Where is the BMW Group headed? Starting with that question, 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 – and that is set to gain in importance as the design process increasingly embraces customer-friendly 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,” says billionaire socialite Bruce Wayne, better known as nighttime superhero Batman, in the award-winning comic book The Dark Knight Returns. Wayne is referring to his urban assault vehicle after it has been 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 customized Batcycle with ultra-wide tires. Not only is it the invincible car of every young fan’s dreams, but 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” hood ornament on the Rolls-Royce; the kidney grille and Hofmeister kink of the BMW models – all are icons of product design. Each is as recognizable 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. As a result of my interviews with many BMW Group designers, it became clear that design is not just about creating forms, but 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. Founder Steve Jobs understood better than anyone that in the digital age, the critical factor was convenience – and, indeed, 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 high-end creative types, into a mass-market provider. And this process of customer-friendly simplification has proved to be right on target. Although Apple’s products are highly complex devices, no instruction manual is required for an iPad or a MacBook Pro – you simply turn 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 the BMW Group has also been guilty of: designing technical functions and solutions that are perfectly engineered, but too complex and unintuitive for the user. A modern vehicle can probably do far more than most drivers know, but that’s 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 none of its features were received, tested and written about with such enthusiasm as Gesture Control.
So what’s it all about? A few hand gestures that enable the driver to take or reject calls, or adjust the volume of the radio, without so much as touching a button or display –all thanks to a 3D sensor and some intelligent software. I found that Gesture Control produced in me the same feeling of awe as when I swiped an iPhone screen for the first time. That simple movement of the hand heralded a whole new era in product design – one that corroborated the homo ludens “play 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. And, 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. For example, no longer will the view of the street or surrounding countryside be distorted by a body component. The opportunities for personalization are endless.
One consequence of all this is the way designers now increasingly use the term “design for behavior change.” What this refers to is the now-commonplace design of processes – in other words, the intuitive, elegant and effortless interplay between user and object. In the 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 vehicle?
The goal will be to make the entire customer trip as pleasant, flexible and luxurious as possible. Future trips in BMW Group vehicles will be perfectly designed from door to door. It is the only way design can function in the decades ahead. But at least in one thing there is consensus at BMW Group headquarters: there will always be a need for “hero” products – vehicles that inspire awe and wonderment; that hang on the wall of a child’s bedroom; that are caressed, photographed and desired by hundreds of thousands.
I believe it is therefore all the more important to create distinctive top-of-the-line and elite models –even more blatant, more extreme, more spectacular, more unprecedented – 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 modeling) and drive technologies (such as electric motors) might soon mean not only entirely new shapes and silhouettes, but also highly personalized 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 colored designer gel-skin– all according to individual preference and taste – we could also make our cars look more distinctive and better able to express our personalities while 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 TV, 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 driving enthusiast, for it spells the end of that incredibly influential, sometimes wonderfully meaningless accelerator of civilization to which we gave the name “automobile” 130 years ago. Berlin sociologist Christa Bös has researched the emotional core of car culture; her doctoral 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, transporting people and communicating 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 getting too lyrical, it likely has something to do with speed and control. So what will be 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 much less often – 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.
Redefining the symbiosis between man and machine
The vast majority of car trips are made for a reason, 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, thus 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 risky lane changes, parks the car entirely by itself, and has the ability to drive at speeds up to 130 mph in semi-automated mode without any input from the driver. Countless runs with test vehicles have shown that technological feasibility is already far ahead of the legislation.
Not to mention the emotional needs of the customer. A company like the BMW Group will have to develop a product portfolio that embraces all the interests of its own target group. At one end of the spectrum: fully automated premium sedans, where 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 vehicle as a freely available object for public use – owned by all, yet highly customized, knowing and understanding every relevant detail about its driver, from musical tastes to climate-control settings. The discreet, luxurious charm of a self-driving Rolls-Royce or 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 offerings designed to make the lives of customers simpler and safer, while at the same time conveying the sense that they are in control of both their vehicles and their lives.
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 digitization 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: “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 industrialized 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 industrialized world and immediately opt for safer, more efficient mobility strategies. Just as cell- and smartphones have spread at breathtaking speed across Africa, perhaps China will witness the same phenomenon with automated driving.