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BMW Wants to Be Your Mobility Partner for a Lifetime

The brand had a big symposium on its future. We were there, and this is what you need to know.

At the big, single-marque #Next/Gen symposium in Munich, BMW chief Harald Krüger touted a pile of new-vehicle premieres, including the new 8 Series Gran Coupe, the 3 Series wagon and 1 Series hatchback we won’t get, and two concepts, the Vision M Next carbon-fiber hybrid supercar and the electric Motorrad Vision DC Roadster motorcycle. Throughout the press day at the BMW Zentrum a couple of blocks from the automaker’s iconic cylinder-shaped headquarters, execs expressed confidence they know what the future of transportation and mobility is about.

The company’s takeaway is that BMW is a key architect of the future.

But the German auto industry is in no position to be optimistic about its future these days. As if the threat of U.S. tariffs and the U.K.’s looming Brexit weren’t enough, German chancellor Angela Merkel earlier in the week met with Krüger and the heads of Daimler AG and Volkswagen AG to push them to produce battery cells in the country for electric vehicles. Krüger balked at the idea according to news reports, while rival Daimler issued its third quarterly earnings warning in a row over an ongoing European Union investigation into Mercedes-Benz diesel certification “issues.” (Yes, Mercedes-Benz is mired in a European Union diesel scandal that rivals Volkswagen of America’s U.S. dieselgate.)

Krüger, who said in opening the #Next/Gen proceedings with former Sky News television news reader Emma Crosby that he thinks about climate change every day in his role as an automaker’s CEO. He also quickly added, “To make it crystal clear, we did not cheat on the diesel engines.”

Aside from the lack of Merkel-Krüger comity earlier this week, then, BMW’s #Next/Gen was very much about a bright premium mobility future. Here are a few key takeaways from BMW’s presentation…

EVs are still a hard sell. “Europe is behind in terms of [electric charging] infrastructure,” Krüger said at a roundtable press conference. He had said earlier that BMW would pull forward by two years, to 2023, its plans to market 25 electrified models, which means hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EVs. “China is growing the infrastructure for charging much faster than Europe. This is one of the discussions we had yesterday with the German chancellor. So infrastructure must be in place and not just in the big cities. I studied in Ohio. If you go through the countryside of Ohio, you will not find many charging stations. That’s why the plug-in hybrid can be a solution.”

Already, competitors including Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, and Ford have warned of significantly lower profits in coming years as they invest in EVs and autonomous vehicles, and BMW is no exception. One simply cannot sell enough pickup trucks or luxe SUVs to overcome the costs of clearing the air with EVs as you’re trying to make more of them. But the demands of China, the world’s largest auto market, makes such investment required.

The good news for BMW is that Krüger expects EV development costs to come down rather quickly. “The assumption is that by 2025, it will come to a balance in equal costs. Because for the conventional powertrain, the cost is going to be exhaust systems and all the emissions systems are increasing, and then it depends on the material costs for the battery, for sure.”

Krüger also announced that BMW can make electric motors without using expensive rare-earth materials. The downside is that we’re six years from Krüger’s expected internal-combustion/EV equity, and the news follows six years of reliable automaker profits following the financial and sales struggles of the last recession.

BMW unveiled a new sound for electric vehicles, composed by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer is known for numerous big-screen soundtracks, including Dunkirk, Frost/Nixon, The Last Samurai, Thelma & Louise, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Days of Thunder, and more.

It also showed the 711-hp BMW Project BEV. This is a three-motor, 711-hp, 849-lb-ft 5 Series EV. The mid-size sport sedan has 111 more horsepower than the M5 from that car’s twin-turbo V-8, as well as and a claimed sub-three-second zero-to-62-mph time. Plus, of course, active torque vectoring. The sooner BMW can get this Green Monster to market, assuming its range would rival the Tesla S’s, the sooner the Bavarian automaker can catch up on clean emissions with rivals like Mercedes-Benz and GM.

The Ultimate Self-Driving Machine. Autonomy and EVs go together like peanut butter and jelly, though BMW’s short Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4 demonstrations involved gasoline-fueled internal-combustion models. We first rode in a Level 4 BMW 7 Series robotaxi around a short course within the Zentrum’s perimeter parking area. Otherwise stock in appearance, the 7 wheeled us around the lot and then parked itself, courtesy of five lidar units, eight cameras, and nine long- and short-range radars.

The Level 2 demo involved a short drive in the city streets around the Zentrum in a 3 Series with BMW’s next-gen adaptive cruise control. It uses a combo of cameras and mapping to read stoplights and allow foot-free driving in urban areas. This is an extension of the increasingly popular full-stop adaptive cruise, which usually allows no more than three seconds of full stop before the driver has to engage the throttle pedal. The system also sets highway cruise control to comply with the local limits at speeds of up to 210 kph (130 mph). While the latest 3 Series architecture has the hardware basis for this system, local and regional laws will dictate when, or if, certain markets will be able to enjoy the technology.

The same is true for BMW’s Level 3 autonomous technology, which will be ready in calendar year 2021 and will be tested in urban pilot fleets and ride-sharing programs. It remains to be seen whether the laws in any jurisdictions will allow it in the U.S. that early. Level 3 means BMW drivers can divert their attention from the road on highways and freeways, a step beyond Cadillac’s current state-of-the-art Level 2 Super Cruise. While the driver doesn’t have to watch the road, he or she retains control of the car.

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Sharing our (premium) cars while diversifying our mobility choices. BMW Group’s Designworks, established in California in 1972, showed off the prototype for an autonomous, hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered helicopter to be tested “any day now.” BMW is “not directly involved” in the Boston-based start-up, but Designworks penned the clean, modern-looking conveyance with space for four passengers plus a pilot (or for a decent amount of Amazon delivery cargo). It lands and takes off vertically, and can be operated by a pilot, a ground pilot, or fully autonomously, with six rotors and redundant safety systems.

Skai, the firm responsible for building it, promises the copter is “accessible to everyone,” though it’s hard to see this clean, safe machine becoming a part of anyone’s mass-transportation system.

Similarly, BMW Group also touted its participation in the Car2Go European car-sharing program, which it has joined in collaboration with archrival Mercedes-Benz. The Car2Go deal allows BMW and Mini “early contact with future customers,” Krüger said, including “some customers who will never buy a BMW or Mini,” but will be happy to drive either if they pay a flat rate.

BMW is confident that car-sharing and pilot programs in other areas of future mobility are paving a profitable future for itself in the coming years, but like other premium and luxury brands that have experimented with car-subscription services, in the U.S. at least, it’s still grappling with the problem of how to keep enough diverse vehicles in its subscription fleet without diluting its residual values. Neither BMW nor its rivals seem to have any clue of how this electric car-sharing last-mile autonomy future is going to work out, other than the probability that its future services, like its products, will be market-positioned at a premium price. The future of individual mobility according to this program is that it is synonymous with premium mobility; that even though BMW is significantly smaller than most of its rivals, it has as bright a future in this premium transportation-service paradigm; and that current Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, and Hyundai drivers are future mass-transit commuters.

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