Design insight: New BMW 7 Series

We are in Munich at BMW Welt, as in World, designed by the avant-garde Austrian architect Coop Himmelb(l)au as a hybrid of car showroom, entertainment venue and conference centre. Completed in 2007, it is now the second most visited site in the city. It is easy to see why. This is a fantastical structure of glass and steel that protrudes majestically up and into the clouds simultaneously sings to its neighbouring sites the Olympiapark and BMW cylinder-shaped HQ and Museum. This is pure visual drama.

Coop Himmelb(l)au means ‘blue-sky cooperative’, wordplay for the beliefs in what the firm says makes architecture ‘light and fluctuating like clouds’. There for the opening eight years ago, I was seated next to the co-founder Wolf Prix – a formidable figure as complex as the structures he envisages. Inspired by the Dadaists and Surrealists, he calls his work ‘drawing with one’s eyes closed’.

We are here to witness the unveiling of the sixth generation 7 Series, BMW’s pinnacle car in its saloon range. Automobiles like these are special jewels for carmakers and are thus redesigned once every decade to maintain their perceived value. The vast interior space inside BMW Welt helps highlight the importance of this new car. Much like the building, the 7 Series is the embodiment of luxury today – seemingly simple yet highly advanced.

Beneath the quiet, tailored metal sheet sits some serious smart tech. The 7 utilises the carbonfibre structure first seen on the BMW electric i cars whereby composite materials are combined with lightweight aluminium and durable steel to shed weight by some 130kg despite the car being taller and longer than its predecessor. This is the first BMW passenger car outside the i range to benefit from this pioneering technology.

Other advanced features include the very latest laser light headlights. The 7 can also self-park – the driver steps out of the car instructing the vehicle via the key fob to autonomously manoeuvre itself into a tight spot – and there is gesture control technology to adjust the stereo volume and accept/reject phone calls with a little finger wiggle. You could say this is a radical car in bourgeois disguise.

Adrian van Hooydonk calls it ‘modern luxury’ and for the BMW Group design director it was crucial to understand how this applies to car design today. So he sent his team to explore the world, flying them out to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but also ‘places you wouldn’t expect’, he notes, like Seattle, Lost Angeles and Singapore.

On their return the team filled a room the size of the vast hall we’re chatting in with objects, screens, videos from their adventures. ‘It was both enlightening and inspiring,’ he tells me. ‘It gave us lots of ideas of designing the smaller spaces. We realised it is about reviewing every detail and doing things differently.’

Van Hooydonk says it proved to him that when it comes to modern luxury there are similarities around the world. ‘For instance when you enter a luxury hotel there is a certain something there – it is about light, mood, ambience… It isn’t about, say, having gold everywhere but about being subdued, subtle. This is true of all markets.’


There is therefore no big explosive narrative with the latest 7 Series. This is a car that needs to resonate globally and so the design is restrained yet elegant with its interplay of cleanly drawn lines and the taut muscular tension of its surfaces creating a quietly expressive design. It contains tiny but nuanced changes, respectfully but determinedly updating the aesthetic of its predecessor.

Viewing the car from the profile, the strong character line that runs the length of the car dominates, directing the eye across the body. On closer inspection this is a double line and the first for BMW design. Van Hooydonk smiles saying, ‘it incorporates the door handle even better that before. It adds to the precision and quality of the car, don’t you think?’

The satellite BMW design studio in Shanghai has found that there is increasingly an appreciation of subtle luxury across the Asian markets too. Van Hooydonk has had feedback from China to reduce the amount of elements in design. Here in the 7 the smallest of details, many of which like the air vents have functional value, have been treated as little objects of desire – as graphic elements.

Inside takes a more traditional approach, yet the team has avoided any stylistic ornamentation. The cabin is an expression of easy elegance interpreting the concept of modern luxury whereby the passenger needs to immediately feel at home, at ease and relaxed so that it becomes almost a sanctuary from their busy lives. This is achieved through high levels of quality and craftsmanship and an abundance of quilted leather, tactile wood and chrome elements.

It is also about the little surprises that greet you when you enter the cabin. In the rear compartment, passengers are welcomed with the touch-operated ambient highlight around the door. And the Sky Lounge Panorama glass roof has LED lights that light up to give the impression of a starry sky at night. ‘It feels almost ethereal,’ muses van Hooydonk, ‘modern luxury is in the tiniest detail and in the elements of surprise.’

