BMW’s Vision for 2036

100th birthday surprise provides tantalising clues to future technologies

JOHN CAREY

IS THE Vision Next 100 simply an example of Bavarian big-birthday self-indulgence?

This concept car was the star of a party thrown in Munich on March 7 this year, exactly 100 years after the BMW name was first registered. The hour-long spectacle was staged inside the hall built for the 1972 Olympics, near BMW’s headquarters.

While the museums of BMW Group’s other brands were raided to provide a rumbling chorus-line of wheeled talent, the Vision Next 100 was the only car wearing the blue-and-white roundel. The company’s leadership obviously wanted to emphasise a point; that BMW is a carmaker more interested in thinking about the future than the past.

From my seat in Munich’s Olympic Hall, the concept could have been a prop for a big stage show, but that impression was erased the following day, listening to the car’s creators.

The concept is the result of deep and serious thought about how the car is likely to evolve in the next 20 years. A lot can happen in two decades, and the Vision Next 100 makes it plain BMW thinks the changes will be massive. No one from BMW would say how in theory the concept might be powered, but the absence of an exhaust pipe betrays a belief it won’t be internal combustion.

BMW Automobiles design chief Karim Habib said the Next 100 is as long as a 5 Series, but with the interior space of a longwheelbase 7 Series. There are four fixed-position seats, with the rear pair integral to the body and engineered to provide enough structural strength that no B-pillar is needed.

And the car’s sleek, low-drag shape and fully enclosed wheels point to BMW’s conviction there will be no let-up in the pressure to improve automotive efficiency.

But the Vision Next 100’s most ambitious objective is to present a persuasive preview of how car and driver might interact in the year 2036. Autonomy is a given, but BMW can also imagine tapping the processing power and connectedness that come with it to give a flesh-and-blood buyer driving superpowers.

“Autonomous driving is much talked about, but at the same time the pleasure in driving is very important to BMW,” said Holger Hampf, head of customer experience design. “And we will not give up on that.”

Screen time

“We’re currently on an upward path of larger displays, more pixels, and it’s a fierce competition as to who has the largest information surfaces in the car,” says customer experience chief Holger Hampf. “There is actually one very large display in this car, and that is the windshield itself.”

The aim is not to provide too much information, Hampf explains. And the screen could be used to augment what the driver sees. “When the car recognises a person, a pedestrian, another car, a bike or a building, it might project analogue display information right on the object itself.”

In charge of filtering the data flowing to the windscreen is something BMW calls the Companion. It’s able to play rally co-driver or personal assistant, depending on the driving mode selected.

How close is such technology to real-world readiness?

“Sensor technology is developing very fast,” says Hampf.

Covered wheels

More than anything else, it’s the fully covered wheels of the Vision Next 100 that shout ‘future car’. Made from interlocking pieces of carbonfibre, the car’s wheel coverings are physically attached to the axles, but flex and extend to permit suspension and steering movement. BMW calls it Alive Geometry.

“This is, in my opinion, the most spectacular part of the car,” says design chief Karim Habib. They’re made using 3D manufacturing technology and contribute to a stunningly low 0.18 drag co-efficient.

Habib sees BMW’s traditional grille evolving into a kind of corral for autonomous driving sensors and cameras. “We felt that if we don’t need an air intake, the kidney is probably the best area to do that.”