"Our cars will always have a steering wheel" – BMW talks autonomy and electrification
Autonomous vehicle development is hammering along at a rapid rate, but like many a fledgling technology, it seems to be raising more questions than answers. Everything we know about car design – both inside and out – is very much a work in progress. That means established brands need to inject their DNA into an entirely new type of car. Head of BMW i Product Management, Dr Alexander Kotouc, has some fascinating ideas about delivering "Sheer (Self) Driving Pleasure" in the electric and autonomous ages.
Dr. Kotouc is better qualified than most to speak about the future of the automobile. He was one of the original members of BMW i, and took a hands on role in delivering the i3 and i8. The division was founded with the goal of creating plug-in electric cars for the modern megacity, a project which saw the development of an electric 1 Series, Mini Cooper EVs and (eventually) the i3.
Investing in electric mobility seems like a sound decision now, but the jump was a huge deal for BMW in the mid-2000s. Battery power was seen as incompatible with a hard won reputation for silky six-cylinder engines, and higher-ups were reticent to pour money into developing tiny city cars.
Today, elements of the i division's work have found their way into most of the range. There are plug-in iPerformance hybrid 3 Series, 5 Series, 7 Series and X5 models in showrooms, not to mention the i3 and i8. These plug-in hybrids are currently a more practical alternative to fully electric power in some circumstances, with a 30 km (18.6 mi) battery range supplemented by a petrol engine. They make plenty of sense in places where covering long distances is a daily reality for commuters.
"We know there are customers who really need to go long range distances, and I would never recommend anybody to use the i3 if I know they're doing something like a 600 mile drive," says Dr Kotouc. "It doesn't make any sense because they need to stop too often, and they're really getting annoyed. With a plug-in hybrid you can cover [that distance] today, and the plug-in hybrids in the future will get better and better as well."
For the moment, plug-in hybrids make sense. There will come a point, though, where lithium-ion cells are "energy dense" enough to deliver 400-600 km of range from a compact, light package. BMW – along with all its main rivals – is banking on a major increase in demand bringing the cost of development down over the next decade.
"Our prognosis is that in the year 2025 there is a share of about 20 percent over the entire BMW Group," Dr Kotouc says. "If you now look at the numbers we're selling – this year we sold over 2 million BMWs – and [imagine] 20 percent of them are all electric, you can imagine the economies of scale are really going down when it comes to the battery prices."
"The basic question is always: how much battery do you put in the car?" he continues. It can be impossible to get coherent answers from some car companies, but Kotouc speaks freely and passionately about electric cars. It's refreshing. "My guess? I will never sell something like a 1,000 km electric car, because you're just adding weight and cost to the car that nobody needs. With better charging solutions and better charging infrastructure, my guess is something like 400 km real range is all you need."
Another major aspect of future mobility is autonomy, and BMW is planning to have the the self-driving iNext on the road in 2021. As the role of the driver is diminished, there are plenty of questions about what the car of the future might look like. Some semi-autonomous systems can already shoulder the driving load under certain conditions, but extending that capability to 100 percent of situations isn't feasible according to Dr. Kotouc.
"My guess is we will see this automatic driving firstly in secure environments," he explains. "Secure environments are like a freeway, a highway, a situation where you have long roads and different lanes, something like speed limits ... It really gets complicated when you leave a highway situation."
"If you ever drive in Bombay there are so many things going on the road, especially things we don't expect like donkeys and people selling stuff. If you see this [environment] and ask me 'when will we drive autonomously in Bombay?' my opinion is never," Dr. Kotouc says.
Instead, he envisions a setup where the human driver can take over in particularly tricky situations, before handing back to the car's electronics when they're able to handle the conditions. And that, in turn, provides an answer for one of the biggest questions about what the autonomous car of the future will look like: will there be a steering wheel?
"Our cars will always have a steering wheel," he says firmly. It might look totally different to what we're used to – and it might even fold away – but the ability to take the wheel will always be part of the experience if Kotouc's prediction holds true. He's also confident about the strength of the BMW brand as car sharing and mobility services continue to expand, arguing cars will always be a status symbol.
"Even if you have the best car sharing service, there will still always be people – including myself – who just want to own a car," he says. "This is not going away. It was there since the stone ages."