BMW Vision iNext showcases BMW's 2021 autonomous electric SUV

BMW unveiled the Vision iNext in September 2018 and then whipped this concept car off on a world tour, before dropping in on the LA Auto Show, for its official global debut.

The Vision iNext is BMW’s future car – and it isn’t just painting a pretty picture – it plans to have this car on the road in 2021. How much of the iNext design will remain in 2021 remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: it’s very serious about the technology that underpins it.

Aside from being an “emotional” expression, rethinking how we travel and seeking inspiration from boutique hotels and exploring new materials (BMW’s words, not ours), this is a fully electric SUV, sitting somewhere between the BMW X5 and BMX X6 in terms of size, but also bringing with it level 3 autonomy.

BMW, at the global debut, described the iNext as a “workhorse” for autonomous development and even if we don’t see the full manifestation of that interior design in the final production car, BMW plans to have a car on the road that will drive itself – within legal parameters, of course.

As for the Vision iNext, the design loses the B pillar to provide a huge opening to access the roomy interior. With no centre tunnel, BMW seems to have taken more inspiration from lounge furniture than it has from traditional cars. 

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Much of the message is common to concepts, but there’s talk of a couple of technologies, like an interior projector to replace traditional entertainment displays and touch surfaces, integrating touch into the fabrics of the seats, rather than cluttering interior with buttons and displays. 

BMW refers to it as “shy” technology, technology that hides, rather than putting itself front and centre, but we can’t help feel that we’re not quite ready for that yet. Voice might be taking off in the home, but in cars it’s still some way behind your average Amazon Echo, and people like systems that are foolproof, like poking a button to turn something off.

We’ll leave you to make up your own mind about the interior, but we suspect that in 2021 things will be more conventional that what we see here.

But the more important things about this car are the messages that BMW is putting out about its powertrain. BMW has been clear in saying that it will be launching the Mini electric in 2019, the BMW iX3 in 2020 and the iNext in 2021. What’s happening behind the scenes is the development of a modular and scalable kit that BMW can drop into cars.

This isn’t just for pure electric, the aim is to be able to equip any of the models with pure electric, plug-in hybrid or traditional combustion engines across the Series models. Scalability becomes important because of the differing demands for different markets around the world.

When it comes to autonomy, BMW has shown off the modules that will process the information from the sensors – cameras, lidar, microphones and more – around the exterior of the car. The amount of data can be up to 40TB per hour, BMW told us in a technology briefing on Vision iNext, so there’s a lot going on.

For level 3 autonomy in the Vision iNext, the module is water-cooled and integrates the Intel and Mobileye hardware that does the processing (called the High PAD above). BMW also shared some insight into the processing of the data that’s collected, as this can all be passed back to BMW central for development of more enhanced autonomous algorithms. 

Although cars will use AI to predict the movements of other vehicles on the road, individual cars won’t be able to go rogue and learn bad behaviours – rather algorithms can be refined by BMW and pushed out to all the cars in the fleet, so self-driving gets better.

So the BMW Vision iNext is coming to roads near you in 2020. Exactly how much of this quirky design survives remains to be seen, but with electric car launches scheduled for the next 3 years, there’s a huge change going on at the heart of BMW.

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