Whales. Many of them feed by swimming with their mouths wide open, vacuuming up plankton by the million. The BMW Vision ConnectedDrive is hardly a whale, but there is a link. “My inspiration,” says designer Juliane Blasi, “was the car driving along and taking in information from the road. So, it has a very open front, to get the information from the street to the interior and then to the driver.”
The passage of information partly explains the colorful illumination trails that light up this concept. They signal the three themes of BMW's next push with its ConnectedDrive concept, a series of communication systems intended to improve safety, convenience and the car's scope to entertain. Orange signifies the safety systems; blue, infotainment and green, convenience.
“Every ConnectedDrive feature can be categorized,” explains project specialist Dirk Wisselmann, the three colored trails in this concept signposting each of them.
According to some sources within BMW, the Vision ConnectedDrive is itself a signpost – an indication that BMW might fashion a small sports car, perhaps to be called Z2. Blasi, who designed today's Z4, is revealing nothing about any Z2: “We chose a roadster because of BMW's history with these cars, which are always the most exciting and emotional cars, and we're using this to convey a challenging subject with ConnectedDrive.”
Her challenge lay in the fact that much of the ConnectedDrive content is hidden – hence the lit strands – which nevertheless pushes some intriguing new frontiers.
Ever found a parking bay that you can just about nose your car into, only to realize that, once installed, you won't be able to open the door wide enough to comfortably get out? That problem can be solved by a parking aid that allows you to line the car up, get out and motor "driverlessly" into position. And out again.
Here's another – more daunting – scenario: You're in a foreign city and reach a busy intersection where you have no real idea of rights of way. But you venture across, knowing that your car will communicate with others and warn you if the priority isn't yours, and even avoid a collision using the brakes and steering.
Rather less threatening is the chance to sate your interest in architecture, the 3D head-up display projecting images of the finest buildings coming into view. The system has what BMW calls an “emotional browser” that knows your interests and tastes.
Many of these features are destined for the showroom BMWs of tomorrow. Some of them have been a long time coming. The idea of car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communication has been under development for decades, not least under the 1987-'95 Eureka Prometheus project. BMW's Advanced Driver Assistance Systems were born out of this, including adaptive cruise control and BMW Assist. For the Vision ConnectedDrive, however, “we're looking at the next eight to 10 years,” says Wisselmann. “For us, the next 7-series is a very realistic car.”
If you're worried that all this technology is going to foist mega-information overload on you, you have little to fear – probably. “We don't want to overwhelm. We want to provide the right information at the right time,” says Wisselmann. BMW conducts research using a sophisticated simulator, says Wisselmann, and 300-400 German and Japanese customers were recently tested to see if they could assimilate this extra information. Apparently, they could.
“There's a workload aspect to this,” says Wisselmann. If you're on a busy intersection at night, you clearly don't want to be told about the retro-punk band playing in a bar 17 miles away. But imagine you're heading for that gig 20 minutes later, homing in on the parking space that ConnectedDrive has already identified, when a car pulls into your path, prompting an emerging vehicle hazard to appear in your head-up display and the brakes to be automatically applied, the resulting small jolt prompting you to take further evasive action – precisely the action suggested by an arrow in the display, the car's peripheral sensors having concluded that this maneuver is safe.
Wisselmann emphasizes that “responsibility remains with the driver.” That said, BMW is developing a system that intervenes when the driver – temporarily, let's hope – totally bows out. Wisselmann points out that individuals susceptible to heart attacks will be used to wearing monitors, and if the car were linked to the monitor it could steer itself toward the curb, brake and call the emergency services when necessary.
When will we see all this technology? Emergency Assist is already available on BMWs. Systems to deal with a heart attack scenario are feasible now, but legal issues and sensor availability push it five years out. The augmented reality head-up display is probably closer, as is a Traffic Jam Assistant, which brakes, accelerates and steers the car in low-speed, stop-start conditions.
The biggest breakthrough will be car-to-car communication, which needs several manufacturers to participate as well as a supporting infrastructure. But field tests are about to start in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
And yes, “cloud computing” – the buzz phrase of the moment – is on the horizon, too, your music, diary details, preferences and much of your life downloading from an electronic cumulonimbus.
All of which is a long way from the head-in-a-cloud roadster motoring of the past, but in these days of mega-connectivity, crowded cities and compressed time, a car that takes out the danger, stress and frustration of getting to the gig or meeting on time has got to be a good thing.