The iX is BMW’s design and technology flagship – a car that visually and technically expresses the marque as it fully enters the electric age. Created as an electric vehicle and with a high dose of pioneering technology, the iX offers a fresh reading of BMW design. It introduces customers to the marque’s latest electrification, driverless and connected technologies when it heads to production in 2021.
The company says it has taken an all-embracing approach to sustainability with this car. This means exceptional aerodynamics with a drag coefficient of just 0.25, lightweight design using natural and recycled materials and a high recycling rate for the battery. Powering this car, the new eDrive is made without using critical raw materials, yet the car is powerful, with 500 horsepower and acceleration to 62 mph in under 5 seconds, while the battery has a 300-mile range with under 40 minutes charging from 10 to 80% at a DC fast charger.
Meanwhile, based closely on the radical 2018 iNext study, the design visualizes BMW in the electric age. Every styling move contributes to a more ecological drive – in all its senses. This is a relatively large vehicle – it’s about the size of the X5 SUV – yet the flowing roof and reduced lines, flush-fitted doors, slim light units and the absence of unnecessary embellishments, help create an altogether softer appearance. This seemingly simple design veils some compelling technologies, too. The upright kidney grille is blanked off, functioning instead as a high-tech interface for advanced driver assistance systems and, later, it can be tailored for fully automated driving.
The interior focus is on wellbeing – the user experience – with a light, spacious lounge-like setting. There is an expansive panoramic glass roof, floating center console, seats with integral headrests, hand woven fabrics with warm tones and tactile open-pore wood here. Digital elements only surface when summoned in what BMW is calling “shy tech” through the intelligent personal assistant and integrated smart fabrics. While, reduced mechanical elements, discreet air vents, hidden speakers and the curved floating flat screen display add to the sense of calm inside. Finally, the iX comes replete with its own electric engine note, composed by the celebrated composer Hans Zimmer. In short, the iX is a BMW for modern times.
To understand the design thinking and to get a fuller picture of this complex project, I caught up with the senior vice president of BMW Group design, Adrian van Hooydonk. I also used the occasion to ask the man in charge of directing the vision for BMW, MINI, Rolls-Royce and Motorrad his outlook on future mobility and how he visualizes modern premium and luxury cars in the post-pandemic era.
Nargess Banks: The 2018 iNext vision study, on which this car is closely based, pioneered inventive visual ideas and technologies. How much of these have made it to this iX?
Adrian van Hooydonk: The production car is even more advanced than the concept. This is the most complex and intelligent vehicle that BMW has ever built. The technology has enabled us to do a design that is very reduced and clean, especially in the interior. The technology is there but not in your face and you will see this in the production car.
NB: Even though this is a futuristic car, you have retained the classic BMW codes – namely the driver-focused cockpit. How far can you take the marque into the next chapter of transport design without losing the brand’s unique appeal – its BMW-ness?
AvH: We have maintained the codes but with a different mix and a different flavor – so to speak. The form language may be very modern, reduced and clean, but the sense of precision, strong character and good proportions are all there. Then in the interior we have a new interpretation of the classic BMW driver-focused design with the curved screen that envelopes around the driver. If you go back to our cars of the 1970s and 80s, the cockpit was also curved around the driver. Of course, then it was analogue and there were a lot of switches positioned within the driver’s direct reach.
NB: The curved floating flat screen display looks complex. How hard was it to conceive?
AvH: It is a hugely complicated process and I think the curved screen is even better on the production than the concept vehicle. When we did the iNext, we were not sure if we could achieve this. After much pushing and working with an internal team and suppliers, we managed to create a large curved screen that stands free of the dashboard. It is as you would position a flat screen in, say, your modern loft apartment – interpreted here for a vehicle with all the crash and safety requirements.
NB: The overall concept chimes nicely with our modern times in that it offers great innovations yet equally, the warm colors and textures of the natural fabrics are an antidote to the digital world.
AvH: Yes, it is about merging functionality with aesthetics. We have drastically reduced the number of switches and although we are not completely switchless, we have found a good middle-ground where the interaction with the vehicle is sometimes through hard keys, much of the time through soft keys or touch interaction, but most of the time through voice input. Much of the reduction has also come from combining functions through smart materials such as wood surfaces which incorporate micro-switches. Then there is the transparent glass iDrive control unit which looks like a decorative object but in fact has touch functionality.
