SAN FRANCISCO, California — A Boeing 777F—the most efficient cargo plane in the skies, several PR handlers declare proudly—sits behind a warehouse on the cargo side of San Francisco International Airport. Inside lies a semi-cylindrical version of an auto show stage and the BMW Vision iNEXT, which previews the future of all BMW technology, and the coming production version, which will be the marque’s technology flagship.
A moment’s glance confirms the Vision iNEXT is, in however, still very much a concept car. The doors are too thin, the greenhouse openings too large, and the fit and finish altogether too good to be suited for crash testing, rollover standards, or production cost requirements. That said, a BMW representative did tell us that the exterior design is “very close” to production, and that we should expect the production iNEXT to share as much resemblance with the Vision iNEXT as the original i8 shared with its concept. In other words, the iNEXT will definitely stand out on the road.
Power for the iNEXT, like all i-brand vehicles, will include electrification, including the fifth generation of BMW’s electric drive system. But the iNEXT isn’t a powertrain prototype; instead, it’s about what’s inside the cabin.
That cabin is dramatic, to say the least, and a significant departure from typical vehicle cabins. The front seats are fairly standard fare, though the integrated headrests on the passenger side can be bent backward to form a comfortable rest for conversation with rear-seat passengers. Those rear-seat passengers will be more tempted than ever to curl up and take a nap, as the back row is more like a couch than a typical bench seat. Upholstered in a chunky, textured fabric—the interior design of the iNEXT was inspired by high-end hotel room decor—the rear seat also features some of BMW’s biggest “wow factor” tech: Smart fabric that lights up when you touch it, and allows gesture-based control of infotainment and other systems. A similar hidden touch function lies just beneath the surface of the center console’s sleek wood cover, lighting up at the driver’s caress. BMW calls these hidden but available on-demand systems “shy tech,” a play on “high tech.”
We were able to test out the light-up touch surfaces for ourselves on some demonstration units BMW had setup beside the concept, and while the tech still has some way to go in terms of responsiveness and consistency, the experience is both intuitive and, perhaps more importantly, genuinely new, and futuristic-feeling.
The reason for the hotel-inspired interior design and the lounge-like rear seating area is that the BMW Vision iNEXT is designed as a full Level 3 autonomous vehicle. We spoke with BMW board of management member Klaus Fröhlich about the iNEXT’s self-driving intentions.
“This car will have a Level 3 system for every end customer,” said Fröhlich, “but it will be a very advanced Level 3 system, and it will also be capable of Level 4, but because regulation is so slow, I can’t guarantee I will be able to sell it to and end customer… But we will develop [Level 4 capability for the iNEXT] and have it ready for production, and if possible, we will produce it.”
Of course, the car business is a global business, and that means that the wave won’t break at the same time for everyone. “Today I can’t tell you where [a framework for advanced autonomous driving] will happen first. I personally think China will be the first, like with electro-mobility; they want it, they will make it possible, said Fröhlich. “Europe is very slow. You can see this even with our new Level 2 system, which is completely hands-off—in America and China. In Europe, I have to touch the steering wheel every few seconds.”
“For the Level 3 system, I’m interested that it can be used by you for most of your use cases,” said Fröhlich. “Level 3 is limited to divided roads. Our system will offer you that capability wherever there is a divider, on the highways or in the city, and will be able to drive in the rain and snow and mud at least 130 kph [81 mph] and can overtake.”
“It will have adaptable driving strategies, so that you feel safe. Because if you drive with different drivers, you feel safe or unsafe” depending on their driving styles, according to Fröhlich.
While autonomous driving will no doubt continue to be a headline-grabber (and a hot feature for those who can afford it), the iNEXT is also chock full of other fresh tech, like the Intelligent Beam system, which can recognize keys printed on the otherwise blank pages of a book, for instance, and project media, such as video, directly onto its pages—and to track the projection to stay on the page even as the book is moved around by the user. The Intelligent Beam system can even recognize when the user points to or touches a specific portion of the image, and can respond to that touch or gesture input.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is another buzzword that’s bandied with increasing abandon by brands in every segment of the economy, from smartphones to home entertainment to cars. And while it’s definitely buzz worthy, AI has yet to prove itself capable of delivering on its promise of natural, effortless human-machine interactions. BMW hopes its Personal Assistant AI will offer some of that proof, and plans to thread its voice-activated assistant throughout the iNEXT’s—and therefore, presumably, all of its cars’—systems, from infotainment to navigation and even to smart home control through BMW Connected.
So when will we be getting all of these flash new goodies? Not until 2021, when the production iNEXT arrives. The technology that debuts on the production iNEXT will then percolate throughout the BMW Group’s vehicles—including Rolls-Royce and Mini—over the ensuing several years.
The BMW Vision iNEXT and BMW’s plan for its near-to-medium-term halo technology are both bold statements, aiming to deliver a genuine sense of the future coming to pass before our very eyes. Not the washed out, over-hyped, ultimately disappointing future that’s delivered no Jetsons cars, no helpful androids, and no food materializers. No, the BMW Vision iNEXT is BMW’s plan to deliver the future we all hope for, or at the very least, a future that looks a lot more like it.