BMW’s Crystal Ball (Alexander Kotouc & Nils Uellendahl)

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“The design of cars will change more now than they have over the past 100 years, so it’s exciting times ahead,” says Alexander Kotouc, Head of Product Management at BMW i, the company’s electric sub-brand. 

While a car from 2018 obviously looks very different to one from 1918, it’s not hard to see his point – the way a car operates has indeed stayed relatively consistent. Cars still require a person’s full attention to make it go, and regularly have to be filled with a combustible liquid to keep going. Though the basic concept has been refined with advancements that make travelling faster, safer and more comfortable, it’s still the same concept nonetheless. 

In the future though, the advancement of electric propulsion and autonomous tech will greatly change the way we interact with cars. This is what CarBuyer learned in separate interviews with Dr Kotouc as well as Nils Uellendahl, Design Director at Designworks, a design consultancy that’s part of the BMW Group.

“It’s clear to us that the future in the BMW Group is going to be electric. At the Frankfurt Motorshow 2017 you saw the i4 concept (actually the i Vision Dynamics, a 3 Series-sized saloon which will become the i4), and in Beijing this year we showed the iX3, both due in 2020 or 2021,” Dr Kotouc said. “By year 2025 you will see 25 electrified concepts by BMW Group, 12 of them will be fully electric, and the rest will be plug-in hybrids.”

Of course, BMW isn’t the only company with electric dreams; most major manufacturers worldwide have their own plans too. But one major hurdle that needs addressing is the issue of charging. A regular petrol pump can be utilised by any car, but EVs can’t use any old charger if their manufacturers choose to use different charging standards – a problem anyone travelling abroad knows about.

To that end, BMW is working alongside other German companies (Daimler AG, Volkswagen Group, Ford of Europe) to set up a standardised charging network across Europe, called Ionity, and other brands are welcome to join the project.

Fusion x64

Autonomous driving goes hand in hand with electromobility, which is why Dr Kotouc elaborates, “A much bigger thing, is that in 4 to 5 years we will launch the first cars with level 3 automated driving technology, where for example the highway from the airport into town can be driven autonomously, no problem at all. You can spend the time watching a video or answering emails, instead of watching the road.”

As electrified vehicles become more common though, another problem arises, where drivers have to compete for the finite charging stations at any given location – how do you let everyone have a chance to use the chargers without forcing owners to return to their cars to move them away? 

Again, automated tech might have an answer. “It doesn’t make sense to have 100 superchargers in a high-rise building, it will be too expensive, so why not the cars just park themselves at a charger till they’re full, then drive itself back to a free parking lot to make way for the next car?” It’s just an idea from Dr Kotouc, but with technology like BMW’s Parking Assistant and Remote Control Parking, which maneuvers the car without input from the driver, it certainly seems like a viable solution.

In time to come, our cars’ autonomous abilities will expand, requiring less and less of drivers, which means car interiors will change drastically too, according to Mr Uellendahl. “I believe this phase of having bigger screens in cars is slowly going away. If you look at the BMW Vision Next 100, it has a small screen, because the next level of interaction is beyond the screen. If you look at the Vision 100 model, it uses other means to communicate with the user, and these can be tactile, like little triangles reacting physically and giving you feedback, which sometimes can be smarter, more subtle, or more engaging than looking at a screen.”

One example of an alternative feedback system is HoloActive Touch, which BMW premiered last year. “Once we go into autonomous driving, what you want to do is free up the space a bit more, give more space to the passengers, and create a more living room-type of atmosphere,” said Mr Uellendahl.

Fotografie: Victor Jon Goico – www.goico.eu
Postproduction: Wagnerchic – www.wagnerchic.com & Grit Hackenberg – www.grithackenberg.com
CD: Clemens Grosslercher

“Therefore what that means is you will push the geometry of surfaces around you further away from passengers and make it harder to reach, and that’s the reason why BMW developed this Holoactive Touch, basically a floating image, a hologram that is projected from a surface up maybe 15 or 20cm in the air, and you get haptic feedback via ultrasound when you interact with it.That allows you to push the physical surfaces further away, but the content is still there and accessible.”

This particular feature is still quite a long way away though, as it’s intended for when drivers can fully hand the reins over to the machine. For now, the limiting factor is still legislation, and given the recent high-profile incidents involving cars with automated driving technology, it’s fair to say that governments won’t be in a hurry to implement this, at least at a general consumer level. 

[Text]

Jonathan Lim

[Photos]

BMW, Jonathan Lim

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