Starting with the question “Where is the BMW Group headed?”, BMW Magazine digital marks the company’s 100th anniversary by taking a look into the future. Today most customers already base their choice of vehicle on its design. That is set to gain in importance in the future as this process increasingly embraces customer-friendly design of operations and sequences. But that won’t alter the fact that the BMW Group will continue to build highly attractive vehicles that will remain indispensable for their emotional appeal.
- Adriano Sack
“I modified her during some nasty riots 15 years ago. The only thing I know of that can cut through her hide isn’t from this planet,” say billionaire socialite Bruce Wayne, better known as night-time superhero Batman, in the award-winning comic book The Dark Knight Returns. Wayne is referring to his urban assault vehicle after being set upon by a gang of youths equipped with hand grenades, rocket launchers and a bazooka.
The Batmobile has undergone many metamorphoses, from the expressive curves of the Gothic car to the customised Batcycle with ultra-wide tyres. Not only is it the invincible car of every boy’s dreams, it also represents the enormous symbolic power of vehicle design.
Of the many factors that make a car attractive, design is the most fundamental. The BMW Group portfolio is made up of vehicles that have a truly distinctive design handprint. The silhouette of the MINI, for example, the “Spirit of Ecstasy” bonnet ornament on the Rolls-Royce, the kidney grille and Hofmeister kink of the BMW models – all are icons of product design. Each is as recognisable as the Eiffel Tower, and probably equally adored by millions of devotees.
Any company with such emotionally charged features in its repertoire abandons them at its peril. Indeed, it would be well advised to exercise great care, sound judgment and respect for its own history when undertaking any revision or reinterpretation.
Increasingly, designers will also be involved in the design of processes – in other words, the intuitive, elegant and effortless interplay between man and object.
New design and extreme user-friendliness
But that isn’t all. In addition to the other radical changes facing the industry, our understanding of design is also in a state of flux. Until recently we saw design as the process of lending shape to an object. Today the designer has a new, fourth dimension to work with. One thing became clear as a result of my interviews with many of the BMW Group brand designers: design is not just about creating forms, it is increasingly about shaping processes, flows and functions. In order to understand the huge significance of this, consider Apple – the company with the highest market capital in the world. For years it has been selling the most exquisitely designed objects in every product category. The British designer responsible, Jonathan Ive, was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth in 2012 in recognition of his achievements. But it wasn’t just superior appearance that enabled Apple to conquer the world. Company founder Steve Jobs understood better than anyone that in the digital age the critical factor was convenience – and extreme user-friendliness.
Let us consider just one example. Apple may not have invented the mp3 format that made music compressible and thus digitally portable, but it packaged this technology in a foolproof and intuitive product that was not only great to use but also pleasing to the touch: the iPod. This was perhaps the decisive step that catapulted the company from a computer manufacturer for better-off creative types into the mass market. And this process of customer-friendly simplification has proved to be spot on. Although Apple’s products are highly complex devices, no instruction manual is required for an iPhone or a MacBook Pro – you simply switch it on.
Yet that is precisely the opposite of what manufacturers have been doing with technical upscaling in cars. The diagnosis is known as “feature creep”, a phenomenon of which the BMW Group has also been guilty: designing technical functions and solutions that are perfectly engineered but highly complex for the user. A modern vehicle can probably do far more than most drivers know, but that is not the fault of the driver.
Gesture control creates a sense of awe
Design today is no longer just about creating an attractive exterior: it is also about a product’s active and interactive qualities. Of course, the BMW 7 Series is as beautiful as a perfectly designed smartphone, and naturally it is bristling with innovations and technological wizardry. But no feature was received, tested and written about with such enthusiasm as gesture control.
So what is it all about? A few hand gestures that enable the driver to take or reject calls, or control the volume of the radio, without so much as touching a button or display. And all thanks to a 3D sensor and some intelligent software. Gesture control produces in me – older readers will perhaps know better what I mean – the same feeling of awe I experienced when I swiped an iPhone screen for the first time. That seemingly innocuous movement of the hand heralded a whole new era in product design, one which corroborated the homo ludens principle as a key factor in consumer decision-making.
This field of technology is still very much in its infancy. The next step will involve multimodal controls that combine touch, voice and gesture. And once control elements no longer need to be touched by hand, a whole new world of design possibilities will open up. The internal geometry of the car will be completely reinvented – and practically everything else with it. With the possibilities offered by augmented reality, the driver will be able to conjure up virtually any ambience imaginable at the push of a button. No longer will the view of the street or surrounding countryside be distorted by a body component. The opportunities for personalisation are endless.
One consequence of all this is the way designers now increasingly use the term “design for behaviour change”. What this refers to is the now commonplace design of processes – in other words, the intuitive, elegant and effortless interplay between man and object. In future, then, design will also have to consider a range of other issues. In what condition will customers find their car share vehicle? How many parking lots are available and what are they like in terms of quality? How easy is the transfer from the airport gate to the car?
The goal will be to make the entire customer journey as pleasant, flexible and luxurious as possible. Future journeys with the BMW Group will be perfectly designed from door to door. It is the only way design can function in the decades ahead. But there is at least consensus on one thing at BMW Group headquarters: there will always be a need for “hero” products – a vehicle that inspires awe and wonderment, that hangs on the wall of a child’s bedroom, that is caressed, photographed and desired by hundreds of thousands of visitors to BMW Welt.
