BMW’s iNext concept previews futuristic technology

With the iNEXT, BMW has tweaked its signature kidney grille, opting for a large, upright version with a butterfly design that does away with the center line.

NEW YORK — Concept cars are flights of fancy. And BMW’s Vision iNEXT is a wildly imaginative ride.

The all-electric, semiautonomous crossover is more of an “incubator” than an early glimpse of a production-ready car. But the vehicle reveals the technologies being developed by BMW, including smart fabrics, touch-sensitive door handles, an artificial intelligence-driven infotainment system and next-gen batteries.

Froelich: iNEXT is a flagship.

“The traditional automobile definitely has turned into a smart car,” BMW Group r&d chief Klaus Froehlich said at a sneak peek this month, before the car is shown to the public at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show. BMW offered a limited glimpse of the iNEXT only in the belly of a refitted Boeing 777 Freighter parked at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“The iNEXT is much more than just a car,” he said. “It integrates all of our strategic areas of innovations.”

The large crossover is slated to go into production in 2021, and is a flagship for the BMW i brand, Froehlich told Automotive News. The subbrand will be at the vanguard of BMW’s new innovations, birthing technologies that eventually will migrate to the rest of the automaker’s lineup.

Powered by BMW’s fifth-generation electric drivetrain and batteries, the iNEXT is expected to have a range of well north of 370 miles, based on the new Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure estimates. The U.S. EPA range may differ; BMW did not disclose an EPA estimate.

But before the first of the next-gen vehicles can be assembled, battery technology has to improve. BMW hopes to power the iNEXT with higher density batteries and expandable packs.



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“I’m not prepared to put 800 or 900 kilograms of battery into a car,” Froehlich said, explaining that heavy batteries affect steering. “That’s the reason I had to wait for the high energy density cell in 2021.”

The iNEXT will launch with Level 3 autonomous driving technology — meaning drivers must supervise the system and be ready to take back control. It eventually will incorporate Level 4 and higher technology that will allow the vehicle to drive without human intervention in certain conditions.

“Level 3, I can guarantee,” Froehlich said, noting the car should be able to handle highway traffic and in an emergency, pull over to the shoulder and bring itself to a standstill.

To achieve Level 3 autonomy, BMW will need more than 150 million miles of driving to train the software. About 95 percent of that validation will be done via computer simulation, Froehlich said. To do that testing, BMW is building a data center capable of handling more than 200 petabytes of data.

The iNEXT will be produced in Dingolfing, Germany, home of BMW’s lead production center for battery technologies and e-drives.

EV-inspired design

With the iNEXT, BMW has tweaked its signature kidney grille, opting for a large, upright version with a butterfly design that does away with the center line.

“We want to show that this is an electric vehicle,” said Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW Group design boss. “It’s a visual cue of this new type of vehicle.”

The design change is also a nod to the vehicle’s electric powertrain. With no combustion engine to require cooling, the grille serves as an “intelligence panel” that houses the various sensors required for semiautonomous driving.

The BMW iNEXT’s center armrest resembles a coffee table, but the wood panel lets humans interact with the vehicle.

The front end is bookmarked by super-slim headlights, a riff on BMW’s signature four-eyed front design. The windshield extends into the roof to create a large panoramic view overhead, similar to that in a Tesla Model X crossover.

The exterior has several design cues that hint the vehicle is still more concept than road ready.

High-definition cameras replace side mirrors, while touch-sensitive illuminated graphics take the place of conventional door handles.

The latter, while cool, may be too finicky for real-world application.

The car doors open suicide style, with no B-pillar separating them. When opened, they provide an unobstructed view of the interior. The tapered shape of the windows reflects the airflow around the car.

The rear design is primed to optimize aerodynamics. It includes an integrated spoiler, narrow edges defined by slim LED taillights and a prominent diffuser, thanks to the lack of exhaust pipes.

Smart interior

While the exterior design is largely what can be expected in the production version, that’s not the case with the interior, which is designed for an autonomous driving world in which occupants will be driven, rather than drive.

“Autonomous driving, connectivity and artificial intelligence in combination open up an opportunity to totally rethink the way we will use the time in a car,” Froehlich said. “This requires another interior.”

The minimalist design — with wide screens, jacquard fabric and open-pore wood — is inspired by the interiors of boutique hotels, or living rooms,” van Hooydonk said.

“We wanted this to be a very warm, very clean, very modern space that is really a joy to spend time in,” he said.

Rear-seat passengers can control media via the seat fabric.

The iNEXT interior bristles with tomorrow’s technologies, but much of the tech remains camouflaged — a concept BMW refers to as “shy tech.” For instance, rear-seat passengers can control media with finger movements on the fabric of the seat. Light-emitting diodes in the tapestry-like weave trace the movement, recognizing the symbol, and relay instructions to the onboard computer to play a song list.

The center armrest, with a matte wood panel and slim bronze feet, resembles a coffee table. But the wood panel can function as a control panel.

Unlike some concept vehicles, BMW eschewed the lounge-seating layout for autonomous driving mode, believing that rotating front seats is complex and can pose safety issues. Instead, the iNEXT front seat head restraint can be folded back, allowing people in the front to more easily communicate with the passengers in the rear.

The layout has two driving modes. In the “Boost” mode, the steering wheel and displays are positioned toward the driver. When the “Ease” mode is engaged, the steering wheel retracts slightly and the brake and accelerator peddles retreat into the floorboard.

“As technology becomes more complicated, we want the user interface to become simpler, more user-friendly and intuitive,” van Hooydonk said. “We want the technology only to be visible when you need it, when you want it.”

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