Predicting the future is a bit like trying to work out your stopping distance on an icy road, while driving with a scarf over your eyes. It’s an almost impossible endeavour that will rarely result in anything approaching accurate prophecy.
That hasn’t stopped the BMW Group from letting its collective imagination run wild; its recent Future Exhibition – as part of its centenary celebrations – looked forwards at the company’s next hundred years, indicating a number of areas where it intends to focus its development efforts.
While these ideas come with the caveat that they occupy the realm of fancy, BMW’s established position as an advocate of the connected car concept makes them worthy of consideration. The company has actively looked to develop a link with the smart home, partnering up with Samsung to integrate SmartThings into its ConnectedDrive software; this allows a user to perform a number of actions in the home from the dashboard of their vehicle. While BMW is looking to expand into allow two-way communication between vehicle and property, this is by no means the limit of the company’s dreams for a more connected car.
Slick and smart: The BMW Vision Next 100
Autonomous driving has long been touted as the future of the motoring experience. Exactly what this will look like is up for debate – Tesla, with one eye on the short term, is banking on an Autopilot function that is used as a secondary means of control; meanwhile, Google’s self-driving car aims for all movement to be conducted by the vehicle without more than the minimum amount of human interaction. BMW’s Vision Next 100 concept addresses the elephant in the room with its approach. It understands a fundamental truth that is often lost when discussing the future of transport: many people actively enjoy the act of driving.
While few can truthfully profess to love crawling through a motorway standstill, there are moments when you just want to take the wheel and experience the thrill of weaving along a cliff road or climbing up over a hill-top mountain pass. To accommodate both ideals, the BMW Vision Next 100 concept offers two driving modes: Boost and Ease. In the latter, the steering wheel goes back into the dashboard and the seats shift position so to make it easier for passengers to converse and interact. Active lighting lets both the occupants and passers-by understand when the car is in autonomous mode so that they are better prepared for interaction with with the vehicle.
When boost mode is selected, however, everything changes. The experience becomes focused around the driver, from the F1-style steering wheel to the windscreen-wide display complete with digital imagery that indicates the optimum line to take on a corner and highlights oncoming vehicles and other hazards during periods of heavy rain or fog.
The key to a more connected car will be artificial intelligence: BMW’s prediction is something along the lines of ‘the companion’, a piece of software that will learn about your driving while the vehicle is in boost mode. Building on this, it will offer subtle support to improve performance, rather than openly disrupt the emotional connection between the human and the road. As well as managing the vehicle’s motion when ease mode is activated, the AI will also recommend interesting landmarks or potential places to visit during the journey, based on its knowledge of the driver’s interests.
As well a significant shift in the way we behave inside our vehicles, BMW is betting on a substantial shift towards more sustainable materials. ‘Recyclable mono-materials’ are predominantly expected to feature in future machines, favouring carbon components in place of the traditional combination of leather and wood.
Ludicrous luxury: The Rolls-Royce 103EX
If BMW’s vision for its eponymous brand’s future is easy to imagine gracing the roads in the future, its dream for its Rolls-Royce luxury marque looks more like something out of a 70s-era science-fiction film. It is grandiose in its execution, a marriage of the stately angles of a traditional Rolls-Royce married to elegant swooping shell bodywork. Unlike the BMW concept, human control is entirely absent; this vehicle is less a driving experience than a lavish horseless carriage, designed to transport its occupants with as little fuss and as much dignity as possible.
Rather than the usual coterie of pedals, gear and steering controls, the only interface presented to the passenger is Eleanor, the vehicle’s personal assistant. Named after the woman that modelled for the marque’s ‘spirit of ecstasy’ bonnet ornament, this voice-controlled AI will travel autonomously to the destination, allowing for distraction-free relaxation throughout the journey.
While designed as cutting-edge technology, the 103EX is built with old world values in mind. This even translates into how the vehicle opens up up on arrival, with the door and roof rising up to allow the passengers to stand fully upright before exiting the car onto a light projection on the pavement that mimics the ‘red carpet’ effect.
Expanding in various directions
For all of the sublime ridiculousness of the Rolls-Royce concept, it highlights that, while cars might retain many of the design characteristics that we have come to accept, they will need to serve a number of disparate needs. From the early morning commuter who just wants to get to work to the weekend explorer or the socialite making their grand entrance, our cars will become vessels for a number of unrelated tasks – meetings, entertainment, casual conversation, discovering previously unknown locations.
They will become multi-purpose spaces, while retaining their principal purpose as a means for travel. BMW are not alone in their efforts to visualise the future of motoring – when Mercedes-Benz unveiled its F015 Luxury in Motion concept at CES 2015, it presented a vision that shared much in common with BMW. As well as revolving seats and the freedom for passengers to either take control or kick back, its vehicle promises ‘active communication’ with the world around it, with a variety of light-based gestures and voice interaction to communicate with other road users when necessary.
Not all of these common threads will ultimately come to fruition, and there are undoubtedly technologies that are not currently on our radar that will influence the way we drive in the next few decades. One thing is for sure – it will be a very different experience indeed to what we currently perceive as ‘driving’.