I believe it is therefore all the more important to create distinctive top-of-the-range and elite models, which need to be even more blatant, more extreme, more spectacular – indeed, unique – while still reflecting the core qualities of the brand. Such elite models trigger feelings of desire in all customers of the BMW Group.
At the same time, new production techniques (such as 3D modelling) and drive technologies (electric motors) might in future mean not just entirely new shapes and silhouettes, but also highly personalised vehicles even in the mass market. Just as we already protect and decorate our smartphones by wrapping them in an elegant leather case or a brightly coloured gel skin from Moschino – according to individual preference and taste – we could also make our cars look more distinctive and better able to express the personality of the driver with increasing precision, flexibility and playfulness.
The emotional core of car culture
Is this a vision of the immediate future for the car? A tiny egg on four wheels, with neither a steering wheel nor an accelerator, in which people ride around watching American TV series, clicking off banner ads next to cute cat videos or immersing themselves in a little online shopping therapy. And then waiting for the goods purchased online to be delivered later in the day by another driverless egg. It is a scenario that will bring a tear to the eye of any motoring enthusiast. For it spells the end of that incredibly influential, and sometimes wonderfully meaningless accelerator of civilisation to which we gave the name “automobile” 130 years ago. Berlin sociologist Christa Bös has researched the emotional core of car culture; her PhD thesis is entitled “The Joy of Motoring”. As she said in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage in German society. It transports people and communicates status.
This is particularly true of premium brands, but it is not enough to explain the almost libidinous attachment people have to their cars. Without wishing to get too lyrical about it, it most likely has something to do with speed and control. So what is left of that when cars can drive themselves? Little or nothing at all, it would seem. But who is going to prevent it? The benefits are too obvious. Accident rates will be cut dramatically. Machines can make mistakes too, of course, but it is much less likely. And they don’t text while driving.
A full 97% of accidents are caused by human factors. Some experts say the accident rate will be cut by as much as 70%, although this figure greatly depends on the true level of traffic automation. Potentially automated driving would seem to provide solutions to the contentious issues of liability and responsibility. The horror scenario is this: should it come to a choice, how does my car decide whether to run over a child or put the lives of its occupants at risk? There is no easy moral answer here, but the situation is often highlighted as a worst-case scenario – as if the decision, whichever way it goes, is somehow more tolerable if made by a flesh-and-blood driver.
Redefining the symbiosis between man and machine
The vast majority of car journeys are made for a reason and not just undertaken for fun. Not even the most enthusiastic driver looks forward to bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way home from work. Fully automated driving means automatically selecting the most efficient route, while reducing fuel consumption and stress.
But here’s where it gets interesting: hardly anyone involved with cars out of passion or on a professional basis believes this. Driving pleasure is too deeply embedded in the DNA of the BMW Group. The task is to ensure that this continues in the future. We have enough experience with assistance systems, partially automated driving etc. to know that this is not about getting rid of the steering wheel, but about finding and constantly redefining a new symbiosis between man and machine.
The BMW 7 Series already warns the driver of a risky lane change, parks the car entirely by itself and can drive at speeds up to 130 mph (210 km/h) on the motorway in semi-automated mode without any input from the driver. Countless journeys with test vehicles have shown that technological feasibility is already way ahead of the legislation.
Not to mention the emotional needs of the customer. A company like the BMW Group will have to develop a portfolio that embraces all the interests of its own target group: at one end of the spectrum, fully automated premium saloons, in which automation is a chauffeur who is never sick, never garrulous and not distracted by thoughts of the family back home. At the other end, there is the car as a freely available object for public use – owned by all, yet highly customised, knowing and understanding every detail about its driver, from musical tastes to climate control settings. The discreet, luxurious charm of a self-driving Rolls-Royce and a MINI no longer owned by any individual because it has been perfected for car sharing – these could mark the two extremes of the spectrum. Both will be niches, rather like the small yet vibrantly healthy market for vinyl records.
Convenience and emotional pull
Between these two extremes will be a range of offers designed to make the lives of customers simpler and safer, while at the same time conveying the sense that they are in control of their car and somehow their life as well.
Architectural critic and car fanatic Niklas Maak (Fahrtenbuch. Roman eines Autos) wrote an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in response to the wave of digitisation euphoria that swept the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2015. It was published under the title Totalschaden auf der Datenautobahn (“Write-off on the data highway”). His hope-imbued prognosis is this: “Perhaps now at last, at the moment of its impending digital demise, the car will return to its romantic origins.”
Even if taking the wind out of someone’s sails is not the most appealing position for an author, one feels obliged to predict a “both … and” situation on this issue. The BMW Group will chauffeur its customers – should they so wish. It will do this while offering the highest possible levels of comfort and safety. And it will have to find ways of enabling this product experience to generate an emotional pull that is inextricably linked to the BMW Group brands. But for the foreseeable future, automated driving will only gain a foothold in highly industrialised nations – predominantly in towns and cities. In developing countries, the vast majority of which are used car markets, automation will take decades to come. Or perhaps not. Emerging economies in particular have a real hunger for innovation and cutting-edge products. And herein lies an opportunity. For with dense traffic infrastructure only just starting to develop in some cities and regions, there is perhaps a possibility to leapfrog the traffic problems of the industrialised world and immediately opt for safer, more efficient mobility strategies. Just as mobile phones and smartphones have spread at breathtaking speed across Africa, perhaps China will witness the same phenomenon with automated driving.