NB: There are some novel ideas being explored here too with the windscreen washer-fluid cap concealed under the BMW bonnet logo and a rear-view camera integrated into the tailgate logo. Did you purposely want to direct a uniquely different user journey for electric driving?
AvH: Once you have clarity on what you want the car to be and what can be achieved technically, then the ideas and solutions come easy. For instance, this car has a bonnet, but since there is no combustion engine, there is no need for the customer to have access to this. Instead it houses the electrics and high-voltage elements for mechanics to access safely at the dealership. We then decided to place the washer-fluid behind the BMW logo for convenient access.
NB: Can we discuss the unique iX notes composed by Hans Zimmer. I like how the composer compares creating an electric car sound to being in the desert, whereby you have to frame the silence.
AvH: It has been super exciting for our sound engineers to work with a composer with so much experience and coming from a different field. Like Hans Zimmer says, finding a sound for electric drive is like a blank canvas and you can start anew. You don’t create the car sound in the studio – the driver can trigger and modulate the sound with the throttle paddle which makes it an interesting and new field of design.
NB: For many of us, the pandemic has offered the opportunity for a reset button, urging us to rethink what is ethical, sustainable and less wasteful. Do you see this – and the impending climate crisis – as an opportunity for change and if so, how do you see it manifesting itself within your work at BMW Group design?
AvH: The answer can only be yes. The pandemic, as unfortunate as it is, does lead to a large-scale review of personal values and priorities. We have all been going through this process – looking at how we are leading our lives, taking care of our surroundings, people who are close to us. And I think it has led to people making more deliberate choices. With premium and luxury products, that was possibly already the case, but definitely the pandemic has strengthened this aspect.
NB: Are you saying it will alter our relation to products and how we consume, including cars?
AvH: Yes, people will make more deliberate choices. They will choose products that are authentic and meaningful to them in a personal way. If you look back to the 1980s, people bought products on the basis of how it made them look, what did it say to their neighbors. Now, we are more likely to buy items on the basis of what it can do for me and my loved ones – how can it change our lives for the better. The trend was already here, but the pandemic has definitely sped it up.
NB: How does this then impact as your pivotal role as creative lead for the BMW Group?
AvH: With products like iX we are answering this. When we started the iNext concept design, we envisaged it from the inside out. We knew then that the car was going to be full of technology, but we wanted to first think of the feeling it would give customers, the user experience. We wanted the car to be an extension of their living space. This may sound like an esoteric or tall order, but we knew that if the technology would allow the car to be intelligent and smart, then we needed to make it be more meaningful to the customer. We wanted to make something human.
NB: So, finding a healthier balance between man and machine?
AvH: Artificial intelligence is a big part of this generation of cars. If you have one BMW, you share the intelligence of the entire fleet. This level of machine intelligence may be great, but it can feel daunting and threatening. So, we felt part of our job as designers is to make this technology manageable and understandable and acceptable to the customer. We want to make the technology available but not in-your-face. This concept of shy tech helps the interior become warm and welcoming, but not at all intimating.
NB: The notion of premium and luxury have vastly advanced in recent times, inviting us to imagine alternative concepts to the traditional codes in car design. How do you see the world of luxury evolving to be in tune with our changing world and a new generation with very different values and expectations?
AvH: We have to talk about it in the context of new luxury, as I believe the concept has to change to be acceptable and desirable. For instance, with the new Rolls-Royce Ghost, we talk of the post-opulence era and this is reflected in the design. Premium and luxury have to become more intelligent, more sustainable. The BMW Group sees this as the only way. Our CEO has already committed to doing whatever is possible to achieving the Paris Agreement.
NB: Can you explain what this entails?
AvH: We have a strong grasp of what this means: having zero-emission cars like this iX, but also calculating the energy it takes to develop and build the cars and their energy consumption over their lifetime. The end goal is for BMW Group to become zero-impact and completely circular.
NB: Are your customers ready for this transition?
AvH: Yes, our customers generally do want to hear about this. Our task is to develop vehicles that can solve these issues, but also look attractive. We have to manage this turnaround. We have a very clear picture for each of our brands and products and we know it isn’t going to be easy, that it is a journey which has just begun.
Learn more about the 2018 iNext study, see the BMW electric i4 and read why Rolls-Royce sees modern luxury as “post-opulence”; plus take a look at the story behind Rolls-Royce, BMW and MINI’s future product strategy here.