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.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Home Theater

Kill your cable and switch to streaming with our painless guide

If you're going to quit cable or satellite for a streaming TV solution, you're going to want to get it right the first time. We've outlined exactly how to get started, step by step. Follow our lead, and you'll never look back.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.
News

World’s fastest electric race car to display at Petersen Museum

The Volkswagen I.D. R Pikes Peak race car smashed the all-time record at the hill climb for which it was named. The all-electric VW record-holder will be on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles until February 1, 2019.
Cars

This freewheeling Army truck-turned-tiny home is a labor of love

Most tiny homes are models of efficiency but one British metal worker has redefined the idea, converting an old Army truck into a mobile tiny home that comes with a bed, a sofa, a shower, and a beer garden.
Cars

Take a friend stargazing at 202 mph in the 2019 McLaren 720S Spider

McLaren has introduced the 2019 720S Spider. As its name implies, it's a convertible variant of the 720S coupe. The company promises the Spider retains the coupe's dynamism and agility thanks in part to the widespread use of carbon fiber.
Product Review

The 2019 Porsche Macan S is a luxurious and quick SUV, but it's no road tripper

The roster of models challenging the Porsche Macan grows annually. The German firm updated its smallest, most affordable SUV with a new engine, more tech features, and subtle design tweaks to keep it looking fresh.
Cars

Gateway’s born-again Ford Bronco boasts classic style, 2018 muscle car power

Illinois-based Gateway Bronco has received a license from Ford to make brand-new examples of the first-generation Bronco. Every build starts with a Ford VIN and a donor vehicle, but Gateway upgrades every part of the car.
Cars

Bloodhound’s plan to build a 1,000-mph car has run out of gas

The Bloodhound supersonic car (SSC) project has officially shut down. The upside is you can now buy a 135,000-horsepower car powered by a jet engine and a cluster of rockets for $319,000.
Cars

2019 Ford Ranger saves fuel without sacrificing towing capacity

The 2019 Ford Ranger marks Ford's long-awaited return to the midsize truck segment, which has seen a resurgence lately. But will being late to the party make Ford's job more difficult?
Cars

Pininfarina Battista is a 1,900-horsepower, 250-mph electric supercar

The Pininfarina Battista will be the first production car from famed Italian design firm Pininfarina. Named after company founder Battista Pininfarina, it has a claimed 1,900 horsepower and a $2.5 million price tag.
Cars

Tesla could show the electric pickup Elon Musk is dying to build in 2019

Tesla has started designing its long-promised pickup truck. The yet-unnamed model will come with dual-motor all-wheel drive and lots of torque, plus it will be able to park itself.
Cars

Allegro.ai is helping Hyundai mine the artificial intelligence gold rush

In November 2018, Hyundai invested in a startup named Allegro.ai. We talked to the company's founder to learn more about what that means for consumers in the not-too-distant futures.
Cars

Thinking of opting for a car with a diesel engine? Here's what you need to know

Modern diesel-powered models prove that it is possible to build a clean, efficient diesel engine without sacrificing performance. Here's what you need to know about diesel cars, and how they differ from gasoline-powered models.