BMW iNext Concept: Electrification, Self-Driving, and Style
BMW’s Vision iNext concept car lays out the company’s future direction three years down the road. Most of all, the passenger vehicles that draw from iNext will be self-driving. They’ll be electrified. And the cockpit will be as open as possible so passengers can turn to face the others when conversing with each other, which suggests BMW has confidence it will have Level 4 autonomy, or full self-driving along a select set of roads — most likely interstates and limited access, divided-highway state roads.
Nary a cupholder or USB jack is in sight. Nor seat belts for that matter, because it’s a concept car. Nor side mirrors. The exotic shape with 24-inch rims and suicide doors is subject to change, of course. The rest is BMW’s stamp on how it sees the very near future, in the shape of a crossover or compact SUV, not a midsize sedan.
The cockpit floor is perfectly flat with not even a vestigial hump running front to back. When it’s not needed, the steering wheel retracts into the dashboard, and the accelerator and brake pedals, flat rectangles of wood, slide back into the firewall.
Rather than a center console that would do useful things such as hold all the crap drivers and passengers carry along, it’s more like a miniature ironing board made of fine woods and fabrics. This is where you see the boutique hotel inspiration BMW talks about. The front of the board has sensors so you can touch, scroll or finger-write to communicate with the car. There’d also be voice input. Rather than let Apple control BMW’s life — not a chance, as BMW currently nicks you $ 300 to use Siri in a BMW, and soon it’s going to charge an annual fee — you can talk to the car with BMW’s own command set and recognizer. Wake it by saying, “Hey, BMW.” BMW envisions its voice system being used in the house, on your TV, maybe on phones. Apparently, BMW is taking the Apple-builds-a-car thing seriously, whether it happens or not.
Big, comfy rear seat feels like a rug (a nice rug) molded over foam padding. It’s like the furniture at a boutique hotel. Overhead is Intelligent Beam, a projector that would take a blank-page book in your hand and overlay a story and text. It could also project onto a seat back.
With the iNex, BMW also paid homage to the early Ford Thunderbird and its wraparound seats. The T-Bird tech got as far as sequential rear turn signals. The iNext has touch sensitive areas embedded into the seat, plus LEDs. BMW calls it “shy tech,” meaning it’s there, but not in your face. Swipe, draw, spell, or tap to issue commands. Overhead is a projector that can overlay the type and images from a book onto one with plain pages, using the projector along the roof. The back seat is covered by padding and a heavy, carpet-like jacquard fabric, meaning the pattern is part of the fabric, not dyed or printed on. Those in the back can touch a central part of the fabric to communicate and LEDs embedded inside respond by forming shapes.
Vision iNext has a long nose, huge tires (mandatory for today’s concept cars), and minimal rear side glass.
Autonomy by 2021 at Some Level
BMW says the production car that stems from the iNext concept will be self-driving. According to Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s director or R&D, that would be either Level 3 or Level 4, depending on what is allowed by the regulators and legislatures of individual countries. On a scale of 1 to 5, Level 3 means autonomy on certain roads but the driver would need to be able to take over after a brief warning. The driver would not be able to take advantage of turning and chatting with passengers because the handoff might be just a couple seconds; he or she could not take a nap.
Some automakers say they’d skip from Level 2, what many cars have today, such as Nissan Pro Pilot Assist, straight to Level 4. Level 4 is a lot more capable. The car drives itself fully on certain roads, most likely interstates and other limited access roads. The handoff would be well in advance, most likely when returning to local roads. If BMW can make Level 4 happen, and Fröhlich says BMW can, then the premise of iNext is close to reality.
According to a BMW interview with Car and Driver, the iNext or the car that evolves from iNext would be capable of 0-60 in 4 seconds and would have 600 km of range, or 373 miles.