BMW AG, which became the world’s largest maker of luxury cars by focusing on Autobahn thrills, is shifting gears to automated driving as urbanization and changing attitudes toward cars redefine transportation.
Upscale vehicles in the future will involve “liberating drivers through automation,” the company said Monday in a statement issued as part of the celebration of its 100th anniversary. While the introduction of vehicles that can drive themselves means repositioning the carmaker, the shift also entails “a major opportunity for revolutionizing mobility.”
“Leadership in the digital age will be different,” CEO Harald Krueger said at the event in Munich. “The BMW group has always been able to reinvent itself.”
BMW wants to make driving a choice for when the driver wants the exhilaration of being at the wheel. But for mundane A-to-B transport, the company envisages cars where the steering wheel and center console retract, enabling the driver to turn to face the front passenger. The look into the future comes as the Munich-based carmaker teeters on the edge of losing the top spot in the luxury-car market for the first time since 2005.
With sales growth lagging behind No. 2 Mercedes-Benz, BMW is under pressure to show it can still innovate. To that end, the company presented a concept called BMW Vision Next 100. The car includes an interactive windshield that can warn of bicycles, pedestrians or other road obstacles even if they’re blocked from human view.
The future car would interact much more with the outside world than the vehicles of today, BMW said, showing a video of how a light on the dashboard might do the equivalent of waving a pedestrian forward at a crosswalk by blinking green. The concept could be reality within 20 to 30 years, Krueger said.
The concept car is a hint at the new CEO’s priorities. The 50-year-old, who has said that he aims to stay ahead of Mercedes and No. 3 Audi, is due to present a strategy review for the company on March 16. Making the car a personal hub will be a key element.
“Future mobility will connect every area of people’s lives,” said the executive, who took the top job at BMW in May. “That’s where we see new opportunities for premium mobility.”
BMW isn’t alone in grappling with how digital, urban lifestyles are changing what people expect from a car. The industry is set to experience a “much wider kind of competition” as artificial intelligence makes it possible for vehicles to talk to each other, drive themselves and free up people’s commuting time, Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Mercedes parent Daimler AG, said last week. Mercedes presented its own concept of future upscale cars as rolling luxury lounges last year.
BMW’s last major strategic shift was in 2007, when then-CEO Norbert Reithofer pushed the sporty brand to invest billions to reduce fuel consumption, produce its first electric vehicle and pioneer the mass-production of carbon fiber. The youngest head of a major carmaker, Krueger is part of a generational shift that’s now looking for ways to respond to new challengers such as Apple Inc. and Google, which the BMW CEO on Monday described as competitors.
“In the not-too-distant future, most vehicles will probably be completely self-driving – people will get around in robots on wheels,” BMW said in the statement. “How will we justify the existence of vehicles by BMW, a brand for whom the individual and sheer driving pleasure are the focus of everything?”
By Elisabeth Behrmann