BMW’s Vision iNext concept car is the ultimate self-driving machine

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The company is providing a glimpse of the answer in the form of the Vision iNext, a new concept autonomous electric SUV. Earlier this week, it conducted a press tour by flying the iNext from Munich to New York to San Francisco to Beijing in one of Lufthansa’s Boeing 777F cargo planes, tricked out inside to showcase the new car for journalists. The company says that the iNext will become a real 2021 model. But it’s also bristling with technology designed to eventually make its way into other future BMWs—as well as models from the company’s Mini and Rolls-Royce lines.

Embedded touch-sensitive controls let you swipe the seats to control the car’s entertainment system. [Photo: courtesy of BMW]

I checked out the Vision iNext by boarding the 777F during its San Francisco stop. Other than rotating on a platform for dramatic effect, the car didn’t go anywhere. And its exterior, though striking, aims to emphasize its BMW-ness over the self-driving part. (The famous kidney grille isn’t so important for cooling given the electric powertrain, but it comes in handy for concealing some of the sensors that the iNext uses to see the road.) So I was most struck by the car’s interior—which is radically different from anything I’ve seen from BMW or anyone else.

If you feel like driving the Vision iNext, you can; one BMW executive told me that you might prefer to take the wheel for two hours of a six-hour journey. But mostly, what the company did was rethink the car’s insides for riding rather than driving. It says its mission was create something owners will think of as “my favorite space,” and that it drew inspiration from boutique hotels.

The steering wheel is the one thing in the cabin that shouts “driving,” but even it retracts when not in use, as do the pedals. The car has a flat floor made of wood and turquoise cloth seating, with an organic-esque pattern, that evoke comfy chairs (in front) and a sofa (in back). In between the front seats, there’s a large wood/fabric surface that’s as much coffee table as armrest. If passengers in front want to turn around and chat with someone in the rear, they can bend back the headrest portion of their seat for easier conversation.

Front-seat passengers can bend back their seats to converse with folks in the back. [Photo: courtesy of BMW]

The vehicle dispenses with traditional gauges, buttons, and other controls in favor of two wide-screen LCDs sitting atop the dashboard, where they look like TV sets—there’s that hotel influence again. But BMW says that it wants the car’s technology to stay out of your face rather than flaunting itself, a concept it calls “shy tech.” The seating has touch-sensitive areas that recognize gestures such as swipes; you can scrawl a musical note to play music. And in a truly offbeat touch, BMW uses projection to beam digital interfaces onto analog surfaces, allowing you to do things like watch a movie on the blank pages of a dead-tree book.

How much of this will survive once the Vision iNext is no longer a concept car—and how consumers will react to it—I’m not sure. I’m not even positive that I buy into the concept of “shy tech,” which actually feels like BMW showing off a bit rather than disappearing. Still, it’s fun to see what manufacturers come up with when they reimagine car interiors for the age of autonomy. Volvo went through the same exercise as BMW and emerged with something that looks like the first-classs section of an Emirates flight; other companies, I’m sure, will go in different directions. By the time self-driving cars are everyday reality, not concept curiosities, the industry may have settled on something that’s safe and comfortable in ways that cars have never been.

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