BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce navigate the future

Speculating the future of the car is pretty fascinating territory. The automobile has essentially remained the same, evolving technically rather than conceptually since its birth well over a century ago. Now, as the car moves closer and closer to becoming a personal gadget with multiple faces and functions, its next life is open to all sorts of interpretations. It certainly is an exciting time to be involved in the vehicle design world.

We’ve been in dialogues, or more accurately in marathon conversations (to borrow a phase from curator and art historian Hans-Ulrich Obrist), with a number of the more enlightened car designers (most notably the visionary Chris Bangle) for a number of years as they journey through this new phase. It is therefore extremely satisfying to see some of these ideas come alive.

To mark its centenary, earlier this year BMW unveiled the Vision Next 100 concept study. The futuristic shape-changing sporting saloon is an intriguing study into the BMW of the not-so-far future that runs on clean energy, moves autonomously, and is constructed through modern manufacturing methods.

Then last week we were shown BMW Group’s other two marques’ imaginative futures. Mini’s Vision Next 100 concerns itself with personalisation, working with artificial intelligence to create a transport hub that adapts itself to each and every user for an interesting shared urban transport concept

Whilst the Rolls-Royce concept 103EX offers the ultimate luxurious personal transportation portal for the future – it is the embodiment of bespoke automotive luxury, where the autonomous function allows for a supremely sumptuous cabin equipped with its very own virtual butler.

BMW’s head of design Karim Habib explains that exploring new and advanced manufacturing methods is at the heart of his Vision concept as it means bypassing the current outmoded forms of automotive manufacturing – conventional tools that are expensive, not very ecologically responsible and restrict design flexibility and freedom.

Advanced technologies like rapid manufacturing and 4D printing won’t necessarily produce components or objects but instead intelligent, networked materials for exciting possibilities in design and engineering, he says. In terms of material, the extensive use of lightweight and tough carbon (used in the i3, i8 and 7-Series production cars) is an indication of the changes to expect in the world of automotive materials.

With the BMW brand identity centred on being the ‘ultimate driving machine’, the team looked at how to contain or even enhance the emotive side of driving when the car is driverless. Here, the Vision concept can be driven or piloted – much like the i8 Spider revealed earlier this year. When not in autonomous mode, the augmented reality will guide the driver, projecting the ideal steering line and best speed onto the windscreen, and it will warn of dangers ahead, road obstacles and so on. In ‘ease mode’ when the car becomes driverless, the steering wheel slides away and the cabin transforms into a living room/work space.

For Mini, the focus is on the car as a personal, individual and adaptable gadget that also helps forms communities. At the heart of this concept is connected digital intelligence. This Vision 100 is a fully automated vehicle, wrapped in a discreet, silver blank canvas that alters according to the individual user, their mood and the situations they encounter.

Inside, the designers have worked primarily with fabrics made from recycled or renewable materials. The visible and non-visible carbon components, such as the side panels, are made from residues from normal carbon fibre production. Anders Warming, head of design, says in the future the choice of materials will become even more important throughout the design and production process.

Crucially, the marque takes the concept of shared living, explored in their inspired installation at Salone del Mobile, on the road by looking at how the vehicle can connect likeminded communities and help share their experiences. For instance, a user gets hold of some last-minute tickets to an exhibition preview as the car identifies another user who may also appreciate the show and coordinates a joint excursion.

For Rolls-Royce, the design team lead by Giles Taylor set out to envisage the ultimate expression of the future of super-luxury mobility – the haute couture of motoring, he muses. Here the team are delving deep into understanding the meaning of future luxury, of what constitutes modern luxury – a subject much at the heart of our marathon conversations with Taylor. For the marque it is a question of balancing craftsmanship, an individual spirit with high tech wizardry and seamless connectivity, delivered in the tranquil surroundings of the Rolls-Royce cabin.

The Rolls 103EX is based on an advanced lightweight platform equipped with a high-performance electric drive to allow for the body design, its various specifications and equipment to be tailored specifically to suit the needs of the individual customer. Taylor says progress in composite materials and technologies will have a decisive influence on how production can be customised in the future so the marque can achieve its goal of producing the ultimate bespoke car.

The cabin is a peaceful oasis incorporating warm tone Macassar wood, a carpet of hand-twisted silk (very very expensive to produce, confides Taylor) and soft silk on the upholstery. Designed to ‘waft’ along, with the chauffeur obsolete, the driver’s seat, steering wheel and instruments are superfluous for a completely new sense of open space.

Virtual intelligence directs the car and fulfils the passenger’s every need, at times even predicting their wishes. This softly spoken virtual butler appears on the full-width transparent OLED display, and is named Eleanor after Eleanor Thornton the model who inspired sculptor Charles Robert Sykes’ iconic Rolls bonnet ornament.

The sculpture’s form and proportions are impressive too and a bold move for the brand with Taylor noting that in the future we should expect a more daring Rolls-Royce design. There is much theatre here with the roof and coach door dramatically opening to reveal the interior of the vehicle as passengers gracefully step out. We also love the tailored luggage, now stowed in the long bonnet with a simple mechanism opening a hatch in the side of the car to present the luggage to the waiting hands of the porter…

It is fascinating to see how three brands with such unique identities have chosen to respond to the second life of the automobile. And these Vision 100 Next vehicles are very different conceptual studies, each marque navigating an intelligent path through the competing demands on the role of the car in its next phase – in its new life.

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
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