The iNEXT is the self-driving SUV BMW will sell you in 2021

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BMW will be ready to offer customers a fully autonomous Level 5 SUV in the form of its new Vision iNEXT in 2021—if only government regulations would allow it.

The German automaker showed off its revolutionary-looking new concept car – which, when it goes on sale in three years, will be the company’s new flagship – in the belly of a Lufthansa Boeing 777F it flew last week from New York to San Francisco to Beijing to Munich.

While a lot could happen between now and when the iNEXT hits production, BMW is betting self-driving car regulations won’t shift much, or at least not as much as it’d like.

“We are technically ready with Level Five” – a car that can drive without any human input – “for ’21,” explained Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s management board member in charge of development.

“But I assume we will offer Level Three and then we will have Level Four as a pilot—not because we are not ready, but because the legislation process is much too slow.”

Fröhlich says BMW is ready for anything, and is building the iNEXT so that its autonomous capabilities are modular and able to be swapped between with ease. At the very least, it will offer a form of Level Three autonomy “much beyond Audi and Tesla’s not only in performance, but in reliability.”

Dense fogs or Canadian snowstorms won’t phase it, he says. The car’s artificial intelligence will be, basically, a genius, thanks to the 200 petabytes of information – representing 240 million kilometres of driving data – BMW already has in its data centre, and it will be constantly updated with new info.

“We will not have beta releases to the customer,” he grins, taking a shot at rival Tesla. “You will not be part of an experiment.”

The company is so confident in the iNEXT’s autonomy that, Fröhlich says, it will take responsibility in the event of a collision—a real revelation, considering the question of who’s at fault in a crash when the car is driving is one that’s long been debated.

“My premise is, yes, BMW will be responsible, and that’s how I develop [a car],” he says. “Regulations [about responsibility] will be different [in different markets]. And if, for example, in China we’re responsible, I better develop a system as if I am responsible anyway.”

Besides its self-driving capabilities, “Project i 2.0” will pilot BMW’s fifth-generation electric drivetrain, and offer customers more than 600 km of battery range and performance in the less-than-four-seconds naught-to-100 km/h area.

(The production version of the iNEXT will be one of 12 fully electric vehicles BMW hopes to have in its lineup by 2025; another 13 will be partly electrified. Believe it or not, the brand’s on-pace to sell 140,000-plus electrified vehicles this year.)

2021 bmw vision inext 15 The iNEXT is the self driving SUV BMW will sell you in 2021The 2021 BMW Vision iNEXT concept. Handout / BMW

The exterior styling is paving the way for other BMW i vehicles, too. Its “butterfly”-esque more-vertical kidney-shaped grille, which houses the sensors for the autonomous driving software, is liable to end up on other new i-cars, as is its “streamflow” design language, which defines the profile and works with the car’s aerodynamic elements, especially the roof spoiler and rear diffuser, says Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW vice-president of design.

The move away from BMW’s traditional design language, and the injection of “digital character,” was a deliberate one. “If you declare everything you have an icon, you can’t move left or right,” Hooydonk explains.

“The whole design of i products opened up our vocabulary and now we’re freer to work with those elements. You have to keep moving as a brand or else you become a sitting duck.”

The production car will be made from a mix of steel, aluminum and carbon-fibre elements, he adds, to lighten weight and offset battery mass.

2021 bmw vision inext 18 The iNEXT is the self driving SUV BMW will sell you in 2021The 2021 BMW Vision iNEXT concept. Handout / BMW

Finally, Vision iNEXT works as a showcase of the company’s interior design direction for its autonomous vehicles. “The car should be a person’s favourite space, which means it must be personizable,” says Fröhlich.

To this end, the wood-, copper- and turquoise-trimmed insides – inspired by boutique hotels – are mostly covered in “smart materials.” Instead of reaching for a button, knob or even a touchscreen, you’ll be able to scribe a symbol of your choosing on the upholstery to activate a function—UI and UX designer Olivier Pitrat demonstrated by tracing a music note on the seat to turn on the radio, swiping across the fabric to change tracks.

Also demonstrated: a roof-mounted projector that could display gesture-interactive images, video, whatever on the blank pages of a book in the hands of a passenger, instead of on a fixed digital screen.

The idea is to use “shytech” like this to de-clutter the interior. “Technology should be only visible when you need it,” Pitrat explains. “And it should be fundamentally human, organic, intuitive.”

But just because the i brand is moving from building “Ultimate Driving Machines” to being “Ultimately Human,” incorporating projector, material, gesture and voice controls, doesn’t mean there weren’t some analog references in the Vision iNEXT—even if it goes Level Five autonomous, the steering wheel is staying.

“We don’t want to take control away from our customers,” says Hooydonk, with Fröhlich noting BMW simply wants to “add a new dimension to sheer driving pleasure.”

How much of the Vision iNEXT concept we saw will actually make it to production in 2021? Most of it, the executives seem to concur.

“Everything you see here is already possible from a technical point-of-view. We wouldn’t be showing it if we weren’t really keen on making something like this happen,” assured Hooydonk. “For this next generation, we really want to take a big step forward,” he said, adding he wants to hold on even to the lounge-like feel of the interior.

2021 bmw vision inext 3 The iNEXT is the self driving SUV BMW will sell you in 2021The 2021 BMW Vision iNEXT concept aboard the Lufthansa Boeing 777F during its Vision iNEXT World Flight. Handout / BMW

Fröhlich says the iNEXT should hit the market, alongside the BMW i Vision Dynamics concept sedan it showed off last year in Frankfurt, more or less as you see it here.

“If you look at the exterior, it’s very, very close to the car you will get in ’21. If you look at the technology, the fifth-generation electric drivetrain, yes, you will get it,” he nods. “And autonomous driving, I can guarantee every customer will have a far-reaching Level Three system, and we have already developed a Level Four and Five system.”

But will there be markets that will actually be able to make use of BMW’s Level Five capabilities three years from now? Again, of that he’s more doubtful.

When it comes to governments drafting autonomous car legislation, Europe is much too slow,” Fröhlich says. “And in America, when [autonomous test cars] have casualties, it spoils the whole discussion.”

“These unprofessional examples in certain cities, they can damage the reputation in America and it can be a big drawback,” he says. “Because the NHTSA or something will be extremely careful and will slow down the technical development, too.”

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