BMW turns 100 next year. And although the marque boasts a strong history, there is little association with the more sedate luxury sector the 7 resides in. Van Hooydonk explains: ‘I don’t believe people think traditional luxury should come from BMW. We are a driving company. Therefore we feel modern luxury is our niche and this has a lot to do with intelligence. This is why this car is packed with clever technology.’

I ask van Hooydonk how design should respond to cars becoming increasingly big and complex tech gadgets. ‘For us this is something worthy of exploring further,’ he says. ‘I think cars can and should become more intelligent. But they should be serving the customer. In the end the customer should be able to decide what he or she wants to do otherwise we are saying we don’t need the customer anymore and that I think is not so clever.’

Read more about the car as we test drive the car in Portugal, published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Banks

Read our previous reports on BMW design here.

Read about BMW Welt when it was unveiled in 2007.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ | UK

Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

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Autonomous motoring in Shanghai

The first computer was nicknamed Moneypenny – named so after an Audi engineer spotted the 007 number-plate on the car it piloted. Bobby raced the RS 7 concept that at top speeds of 149.1mph autonomously completed the Grand Prix racetrack at Hockenheim last year. The test vehicle that cruised from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas earlier this year was named Jack.

This week we got to experience autonomous motoring ourselves as Lu Ban, named after the Chinese inventor, chauffeured us on the roads of Shanghai in the same Audi 7 Jack drove.

We are in China for CES Asia – the inaugural consumer electronics show for the region. As we drove from the expo halls in the Pudong financial district to the river Bund Lu Ban, the compact computer tucked away in the boot, took control whilst our driver confidently removed his hands from the steering wheel, swivelling in his seat to talk to us.

The computer will only take control if traffic conditions allow so, and only on straightforward routes as such. It will drive up to 60mph after which it alerts the ‘human’ driver to take control. If this fails, the car will go into emergency mode igniting the hazard lights and slowing down to a halt then notifying relevant rescue services to respond.

Shanghai’s hair raising driving habits certainly added flavour. Whilst the A7 stayed politely in the middle lane, local cars overtook and undercut without warning at terrifying speeds as the (now slightly nervous) co-pilot explained that the scheme is investigating local driving habits to configure regional driverless cars. Shanghai may require a few extra sensors.

Lu Ban may not be quite on par with Knight Rider’ Kitt, nevertheless the A7 piloted drive represents very impressive technology. Google and Apple have made promises in this direction, yet Audi is the first car manufacturer to have created a piloted production car available in the A8 production car in just two years time.

Later that day we saw the world debut of the electric R8 e-tron with piloted driving function. This isn’t a production vehicle, yet the marque is expressing the intrinsic sexiness of semi-autonomous driving with such a performance car.

Yes it may sound like a contradiction offering piloted driving in a performance car where the sole purpose is to entertain the driver. But it does make complete sense. When stuck in traffic jams, or in need of an urgent text, the computer takes over and the car is manoeuvred autonomously so you have time to rest arms and feet for the open, twisty road… when you can perform all sorts of racing shenanigans.

The stats are impressive – two electric motors, each supply power to the rear wheels generating combined 456bhp and maximum torque of 679lb ft. This is a very fast machine that can race to 62mph in just 3.9 seconds topping up a limited 155mph. Energy comes courtesy of a large lithium-ion battery with 92kWh and an impressive electric range of 450km.

The central driver assistance control unit (zFAS) makes a crucial contribution to the lead Audi has in this technology field – it processes information from sensors to generate a detailed picture of the vehicle’s environment. By separating the electronics and the mechanical side, Audi is able to keep up-to-date with technological advances.

Audi’s decision to debut a car in China and at a tech show is telling. The country comprises the largest single market for the German marque. And as the car is increasingly morphing into an complex electronic gadget, it doesn’t feel that odd to reveal one that relies so much on high technology at a consumer electronics show.

Rupert Stradler says that the car is ‘the biggest tech gadget.’ The Audi chairman offers, ‘we are experiencing a digital revolution stronger than the industrial revolution. The question is how we shape the digital future. We are ready to take risks.’

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ | UK

Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©