Perfect symbiosis

Karim Habib and his team were given the fascinating task of designing a visionary BMW of the future. In the interview that follows, the BMW chief designer explains how the spectacular BMW VISION NEXT 100 brings a new dimension to driving pleasure.

Hendrik Lakeberg and Michael Seitz
BMW Group

In developing the BMW VISION NEXT 100, the objective from the BMW brand’s perspective was to find an answer to the future world of living and mobility. Which scenarios did you have in mind? And what does this mean for a future BMW?
Karim Habib: We all predict that mobility will become increasingly diverse. In the not-too-distant future, most cars will probably drive entirely autonomously. We will get around using robots on wheels. So our question was this: given these circumstances, what now justifies the existence of cars by BMW, a brand that focuses on the individual as well as on sheer driving pleasure? How can we ensure these values are passed on to future generations? For us the key is that the driver will not be getting into an anonymous vehicle, but rather one which is highly personalised, geared to meet his or her every need. In future our aim is to retain the very emotional connection between a BMW and its driver.

With this thought in mind, how did you create the BMW VISION NEXT 100?
Habib: The starting point for us was the interior. I believe that the interior and the driver’s wellbeing will become increasingly important in future. Yet our aim is also to create the feeling that the car is designed specifically for the driver and is not simply a machine that drives itself – just like the feeling we know today. So we designed an interior that permitted various modes of operation, both autonomous driving and driven by the person behind the wheel. We call these Boost and Ease. In Ease mode the driver can sit back and be driven. In Boost mode the driver does the driving, with the car lending support in a very subtle and intuitive way. At the same time, the car constantly gets to know its driver better. With the addition of sensory and digital intelligence, which we call Companion and which progressively learns to support the driver, the BMW VISION NEXT 100 enables you to become the Ultimate Driver. This gave rise to an architecture which makes the cab seem particularly spacious compared with the overall size of the vehicle. At the same time, the lines of the BMW VISION NEXT 100 make it clearly identifiable as a BMW. Despite the domed interior, visually it retains the typical athletic silhouette of a BMW saloon.

“Our goal was to create a very personal vehicle. There will always be that highly emotional connection between a BMW and its driver.”

Karim Habib

Karim Habib was appointed Head of Design BMW Auto­mobiles in 2012. He believes that the designers of the future will create not just forms but entire worlds of experience. (Photo: Till Jenninger)

Thinking so far into the future is a very abstract task. And of course you can never really shake off the present. So what technologies and ideas inspired you?
Habib: A very important element of the Vision Vehicle is an innovation we call Alive Geometry. By this we mean that in the vehicle’s interior, for example, the surface below the windscreen is able to change shape. The technology behind this is an installation made up of many hundreds of individual geometric components, which communicates with the driver in a natural way – comparable to human gesture. Today we can already identify approaches that suggest this will be feasible. Rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing are already growing in importance. Our assumption is that this technology will be commonplace 30 years from now. But it is still difficult to imagine now how hundreds of tiny triangles can be coordinated in the way we need to make Alive Geometry work. That will not be an obstacle in the years ahead. The way we build cars today will no longer be the standard in future. We will be able to produce far more complex and flexible forms. So where the BMW VISION NEXT 100 is concerned, we have to talk about 4D printing – on account of the addition of a fourth, functional level. That’s because the printed parts will additionally integrate functions we currently have to design, produce and incorporate separately.

For the transition from Boost to Ease mode, in the BMW VISION NEXT 100 the seats and door panels combine to form a corner seating area for relaxation.

The project proved to be an inspiring task, since the absence of an immediate timeframe meant the design team was also relatively free of legal and economic constraints. Instead, it was all down to the imagination of the designers involved – and their visionary ideas on the future of mobility for a BMW.

The project proved to be an inspiring task, since the absence of an immediate timeframe meant the design team was also relatively free of legal and economic constraints. Instead, it was all down to the imagination of the designers involved – and their visionary ideas on the future of mobility for a BMW.

