For the past week, BMW has been privately previewing a concept version of the next official vehicle in its i electric sub-brand, by flying it around the world in a specially outfitted Boeing 777 freighter. A production version of the Vision iNext is planned to launch in 2021 expanding the scope of i from just electrification to automated driving and the entire user experience.
From its inception in 2007, Project i has been all about creating vehicles designed to tackle the most pressing transportation problems of the 21st century. The first effort from the project was the Mini E pilot which was designed to give the team a better understanding of how people utilize electric vehicles, especially in an urban environment. The subsequent ActiveE and the Megacity concept paved the way for the production i3.
In the years since the i3, the market has shifted away from traditional cars to utilities and automated driving technology has rapidly matured and that is reflected in the iNext. Unlike last year’s i Vision Dynamic concept with its four-door coupe layout, the iNext has adopted a crossover (or in BMW’s parlance, sport activity vehicle) form factor. This is a substantially larger vehicle than i3, roughly similar in scale to X5 although BMW hasn’t published official specifications as yet.
From a design perspective, the iNext continues the themes that debuted on the 2017 concept, particularly from the front. The traditional BMW twin-kidney grille has mutated with the two elements now siamesed together into a single form that looks vaguely like an infinity symbol. As we’ve seen in other recent conventional BMW utilities, the front fascia is getting taller and more vertical with the grille shape being stretched to fill the full height. Behind the pattern that has been printed on the now solid surface are some of the sensors that will enable automated driving capabilities.
Also retaining the traditional BMW design signature are the new headlights which while much slimmer than anything on current products still feature four main lights.
The overall form retains the chunkiness of the 2017 with a different sort of sculpting than we have become accustomed to on recent production models. The exaggerated wheel arches extend out from the main body which has relatively smooth surfaces but sharp creases.
The floating roof look of the i3 is retained but the iNext also gets the notches in the side glass where the doors split that appeared on the prior concept. In proper concept car fashion, the rear doors are hinged at the back and there is no B-pillar. The i3 uses a similar approach for rear seat access although its rear portals are more half-doors like the original Mini Clubman. It’s unlikely that this door configuration will make it to the 2021 production model.
Like many concepts, this one is devoid of many of the details traditional cars like door handles. Instead touch sensitive surfaces provide access to the interior. More touch controls are offered here, particularly in the back seat where interfaces are integrated directly into the Jacquard fabric, lighting up on contact with a finger. The rear seat is a large and inviting bench with individual front seats.
The cockpit echoes some of the minimalist and natural material theme of the i3 but takes it to a whole new level. Two much larger displays are mounted on what is left of the instrument panel with only the steering wheel left as a visible, physical control. In a concept BMW describes as “shy tech,” most of the interface is projected onto surfaces only as needed. Voice controls are also integral piece of the interface with an integrated digital assistant that can be summoned with a Hey BMW command.
Even the steering wheel is not always prominent. The iNext has two driving modes, Boost and Ease. In Boost, the driver is in control, at least to the degree that they can be in a modern vehicle like this. However, when Ease is engaged, the steering wheel retracts away from the person and the display shift to what BMW describes as Exploration mode. At this point, the iNext takes over the driving duties.
BMW is coy about the specific functionality at this stage although this appears to fit into what could be described as Level 3 or 4 functionality. According to BMW the degree of automation will depend on where the vehicle is operating and what regulations are in force at the time. Where allowed, the system will presumably offer full hands-off, eyes-off, brain-off L4 capability with new human takeover required. If the system encounters a situation it cannot handle it will bring the vehicle to a safe minimum risk condition. If this isn’t allowed, L3 capability that may occasionally require the human to take over will be used.
In the near to mid-term and possibly forever, it’s likely that only high-end vehicles like this will provide such high-level automation that customers can actually purchase. These systems will require regular software updates for functionality and security and the cost of that will be built in to the purchase price or may require a subscription from the customer. Most mainstream commuters will only get this level of automation through automated mobility services that will be offered by the likes of Waymo and GM Cruise.
What about the electrification? After all that’s what project i was all about in the beginning.While the i3 was among the first volume production BEVs to come from a German automaker, BMW has yet to add a second and the iNext isn’t coming until 2021 while all of its main competitors are rolling out BEVs now and into 2019. While the i3 has been modestly successful, BMW has seen that there has been limited demand for a fully electric vehicle until now and has focused on applying electrification across its conventional lineup. All of its volume models are now offered with plug-in hybrid powertrains.
In 2019, a new production Mini E will arrive followed by an electric X3 in 2020. By 2025, BMW plans to have 25 electrified models available including 12 battery electric vehicles. Specifics on the iNext aren’t available, but it will likely carry a battery in the 90-100 kWh range much like today’s other premium BEVs. Range will probably be around 300 miles.
BMW has generally been pretty good about bringing its concept designs to market and the 2021 iNext will probably look much like this. Through its partnership with Intel and Mobileye, the automation will probably also make it as long as the regulations allow for it. Electric propulsion is rapidly becoming a commodity. The big unknown is how much of the new user experience inside the iNext will become automotive grade? With iDrive and gesture controls, BMW has demonstrated it’s not shy about tech either so maybe we’ll get something very much like this.