Most big corporations have a department dedicated to crystal ball gazing, but only the auto industry translates that fevered speculation into physical form in the shape of concept cars. To celebrate its centenary, the BMW Group has created a triumvirate of concepts, starting in March with the BMW Vision Next 100 and continuing this month with two new concepts from each of its sister brands, MINI and Rolls-Royce. All three are on display in London's Roundhouse before heading off on a 'centenary world tour,' travelling from London to Beijing and Los Angeles.
So how does a car company that thrives on qualities like driving dynamism and brand desirability head into the post-car era? BMW's answer is to take control of the conversation and reframe it so that it controls the narrative: 'the best way to predict the future is to shape it,' a gravelly voice intones over a glossy introductory film.
The Vision series is blue-sky thinking filtered through three very particular brand lenses. BMW as a whole is making high profile but relatively small inroads into things like car sharing and energy services, but as the company sells a record 2.2 million vehicles worldwide across its brands it's hardly looking to disrupt the auto industry any time soon.
Even so, the Vision series is about repositioning BMW as an 'individual mobility company,' albeit one that is still manifested in physical product that can be desired and bought. Along the way, the company expects that technologies like artificial intelligence and autonomous driving will slip into everyday use without compromising the driver involvement that defines the 'ultimate driving machine.'
In amongst the blizzard of buzz phrases (‘mobility is becoming tailor made,' 'connectivity is becoming second nature,' 'mobility is becoming versatile,’ 'technology is becoming human') we are shown two rather extraordinary cars. First up is the MINI, a four-square, smooth-sided city car that reduces the classic brand signatures to simple geometric elements – the twin round lights, for example – and instead focuses on connectivity and emotional engagement. Anders Warming, head of MINI design, explains that although this is a car that’s still fun to drive, it’s also about maximising interior space and social engagement.
MINI’s vision is pitched at those whose lives have been shaped by a lifetime on social media. Essentially, the car changes its configuration according to the character of the user, with profiles that live in the cloud and can be swapped into car shares or hires around the world. 'The car becomes a vehicle for inspiration,' says Warming, adding that the car is seen as 'an architectural space that you can use to go from A to B – can a car still be fun if you're still stuck in traffic?'
The glass front end and central ‘Cooperiser’ illustrate how much the brand likes to lean on its heritage, with patination-friendly materials like brass used to give the car a sense of value over time, while screens embedded on the doors and a front-mounted projector turn the car into a mobile emoji creator. 'MINI is a friend already,' Warming says, explaining that emerging generations will be less hung up on owning physical things if they can still access their services, friends and information and be welcomed by a car that knows just what it likes.
Rolls-Royce has taken this idea far, far upmarket. The '103EX' is the first-ever speculative concept car from Rolls-Royce and embodies three key themes: 'grand sanctuary,' 'effortless journey,' and 'grand arrival.' Whereas the MINI looked just a few generations ahead, there’ll need to be bold technological leaps before Rolls-Royce’s fully autonomous plutocratic people carrier becomes reality.
For now, the key takeaways are the proportions. The mammoth 2m bonnet is a clear reference to the company’s grandest cars of the 30s, while the sheathed wheels and teardrop-shaped passenger compartment has the kind of retro-futurist allure that emerged at the start of the space age. At nearly 6m long it’s a surprise to find this car caters for only two, with a sumptuous silk sofa and a 'grand arrival' sequence that opens up the passenger compartment and rolls out a virtual red carpet, allowing for a graceful step down into the flashbulbs (and no opportunity for vulgar paparazzi snaps).
Perhaps most importantly of all, Rolls-Royce has retired the traditional chauffeur altogether, speculating that artificial intelligence and autonomous driving will do a far better job. This car is a 'she', a super informed Siri-esque companion that is driver, concierge, search engine, sommelier, personal shopper, butler, maid and stockbroker rolled into one vast mechanised whole.
'It's unapologetically big,' admits Rolls-Royce’s design director, Giles Taylor, 'although we're moving away from the monolithic approach.' These forms might not telegraph the imminent next generation of Rolls-Royces, but Taylor is still gleeful at the freedom of the brief. 'It’s automotive haute couture,' he enthuses, 'I was keen to make a strong style statement – it's where we'll be going in the future, a celebration of style and presence and the people who own them.'
No doubt certain customers will demand the company deliver this exact car tomorrow, regardless of whether or not it actually worked. It makes perfect sense for BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce to fly the flag for their respective brand values and shape a future narrative that plays to their respective strengths. But for once these conceptual visions are exactly that – informed speculation about a world that’s still a few decades away. At least, that’s what BMW hopes.