies flat in the dash when not fully active, but rises up in Ease mode to not only display data, but to act as a light-up warning on the front of the vehicle to pedestrians that the Vision is under full autonomous control.

BMW says the Vision Next 100 also toys with the idea of getting rid of displays entirely by merging the digital and the physical. Instead of a dedicated control panel or a small head-up display, the concept uses the entire windscreen as one giant display of road and weather information as well as an augmented reality display.

Additionally, the car uses what is called Alive Geometry, which presents analog cues in the car itself. This system consists of 800 moving triangles in the dashboard and side panels that shift like a flock of birds in flight to provide visual cues to the driver and passengers as to what the car is doing. For example, in Boost mode the Alive Geometry highlights the ideal driving line and warns of oncoming vehicles, while in Ease mode the feature moves more discretely to warn the passengers about turns, acceleration, and braking.

The Vision Next 100 is scheduled to go on a world tour with appearances in the United States, Britain, and China before stopping at the BMW Festival in Munich in September.

The video below discusses the design of the Vision Next 100 concept.

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