What would you do if your boss said, “Go off and do something extraordinary, and I don’t want to see it until it’s done”? That’s basically what BMW Group leadership said to its vehicle design teams for BMW, Mini, and Rolls-Royce.
The bosses wanted to see a vision of the future from each of the group’s automotive brands (the BMW Motorrad motorcycle division has one in the works as well), and, boy, did they ever get it.
“With these cars, we said, ‘Go and make your dream come true,’ ” BMW AG board member Ian Robertson told a round table I attended shortly after the reveal of the Rolls-Royce and Mini Vision Next 100 concepts in London. “It’s your choice; it’s your design.”
Part of BMW’s centenary celebration, the Vision Next concepts were conceived as a way for each brand to develop a vehicle featuring emerging technologies and propulsion systems beyond the internal combustion engine. In other words, these are the cars the brands would create if freed from the constraints of today’s vehicle designs. “All of these vehicles have common threads to them,” Robertson said. “They’re all zero-emissions, they are all going to use artificial intelligence, they are all going to be digitally connected, and they are all going to serve your individual needs.”
Earlier this year in Munich, BMW revealed a sleek, copper-colored sedan with a fascinating tech it calls Alive Geometry. Utilizing 800 triangles that morph inside the car, the system can direct the driver to the optimum line into a curve, for example. The BMW of the future can be driven hard when you want (Boost) and put on autopilot when you don’t (Ease).
But the stars of the show at London’s world-famous Roundhouse were the offerings from Mini and Rolls-Royce—a fitting venue for the reveals from the storied British brands.
First up was the Mini, with its impossibly short front and rear overhangs, a see-through front end with no instrument panel, and a wheel and pedals that can move from side to side. Like the BMW, the Mini of the future is positioned as a driver’s car when you want it to be.
At the center of it all is the Cooperizer, a concept Mini chief designer Anders Warming calls “the heart of the Mini of the future,” adding “it develops a relationship with you.” The thought is that Mini could be positioned as a ride-sharing option, and through the Cooperizer, your personal details and preferences would transfer to the car you’re using, essentially making it your own.
As for the Rolls-Royce concept, presence is the operative word. “We had a blank sheet, and they said go be visionary. You can’t have that chance and not do something extraordinary,” Rolls’ design director, Giles Taylor, said of his team’s creation.
Although about the same length and height as a long-wheelbase Phantom, it seems magnitudes more massive, with its catamaran-style hull designed to optimize aerodynamics, a hood as long as a formal banquet table, gleaming 26-inch, 64-piece wheels housed in pontoon-style fenders, and a Jetsons-style occupant canopy that swings up as the coach door opens, allowing passengers to stand up and walk out of the vehicle.
The Rolls of tomorrow will drive you autonomously (of course it will), is propelled by an immensely powerful electric drive system, has a silk-shod couch for you to lounge on, and comes with Eleanor on board, an OLED virtual representation of the Spirit of Ecstasy who’s your butler and chauffeur in one—bad news for real butlers and chauffeurs.
One of the most intriguing blue-sky ideas around the Rolls is that customers in the future might be able to influence a vehicle’s exterior design, a true coachbuilt approach, thanks to advances in construction techniques and the lessening of crash regulations when autonomy takes over. Robertson, for one, was blown away. “I remember sitting in the design studio when the Rolls-Royce rolled into the room, and it was a quiet moment, an OMG moment. But when you look at it, and look at it again—yeah, I can see how this can work.”
There have been plenty of OMGs, LOLs, and WTFs in the online comments about the Rolls. It’s garnered a tremendous amount of interest and feedback, good, bad, and otherwise. That’s to be expected for a concept as daring as it is.
“The idea of any design is that, without a badge, it looks like what it should be. And the Rolls-Royce couldn’t be anything else, the Mini couldn’t be anything else, the BMW couldn’t be anything else,” Robertson said.
And that’s really the point of this exercise in the end. Whether it’s 20 years from now or 200, maintaining the essence of what makes the brands unique will be the key to securing their futures, no matter the technological paths they take along the way.