Can BMW keep the passion going when the car is autonomous? BMW is betting that its signature passion for speed can be transferred over to the autonomous cars of the near future.
They are betting on it so much, they will open a brand new center to test autonomous cars and are also set to start testing cars with self-driving functions in downtown Munich, Germany. And these cars will likely focus more on their driving skills, and leave the questions about plug-in hybrids versus pure electric vehicle to be answered later.
“The sudden acceleration (of Electric Vehicles) perfectly fits with sheer driving pleasure and our customers will always be able to decide when they want to drive or to be driven,” explained BMW CEO Harald Krueger to Automotive News Europe.
What is a BMW anyway?
A BMW, or more correctly a product from the Bayerische Motoren Werke, is not just a vehicle. It is about speed, performance, and a more than a little attitude. Step into a BMW, you can rocket through the Sahara, whiz around Alpine roads, or make a fashion statement at the Ascot. BMW vehicles – whether they are simply a tricked out Mini or a representational Rolls Royce – are not simply about a way to travel from Point A to Point B. Other, more proletarian automakers do that by simply churning out the wheels at the factory.
This BMW image is of sheer driving pleasure. Even drivers that decide against taking the road less traveled are able to breathe in this legacy – and they are ready and willing to pay for this privilege. The question is whether they are willing to sit back and enjoy that sheer driving pleasure – if an AI-powered computer is behind the wheel. The official BMW position is that who or whatever is pushing the accelerator, there is no conflict with their brand proposition of “sheer driving pleasure”. And yes, let’s not worry about the type of drivetrain.
Slightly electrified but still electrifying
A refocus on autonomy over strictly electric cars could be an extremely wise decision. BMW plans to sell around 100,000 plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles combined in 2017, a tiny figure, but still equaling their total electrical sales from the past three years. But globally, this is a drop of oil in the crankcase as BMW total car sales top 2.2 million units.
While sales were tiny, the automaker’s electrical lineup still has the i3, a pure electrical vehicle, and six other plug-in hybrids with both a combustion engine and an electric motor under the hood. Next year, they will launch a plug-in hybrid version of the Mini Countryman SUV. More models are coming in following years. The BMW goal is to have electrified vehicles make up a 15-25 percent share of their global sales.
The problem is that while electric cars are seen as the future, people do not buy very many of them – from BMW or anyone else. Certainly not enough to pay the major automakers’ bills. The BMW solution is to this dilemma is to sidestep the drivetrain issue in favor of a more visible focus on autonomy. In other words, they aren’t sure how their future vehicle will be powered as it moves people towards their destinations – they just are sure that a person will not be making all driving decisions on this trip.
Let’s share the ride and the beer
BMW has hit the ground running with its DriveNow and the pay-by-the-minute ReachNow ride service which is on the evolutionary development chain somewhere between a ride-hailing service and an autonomous car. The automaker does understand how to provide trendy rides without the traditional car ownership experience.
They also know Munich. Their choice of Munich for vehicle testing is not an accident and certainly not a cost-cutting measure. The city is considered one of the most expensive places in Europe. It is also known globally for its twin-domed “Frauenkirche” and the annual Oktoberfest festival. More importantly, it is home to BMW’s corporate headquarters and the shimmering $200 million Temple to Speed next door – BMW Welt.
Can you feel the lust?
Designed by the Austrian Coophimmelblau, BMW Welt showcases the vehicles that inspire car lust in all its forms. On display are the latest BMW vehicles: A portfolio that incorporates motorcycles, the standard BMW cars, the more hip Mini lineup and, discreetly parked behind a velvet rope, a Rolls Royce. And there is more, the latest electric and autonomous vehicles. Looking beyond the vehicles to the visitors, it is clear that the gawking and never-ending stream of selfies are key to BMW keeping up the level of car lust and the “must have” element. So far, BMW has honed its brand image of sheer driving pleasure which can apply to about any form of personal mobility. With the newest developments, we will see if an autonomous computer can supply this passion.