BMW I: An Electric, Autonomous, Vehicular “Skunk Works?

I like when car makers get experimental. By their nature, car makers are normally conservative beasts, but progress requires trying new things, even at the risk of the occasional failure. Often, these automotive experiments are carried out by racing departments—always catnip to nerds like me who begin to salivate at the mention of words like "homologation."

But recently, the cars of BMW's i brand have captivated me the most. The plug-in hybrid i8 remains my default answer when asked about my favorite car (this happens regularly in my line of work), and it surely represents the near-term future of the sports car.

What's not to like about the i8? It looks like a proper supercar—complete with dihedral doors—but it's as practical as a Porsche 911 and a lot more fuel-efficient. The i8 has a carbon-fiber chassis, so it's very stiff but very light. The damping is brilliant even on broken road surfaces, and the way the electric motor and internal combustion engine harmonize in Sport mode will put a smile on your face come rain or shine. A convertible—the i8 Roadster—joined the line-up at this year's LA Auto Show, along with a slightly souped-up version of its urban EV, the i3S.

With these (and the self-driving iNEXT, due in 2021), BMW is grappling with mobility, the brave new transport future that some believe will save us from the ravages of car crashes and climate change.

A BMW will always have a steering wheel

Autonomous and electric vehicles should be well outside of BMW's comfort zone. After all, this is a company best known for legendary internal combustion engines and building ad campaigns on the idea of driving for fun. So the fact that BMW is getting this stuff right so far bodes well for the future. It's a future where you'll always have the option of driving your own BMW, though.

"What we do not say is that all the BMWs in the future will drive fully autonomously. It's up to our customers," said Robert Irlinger, head of BMW i. "But if there is a customer demand for the technique, someone will use it. For example, LA rush hour—to be honest, it's not sheer driving pleasure. Just push the button, and then maybe your car will bring you to the next place."

Irlinger sees the BMW i cars of the future giving their drivers that time back in their days—it's up to us whether we use those extra minutes to churn out a few more emails or perhaps just chill out with some music. We saw one such expression of this idea in the i Vision Future concept at CES in 2016.

When the iNEXT arrives in three years, expect it to be a service you hail, not a car you buy from your BMW dealer. Irlinger says that's for several reasons; for one thing, it's easier for a managed fleet to remain perpetually up to date with software fixes. "You need something like a pilot fleet in operating cars to gain experience [with autonomous vehicles)," he explained. But cost is another concern, and for these early implementations of autonomous driving technology, that may well be prohibitive even for the earliest of adopters.

Not your typical BMW drivers

I learned some other interesting facts in my chat with Irlinger. For one, the i3 and i8 are being bought by customers who aren't traditional BMW drivers—only one in three i3 owners is a previous customer, and 80 percent of i8s are sold to people new to BMW.

According to Irlinger, the main lessons BMW i has learned from the i3 and i8 are that its customers have range and infrastructure on the brain, which is why BMW has been working with some other OEMs on a network of 350kW chargers in Europe. Perhaps we should be surprised that there has been almost no demand from existing i3 owners looking to retrofit the new, larger battery pack. (BMW told me that it has only had about five serious inquiries on the matter.)

The i experiment appears to be working. Just yesterday, the company heralded the fact that it has delivered more than 100,000 electrified vehicles in 2017, and Irlinger told me he expects 2018's i3 sales to eclipse this year's. Electrification is now showing up in more of the regular BMW lineup—the 530e plug-in hybrid has been selling well since arriving earlier this year, joining a PHEV X5 and 7 Series in the showroom. Irlinger even says there will be electrified M cars in the years to come. If they end up anything like the i8, that'll be cause for cheer.

Listing image by BMW

Source : https://arstechnica.com/cars/2017/12/bmw-i-is-how-the-ultimate-driving-machine-is-adapting-to-the-future/

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