Why AI and machine science are transforming the nature of cars

MINI Vision Urbanaut

This is an extraordinary period in the story of the motor car. Environmental concerns over the climate crisis have urged even the most traditional of carmakers to rethink their business model and commit to creating products that are more ecological. Modern technology – artificial learning and machine science – offer new possibilities for the car to be so much more than a passive vehicle for transport. The pandemic, the disruption it has caused, has unleashed subtle cultural shifts and accelerated the rate of progress. Personal transport is undergoing a paradigm shift, and the eventual outcome could be really exciting.

Earlier this month the BMW Group set their future agenda. The #NextGen 2020 digital conference offered an insightful view into the strategic and creative thinking at one of the oldest traditional car companies – the umbrella brand for BMW, Rolls-Royce, MINI and Motorrad. Discussions included the company’s electric drive strategy as well as, crucially, the wonder and potential in AI and the information age as we nudge our way towards the autonomous drive era.


The products being presented at NextGen offer an insightful glance into the future. For instance, the iX introduces customers to the marque’s latest electrification, driverless and connected technologies when it heads to production in 2021. The sustainability approach is holistic: the lightweight design largely works with natural and recycled materials, the car boasts exceptional aerodynamics, the new eDrive powering the car is made without using critical raw materials, and there is a high recycling rate for the battery.

The iX design is seemingly modest – it doesn’t shout innovation and electric – yet conceals some super-advanced technologies. Since electric drive doesn’t require the same degree of cooling as conventional engines, the blanked off front grille functions instead as a high-tech interface for advanced driver assistance systems and, later, it can be tailored for fully automated driving. Inside, the concept revolves around ‘shy tech’ – digital elements that surface only when summoned so as to avoid overwhelming customers. This is guided through a personal assistant and integrated smart fabrics such as wood surfaces which incorporate micro-switches. BMW has also looked into the right sound to reflect electrification by working alongside composer Hans Zimmer for a unique electric engine note.


Elsewhere at NextGen, the Vision Urbanaut study vehicle looks into future possibilities for the MINI brand. This is a fun, shape-shifting electric car that resets the dial on the form and function of personal transport. The design is centred on user experience with the interior and the customer journey leading the creative process. The interior layout alters according to three pre-programmed ‘MINI Moments’. In the first scenario ‘Chill’, the car transforms into an ambient space for relaxing or working, the automated drive is deactivated in ‘Wanderlust’ so you can take to the wheel, and lastly, ‘Vibe’ turns the car into a social hub.

Much like the iX, the design team have considered the environmental impact of the materials in Vision Urbanaut where sustainable knitted textile feature heavily and the car is chrome-and leather-free. There are fun design features here too such as the windscreen which tilts open to become a sort of balcony to the outside world. What’s more, headlights and colour illuminations in the wheels communicate the car’s function to other road users. This, of course, has safety implications for, say, when the car is in autonomous mode.

MINI Vision Urbanaut

If the future of consumption is more and more about visceral experiences, then the Vision Urbanaut is on the right track. It also positions the brand where it should be – future-facing. ‘MINI customers typically live in urban environments and I believe they are even more ready for electric drive and new ways of looking at mobility than perhaps our other brands,’ says head of BMW Group design, Adrian van Hooydonk. ‘I think we can use MINI to push out concepts further.’

These two cars utilise the possibilities offered by machine learning. Van Hooydonk is candid when he says artificial intelligence is a big part of this generation of cars and will be even more so going forward. ‘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. Part of our job as designers is to make this technology manageable and understandable and acceptable to the customer,’ he continues, saying it should never be in-your-face. ‘The concept of shy tech helps the interior become warm and welcoming, but not at all intimating.’

MINI Vision Urbanaut

Asked if he sees the current pandemic and the impending climate crisis as an opportunity for a company like the BMW Group to be at the forefront of change, he replies: ‘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,’ he says, adding: ‘We have a very clear picture for each of our brands and we know it isn’t going to be easy, that it is a journey which has just begun.’ Nargess Banks

Images © BMW AG

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MINI Vision Urbanaut
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