What other technological developments do you see as being gamechangers in the decades ahead?
Habib: When it comes to lightweight design we are already so advanced today that, with the BMW i3 and BMW i8, we were able to create new vehicles that make significant use of carbon fibre. But that’s just the start – there will be other materials as well, which means that, as designers, we will be increasingly tasked with integrating these materials into our designs. As a consequence of this, the shape of vehicles will change – it will have to change. What’s important in my view, however, is that good BMW design must continue to be authentic in the future. If we ignore new materials and the possibilities they bring, that would not be authentic.

Digital technology will also have an even greater impact on car design than it does today. How did you take this to the next stage in the BMW VISION NEXT 100?
Habib: At the moment the digital world applies to the displays. The next step will be organic LEDs, in other words displays that can freely change shape. Our proposal for the Vision Vehicle, however, is that there will be no more displays at all, since in the Vision Vehicle the windscreen will serve as a giant display before our very eyes. One thought that fascinated us in particular was: what will happen when the digital wave achieves a certain maturity? We believe there will be a significant merging of the digital and physical worlds. This is also expressed through Alive Geometry, for example, in the way the analogue dashboard interacts with the digital Head-Up Display in the front windscreen. In fact, this is the feature I like most in the Vision Vehicle.

How does this change the relationship between driver and vehicle?
Habib: As I said, the key thing for us was to convey to customers that they will still have an emotional connection to their vehicle in the future. What’s more, this relationship will be even more intense. In Ease mode we offer the driver a place of retreat with plenty of space and agreeable lighting and haptics to match. At the same time, in Boost mode our aim was to release the driver from the everyday routine to enable a total focus on driving pleasure.

Some maintain that cars are already too full of technology and so complex that today’s drivers are increasingly overwhelmed by the possibilities. How can design help to resolve this?
Habib: Take the example of consumer electronics. Swiping and other touchscreen gestures are highly intuitive. And yet a smartphone is a very complex device. Our aim should be the same for the automotive industry. That’s why with the Vision Vehicle we saw it as crucial not simply to follow the tech world trend and equip the car with even more displays. Our goal was to do the opposite and get rid of the displays. After all, BMW manufactures cars, not touchscreens.

You stressed how important it is that the design of a BMW should remain authentic in the future. What approach did you take with iconic BMW design features such as the kidney grille, for example?
Habib: Since our assumption was that air intakes in the radiator grille of the future would no longer carry out their original function, we transformed the kidney grille – as well as the traditional BMW twin headlamps and L-shaped taillights – into communication instruments. The kidney grille and lights use colour to signal whether the car is in Ease or Boost mode. This not only enhances the overall appearance, it will also be a great help to pedestrians and cyclists: as a means of communication, the lights indicate whether the car is currently in fully automated mode and has identified the other road user or whether it is being controlled by the driver.

You also attached great importance to ­aerodynamics. One spectacular aspect of this is of course Alive Geometry, where the wheels are hidden by the body, but the body adapts to the steering – like an elastic skin.
Habib: Exactly. The size of the wheels and their positioning at the outer edges of the body is very important to BMW. Nevertheless, we wanted to achieve the optimum aerodynamic effect by enclosing the wheel arches. So we came up with this idea, which enables us to build a car that is extremely aerodynamic on the one hand, yet sits dynamically on the road like a conventional BMW. That would not have been possible if we had used a rigid outer skin.

Does the BMW VISION NEXT 100 contain any clues as to what the immediate future holds for BMW Design?
Habib: We wanted to create something magical that inspires us as a team, as well as do something amazing for the brand. Projects like this are also fun because they throw up many unusual ideas, some of which we will follow up in the near future.

A future full of promise: the BMW designers’ goal was not just to create a BMW we could be driving in a few decades from now, but also to rekindle enthusiasm for sheer driving pleasure.