BMW knows the Ultimate Driving Machine has to become the ultimate time machine.
"What would you do with more time in your life?" asked Klaus Fröhlich, member of the BMW board of management responsible for development, as he brought reporters aboard a custom Boeing 777 Freighter at SFO this week to see what BMWs will become.
Inside is the Vision iNext concept, a premium utility vehicle that "pilots all of the technology that will make the company future-proof for the next decade," Fröhlich says. That means electric power, a cabin that begs you to sometimes ride, not drive, and technology that goes out of its way to stay out of your way.
I approached the car from its matte copper hood but was immediately drawn to the back: A gracious banquette spans the second row, while the front seat headrests bend back flat to open the space between the rows. It's a far cry from the stern, almost technical seating of today's BMWs that visually urges everyone to sit down, shut up and hang on.
A projector in the rear ceiling beams video down onto the pages of a special blank paper book, the content of which you change by turning to a page with a different glyph in its upper right hand corner. Gesture control actually starts to make sense here as you interact with the video on paper by manipulating your hand over it.
Even the cloth you sit on is interactive: Draw a circle on the seat fabric by your thigh and the car's audio level goes up or down while the upholstery glows in confirmation, then fades out.
"We call it 'shy-tech,' not high-tech," says Adrian van Hooydonk, senior vice president of design for the BMW Group. "It's only there when you need it." In this, BMW is aptly sensing the broader trend toward technology that is ambient, not prominent.
In front of the driver, two displays sit proudly on thin legs, comprising the entire front row interface. In autonomous drive mode they promise to capture your attention with all manner of contextual, connected content, but I am not convinced such rapture is any carmaker's to own.
The steering wheel recedes a few inches when the car is driving itself and, of course, the floor is flat and the cabin styled after modern boutique hotels. Those cues are replacing the gullwing door as de rigueur concept car fare.
Today's BMW sometimes amuses me with a byzantine combination of drive modes, but the Vision iNext has none of that. You select Boost mode to drive it yourself, or Ease mode for autonomy. The savvy "shy-tech" theme is expressed nowhere more strongly than that.
Outside, the Vision iNext is a little hard to slot, visually. It only seats four, but has a vast space between its axle lines, and a greenhouse so airy and light you wonder if it will sag when you open the doors. Its lower body masses cast an imposing presence, even though it lacks almost any sharp body feature lines. Notice how the side glass daylight opening mimics the shape of the revised grille.
That dual kidney grille, one of the strongest brand devices in the auto industry, is stretched to its recognizable limit. The Vision iNext pulls it so far vertically it now resembles a butterfly and hides a sensor pack rather than a radiator. BMW says its still on track to deliver Level 4 autonomy by 2021, regulators allowing.
Little is specified about the Vision iNext's powertrain at this point, other than it being a pure EV alongside 12 such vehicles BMW says it will be selling by 2025.
A production version of the Vision iNext is promised from the Dingolfing plant by 2021. That gives BMW time to gradually stretch its brand to encompass a sometimes passive relationship with its products, and put up some story poles around the new definition of "ultimate" it is exploring around the concept of time.