Vision iNext previews BMW's fast-approaching autonomous future
The future continues to rush at us at with abandon. Today, BMW's Vision iNext concept is a wild fantasy that looks quite unlike any production car we've seen previously. But in just three years' time, the production version will emerge as the first highly automated BMW to hit roadways. This strange, otherworldly concept provides a look into the crystal ball of how electrification, autonomy and connectivity will interweave to shape the near and distant future of automotive design.
BMW has been discussing the iNext program for several years now, and the Vision iNext concept reiterates its plan to bring an autonomous car to market by 2021, which is when it will begin manufacturing the production iNext at its Dingolfing plant. The iNext concept is an early look at BMW "driving pleasure" within an all-electric, autonomous framework.
BMW stresses that people will continue to be central to vehicle development, even when they aren't necessarily responsible for driving. That centricity may no longer take the form of a driver-focused cockpit and sharp handling, as focus shifts naturally toward a comfortable interior environment optimized for giving all passengers everything they need to use their free time as they see fit.
"The possibilities opened up by autonomous driving and ever-expanding connectivity enable a whole new range of experiences and ways of shaping a journey," explains Klaus Fröhlich, a member of BMW's board of management. "With this in mind, we have designed the all-electric BMW Vision iNEXT as a mobile environment that enhances quality of life, a new 'Favorite Space' in which we can be ourselves and relax."
That "favorite space" makes for a rather weird and unique interior, where the rear houses a flowing, amorphous two-person bench that erases the usual delineation between individual seats, controls, door panels, etc. Trimmed fully in "enlightened cloudburst" jacquard cloth, the wraparound rear lounge provides a comfy area to relax. Touch controls are integrated subtly into the cloth of the bench, replacing physical control hardware for a more seamless, passenger-focused environment.
This strategy of covert controls – "shy tech," as BMW calls it – continues up front, where only the steering wheel, digital instrument panel and infotainment widescreen stand in as dedicated automotive controls/information centers – no climate control hardware, touch controllers or audio knobs to be found. BMW imagines the wood center console serving as a simpler, prettier version of the iDrive Controller, providing touch-based input and system control. Even the electronic drive pedals are rather subtle and low-profile.
BMW imagines "Intelligent Beam" technology further eliminating reliance on dedicated hardware, effectively turning interior surfaces into infotainment displays. As demonstrated on the Vision iNext, this technology also works to enhance leisure time, providing both soft reading light and projecting multimedia enhancements onto the pages of a book, bringing content to life with images, animations and interactive graphics.
The Vision iNext's Intelligent Personal Assistant is another component in the light, minimalist interface. Activated by a simple utterance of "Hey BMW," the digital assistant connects occupants not only to vehicle systems, but also to the cloud, smart devices and smart home systems.
While the Vision iNext's physical hardware suite is almost non-existent, BMW has already promised not to eliminate the steering wheel, and this preview of its first production autonomous car follows through on that. The Vision iNext incorporates both a dynamic, human-based "Boost" mode and a fully autonomous "Ease" mode. "Boost" mode relies on the driver to take the wheel and lets the electric powertrain loose in delivering a more dynamic ride. "Ease" mode opens up the cockpit by pulling the steering wheel back a bit, giving the driver space to use the commute time to relax, interact with other passengers, work or enjoy digital entertainment.
On the iNext exterior, BMW presents a larger, broader interpretation of the design language it showed on last year's all-electric i Vision Dynamics gran coupe, showing how that futuristic language could be applied to a sporty, compact SUV (or SAV – sports activity vehicle, as BMW continues to insist upon). The face shares some critical elements with the i Vision Dynamics, including thin headlamps, an illuminated, interlinked kidney grille with a taller, more angular look than current BMW production cars, and intake slits out at the edges. BMW further evolves the styling with a 3D-printed grille pattern over top intelligent sensors below and airflow-promoting indents at the insides of the left and right intakes.
From the side, the iNext shows a muscular profile with big, flat-faced fenders, a long wheelbase, short overhangs, a long, sloped roofline and large, 24-in aero-optimized wheels. The B-pillar-less construction allows for the coach doors to swing rearward, while the front doors open conventionally, all operated by illuminated touch controls in place of handles.
BMW designers have done some extra sculpting at the rear, giving the iNext a strong center with razor-thin taillights, a jutting bumper area with illuminated diffuser, and a sturdy windshield under the generous umbrella of the rear roof spoiler. The "liquid greyrose copper" paint lends a distinct appearance and hints subtly at the electric powertrain at work below.
Of that powertrain, BMW says remarkably little, except to verify that it's all-electric. The Vision iNext, therefore, stands more as an experiment in exterior styling and interior design and technology. The concept will surely play a role in the design of the 2021 production car, but we imagine the finalized model will be toned down quite a bit when it arrives, particularly in terms of its interior.
Leading up to that launch, the ongoing iNext project will give us an all-electric Mini in 2019 and a production iX3 in 2020. By 2025, the BMW Group intends to have 12 all-electric vehicles among a total of 25 electrified models on offer.
Unlike a number of automakers that will be skipping this year's Paris Motor Show, BMW plans to be there. It went in quite a different direction with the Vision iNext debut experience, however, partnering up with German freight airline Lufthansa Cargo in revealing the concept car inside a Boeing 777F cargo plane. After presenting the car to journalists in one city, the plane took off for the next location and did it all over again, touching down in Munich, New York, San Francisco and Beijing. The multi-city reveal event started on September 9 and lasted five days before the plane landed back home in Frankfurt, Germany.