Back to the future

BMW history: think digital, act global

BMW’s deeply rooted impulse to think ahead and lead the way defined the company’s first century – and will play a pivotal role over the next 100 years. Under the slogan “Back to the future”, BMW Magazine digital presents a selection of representative events where BMW’s landmark decisions and products of the past contributed to shaping the future.

Michael Seitz

How do you conquer America?
- Spartanburg, 1994

North America and BMW are bound by a deep friendship. The company established one of its first foreign sales outlets there in 1975. As a GI, Elvis Presley drove around Heidelberg in a BMW and the dream of American teenagers was to own an orange BMW 2002tii. In 1994 the friendship finally became a firm commitment when BMW opened a plant in the southern US state of South Carolina. Spartanburg was the first factory to be successfully founded by a German automotive company in the USA. Even then, BMW realised that production had to follow market demands – and the American market had been in a state of constant growth since the early 1980s. So Spartanburg was not only a symbol of the company’s esteem towards the American people, it was also a quest for more balanced global production under more favourable economic conditions, such as greater flexibility during cyclical fluctuations and lower currency risks. The first 2,000 jobs in Spartanburg attracted 80,000 applicants from all over America. First the BMW 3 Series was built there, followed soon after by the BMW Z3 Roadster. At the same time Spartanburg was made the competence centre for BMW X models. As this model series expanded from the BMW X5 and X6 to the BMW X3 and X4, so too did production, so that in 2014 it was decided to raise output to 450,000 vehicles per year. That made Spartanburg the biggest plant in the BMW Group’s production network and a focus of considerable respect among the American public. Thanks to Spartanburg, BMW is America’s largest exporter of US-built vehicles to countries outside NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).

Spartanburg was the first factory to be successfully founded by a German automotive company in the USA.

With an annual production of 450,000 units, the Spartanburg plant in the US state of South Carolina has been the BMW Group’s biggest plant worldwide since 2015.

How do you cut a sporting figure offroad?
- the BMW X5, 1999

In 1999 the automotive world still differentiated between cars for the road and offroaders for rougher terrain. At the Detroit Auto Show in January 1999, BMW presented a surprisingly innovative combination of these two genres. Long before the boom in SUVs, BMW developed its own interpretation of a vehicle with a raised seating position, dynamic handling and all-wheel drive. The designation SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle) already defined the sporty nature of the X5, which was built at the US Spartanburg plant. Though its offroad capabilities were more than sufficient for driving to a ski lodge or along the dirt track to a vineyard, the focus was on the hallmark driving dynamics and agility of a BMW on asphalt. Its sporty design quickly turned the first BMW X model into a highly desirable trendsetter. Soon after its premiere, demand surpassed all expectations. Delays with deliveries prompted a rapid plant expansion at Spartanburg. Two years after production start-up, the company had sold 100,000 vehicles. Plans were quickly made to enlarge the X family, and just four years later a younger brother arrived, the equally popular BMW X3, followed in 2008 by the world’s first SAC (Sports Activity Coupé), the BMW X6, and in 2009 the BMW X1 as the first X model in the compact segment. BMW Plant Spartanburg is currently producing the third-generation BMW X5 – with undiminished success.

The offroad capabilities of the BMW X5 were more than sufficient for driving to a ski lodge or along the dirt track to a vineyard.

BMW ConnectedDrive keeps the vehicle’s infotainment system supplied with the latest data such as weather or traffic information. Modern driver assistance systems support the driver in a variety of ways.

BMW ConnectedDrive keeps the vehicle’s infotainment system supplied with the latest data such as weather or traffic information. Modern driver assistance systems support the driver in a variety of ways.

How do you make a car digital?
- BMW ConnectedDrive, 1999

BMW was one of the first carmakers worldwide to network its vehicles for enhanced safety and comfort. A built-in SIM card enabled data transmission and voice communication to a call centre – independently of the driver’s own mobile phone. The first services available to BMW drivers in 1999 were automatic calls to the emergency services in the event of a serious accident and a telephone information service. Even in those days, BMW made use of the growing number of intelligent sensors with each vehicle generation and their interconnection through onboard electronics. For example, the emergency call system was able to recognise a severe accident through sensors linked to airbag deployment and subsequently transmitted the vehicle’s position, as logged by the GPS sensors, to a round-the-clock BMW emergency call centre. The telephone information service provided drivers with phone numbers or addresses which could be entered directly into the telephone menu or navigation system. Ever faster data connectivity combined with an increasing amount of available information allowed the BMW ConnectedDrive services to be steadily expanded. Currently, for example, this option includes a real-time traffic information service which provides an exact picture of current traffic flows, allowing the navigation system to calculate the fastest route. The possibilities opened up by the increasing connectivity of vehicle and driver are also demonstrated by BMW’s Remote Services which allow, for example, the car doors to be remotely locked and unlocked and drivers of BMW electric and hybrid models to control the charging process. In addition to the various services and apps, BMW also bundles under the term BMW ConnectedDrive the continually growing number of driver assistance systems, such as the BMW Head-Up Display that made its European debut in 2004. Here, too, drivers have benefited from faster data transfer and improved sensors to detect the vehicle’s environment and connectivity, allowing for sophisticated assistance systems such as the Steering and Lane keeping assistant or Remote Control Parking. The growing importance of sensor technology and systems networks demonstrates that, with ConnectedDrive, BMW has given its customers access to the right technology ahead of time.

Where is home to “the noble horse”?
- Shenyang, 2004

Since 2004, the BMW Group has been producing vehicles at the Dadong plant in Shenyang, northeast China, as part of a joint venture with its partner Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd. The Chinese refer to BMW cars as baoma – “the noble horse”. As with the Spartanburg plant in the US, production at the time was in response to sharp growth in the market. Eight years later the BMW Brilliance Automotive (BBA) joint venture built a further factory at Tiexi, also near Shenyang. The Tiexi plant is one of the most advanced and environmentally-friendly car factories in China and ranks among the most modern and sustainable facilities in the world. Currently the BMW 3 Series long-wheelbase Saloon, BMW 3 Series Saloon, BMW 5 Series long-wheelbase Saloon and BMW 5 Series plug-in hybrid, as well as the BMW X1, are being built in China for the Chinese market. It is the only BMW location outside Germany to include an engine plant with its own casting facility. The BBA currently has a workforce of more than 15,000, many of whom trained at other locations in the international BMW production network. 2015 saw the one millionth vehicle come off the BBA assembly line. In the same year, BBA production accounted for more than two thirds of all BMW sales in China.

The two plants Tiexi and Dadong in northeast China build the BMW 3 Series and BMW 5 Series Saloons as well as the BMW X1 for the Chinese market.