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Remember when BMW’s tagline in all of its ads was “The Ultimate Driving Machine?” That slogan is gone. Now BMW wants you to think of its iNext electric SUV as “Your favorite space.” Doesn’t quite have the same cachet, does it? The new mantra reflects the fact that the iNext will offer level 3 autonomy, allowing the people inside to have more free time for taking selfies and viewing their favorite digital content while wafting along in splendid isolation and supreme comfort.
BMW i design chief Domagoj Dukec tells Top Gear, “Technology must be a human experience. Design enables this. It’s a human necessity to have a favorite space. This car can drive autonomously so you must trust the technology. It’s bold, but the simple surfaces and fading paint [coppery at the front, rose-gold behind] make it gentle. With the thin pillars, it’s like a tree house on wheels.” Hmmm … just what we have always dreamed of, no?
The iNext has been hitting the show circuit around the world since September. This week, it was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show, coppery paint and all. BMW calls the technology waiting inside Shy Tech because many of the controls for interior functions are not immediately visible to the eye. For instance, the wood on the center console and the fabric on the seat backs are touch sensitive, allowing passengers to control the infotainment elements of the car just as they would using a computer with a touchpad. There are also voice and gesture controls that take the place of traditional knobs and switches.
BMW claims the iNext will sprint to 100 km/h in 4 seconds and have a range of around 400 miles, but what testing protocol is used to measure range is not specified (presumably, WLTP). Prices for now are not mentioned, which makes sense since the car is not expected to go on sale until 2021 at the earliest.
When it does, however, the iNext is supposed feature full level 3 self-driving capability, with a longer term target of level 4 autonomy (if that tells you anything). When the driver selects the “Ease” mode, the steering wheel and pedals will retract and the head rests will fold away to permit a lounge-like atmosphere for passengers. Selecting “Boost” mode brings the wheel, pedals, and head rests out of hiding. “The driver oriented interior is still at its center. We invented that,” says Klaus Froehlich, head of R&D for BMW.
So, let’s talk about the humongous grille-like thing stuck on the front of the car. What’s up with that? According to Top Gear, it’s not an actual grille, but rather a flat panel covering the multiple sensors arrayed behind it that feed information to the self-driving computer. That may be so, but there are some companies [Tesla, for instance] who offer self-driving capability without such a massive ersatz grille cluttering up the front end of their cars.
“The iNext will be the best we will have at BMW in 2021,” says Robert Irlinger, head of the i division at BMW. “The best autonomous drive, the best electric drive and batteries, the best interface, the best interior technology, the best connectivity.” Froehlich claims when the iNext hits the streets, its self-driving systems will be “much, much better” than anything BMW or any other manufacturer currently has on offer.
Sometimes, it may have to ignore hard and fast rules like not crossing a solid center line if it needs to steer around construction. It also has to avoid “false positives” that cause the car to stop unexpectedly. “If the car always just stops [when it sees a pedestrian or other potential obstacle], then other cars will crash into it. Also, the system must work in the rain. The sensors must not ice up. And often you can only drive onward if you break some rules.”
And what about government regulators? In the US, federal and state officials are receptive to autonomous technology but, that is not true in all markets, especially in Europe. Froehlich says that will change. “If cities can solve their problems — congestion, pollution, accidents — using my car, of course they will allow it.” He also says manufacturers need to cooperate on autonomous software and protocols in order to limit their legal liability, but there is little evidence of such cooperation taking place so far.
Is the BMW iNext a grand slam or just a bunt single? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and there will always be those who want the cachet of driving a BMW, just as there are those who crave a Mercedes-Benz for similar reasons. Brand loyalty is a powerful force, but ultimately, the car behind the badge has to be worth the money to a decent number of people.
The iNext is three years away from production. A lot can happen in the car business in that amount of time. But if Klaus Froehlich called me tomorrow and asked my advice, I would tell him to dump that goofy grille. People have a hard enough time wrapping their heads around the idea of buying an electric car as it is. Why give them an excuse to put off their decision a little longer?