With Project I, BMW is thinking much bigger than another self-driving car

“I really thought it would be nice to bring you something from the future,” said Olaf Kastner, president of BMW China, stepping from behind the wheel of the most futuristic i8 the company has ever made.

Kastner began a keynote presentation Thursday morning at the CES Asia 2016 event by driving the heavily modified car out onto the stage — no doors, no roof, and most important, no hands needed on the wheel. This car drives itself, thanks to the work of hundreds of BMW engineers. It’s part of BMW’s Project I, an effort to design electric cars that incorporate a slew of futuristic technologies.

But the car wasn’t the point of the keynote, surprisingly. The point was … so what?

Sure, the car drives itself. What does that mean for YOU? What’s it like to own and drive a car that you don’t need to drive?

The concept of autonomous driving has been worked to death in similar keynotes and at trade shows for years. But BMW articulated a far more realized vision of the future, one that sought to share what life might be like a decade or two in the future, when such cars are commonplace and our relationship to our vehicles is very different.

“Our motto is, in order to predict the future, you have to shape it or even create it,” he explained. Kastner called on stage Rene Wies, Senior Vice President and Head of R&D in China, to share that vision.

“To predict the future, you have to shape it or even create it.”

BMW’s long-standing motto is “the ultimate driving machine,” and having a car that can drive itself doesn’t mean the company is throwing in the towel on that idea, the pair explained. The i8 concept allows the driver to switch between hands-off and hands-on modes. No one likes being stuck in traffic en route to work, Kastner pointed out, and the idea of driving through it is maddening. But on the weekend, cruising a twisty road through the mountains or flying at top speed down the highway? Who wants to be chauffeured? The car of the future should offer both options.

Inside the cockpit, the car featured a slew of concepts from the R&D centers Wies runs: gesture sensors, a new way to indicate driving mode through interior lighting, a head-up display with comprehensive driving information, a 3D instrument cluster.

We’ll have to take his word for it, however – these features were demonstrated in an animated video, but not shown live. Hey, we’re talking about the future here, remember?

Much of the presentation centered not on cars or even on this car but on services. In BMW’s eyes, the company’s future hinges not on making better cars but on better integrating them with our lives.

“The role of the car needs to be redefined,” Wies told the crowd. “The car becomes the ultimate smart device, seamlessly integrated into our digital life.”

To that end, the company has developed BMW Connected, a series of services that link the auto, personal devices, and the individual to create a new form of customer service. It’s facilitated through the “open mobility cloud,” where data is processed and amalgamated and massaged and spat back out. The cloud takes traffic data, your schedule, the weather, and more and spits contextually relevant info back on your smartwatch, your smartphone, your smartcar’s dash, whatever. It uses that info to plan your trip, detect traffic, even notify your smart home of your ETA.

“The music will be on, the home will be warm and cozy when you arrive.”

“The music will be on, the home will be warm and cozy when you arrive,” Wies said. What’s unique here is the company repositioning itself; these services all center around the customer, not around the car itself, he explained. To that extent, there are car sharing services that offer short term rentals or chauffeur services. It’s available to individuals or closed user groups – think companies, or residential complexes. And it will offer the option to rent a private vehicle to the fleet for a limited time period when you’re on holiday.

Then there’s the ChargeNow service, a network of charging stations for electric vehicles that exists worldwide, from the U.S. to China. Yes, the technology exists, but again, it’s the service that makes the whole thing work.

BMW’s Connected Drive launched in 2012; it’s an online store that offers concierge services, a real-time traffic service, remote vehicle services, and more. BMW Labs Portal went online on May 6, Wies explained. It’s a way for the company’s services arm to publishes products and services that are still in the development phase and let customers try them out. Engineers will take feedback and shape products as deemed necessary.

Sure, the i8 is great. And it’s a self-driving car and all that jazz. So what? It’s everything else that makes it work.

“BMW may not be not the biggest car company. But we are the boldest,” Wies said.

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