The BMW Vision i-Next will be a showcase for the company’s tech when it launches in 2021. Picture: SUPPLIED
The BMW Vision i-Next will be a showcase for the company’s tech when it launches in 2021. Picture: SUPPLIED

Next time you drop something in the car, be careful you don’t actually call your mother-in-law while looking on the seat. Why? Because BMW unveiled a new technology in its Vision iNext concept — interactive upholstery. Is it possible to have innovation for innovation’s sake?

BMW calls some of the technology “Shy Tech”, or tech you can’t actually see, and it could be seen as the next step forward from touchscreens. Why bother with a touchscreen at all when you can just draw someone’s name on the Jacquard cloth upholstery with your finger and the car will call them? Simply asking the car to call someone seems more logical but concept vehicles are designed to show the limits of tech, the ideas in a designer or engineer’s head and the BMW Vision iNext is a good example of it.

Klaus Frohlich, BMW’s head of research and development, says that this is just one example of why the  iNext will be a “trailblazer for our future technologies”. Before purists panic though, he says it won’t all just be about tech and fancy upholstery, assuring us that it “will be a true BMW when it comes to driving dynamics.”

To that end the car has recently been undergoing dynamic testing in the winter conditions at BMW test centre in Arjeplog, Sweden, still wearing its camouflage, hinting at some possible changes over the concept perhaps.

The main focus has been to test the all-wheel drive setup as well as the driver assistance systems, but in addition the company has been testing its drive energy management system. This technology aims to provide stable battery usage regardless of the climate conditions. It is common, for example, for an electric vehicle (EV) to lose range in colder temperatures and this can be worse if ancillaries such as the climate control are in use.

The interior screens are part of a simple metal and wood interior inspired by boutique hotels. Picture: SUPPLIED
The interior screens are part of a simple metal and wood interior inspired by boutique hotels. Picture: SUPPLIED

How the company might address that is unclear, but we do know that iNext will feature the next generation of BMW’s EV architecture, what Stefan Juraschek, vice-president of development electric powertrains at BMW told us is called Electrified Modular Kit. It will not only be scalable for different models but will also include a brand new battery developed entirely in-house and produced at the company’s battery production facility in Munich, Germany.

Frohlich says iNext will have a range of 700km when it is launched in 2021. But the company is being smart about two aspects of electric-vehicle usage — range and price. He says the car will go on sale with a choice of battery options depending on the range you need and your budget. It is likely other automakers will adopt a similar strategy to suit different customers in different markets.

iNext will also get a new transmission, which Jurascheck says will be integrated into the E-Machine electric motor. The transmission motor and power electronics will all be integrated into one unit to reduce costs and increase power density. It too will be scalable, and there will be opportunities for this power unit to get into some of the more sports-car-oriented models the brand has planned in the EV space.

You will be able to interact with the connectivity solutions through the upholstery. Picture: SUPPLIED
You will be able to interact with the connectivity solutions through the upholstery. Picture: SUPPLIED

Then there is the autonomous tech in the car. The rush to autonomous vehicles predicted a few years ago has abated, with car companies and governments realising that more discussion needs to be had before cars without a driver can take to the streets.

iNext will debut with Level-3 driver assistance systems when it launches in 2021, but if you want Level 4, or even fully autonomous Level 5, then you will only be able to have that in certain markets and indeed certain cities that allow it. Those areas will have to have fully integrated infrastructure and the correct legislation in place to allow for any eventualities, be they human or machine related.

The issues are not new. Like many, BMW has been researching autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years,  but as Frohlich says: “the challenges are enormous”.

Should you be able to switch to fully autonomous mode, BMW Group’s vice-president of design, Adrian van Hooydonk, says that the four seats in the cabin can be turned so everyone can face each other and, as he puts it “have an analogue conversation, if that is still done”.

But is iNext just an example of what BMW can do that only a few will buy? Possibly, but the company plans to take many of the elements and put them into other models, according to boss of BMW i, Robert Irlinger.

He told us that some of the tech will move into other models within the BMW Group with iNext acting as a sort of showcase. Some of the tech will be in the sportier i4 that is expected to go on sale early in 2020 and is set to take on the Tesla Model 3 currently launching in Europe.

With all this technology heading our way, the question is, has anyone developed a seat that can clean itself after the kids have interacted with it using a marker pen? Now that really would be clever.