BMW Previews an HMI Future Without Dashboard Screens
The interactive i Vision Dee concept takes digital tech to a new level while showcasing BMW’s next-gen EV architecture.
The BMW i Vision Dee is an electric tease, dialed up to Las Vegas wattage for a provocative unveiling at CES 2023: A novel digital grille, wrapped with Kindle-style “E-ink” material, can transform this sedan’s facial expression, from a winking nod to BMW’s classic twin kidneys, to flashing animations worthy of the local Strip. Or meet “Dee,” who announces herself as your digital “companion,” in a honeyed tone that belies cool efficiency and professional command.
Slide aboard this concept and Spielbergian augmented-reality projections on the windshield show everything from vehicle functions to social-media scrolls and navigation overlays atop the road ahead. Step out again, and bodyside windows display graphical content to outside onlookers, turning this handsome sedan into a rolling drive-in or advertising billboard. More e-ink surrounds the greenhouse like digital chrome, flashing animated patterns and more.
But behind the digital whimsy and razzle-dazzle, the i Vision Dee (Digital Emotional Experience) concept car is a deadly serious technology showcase – a first glimpse of BMWs’ critical Neue Klasse platform, a standalone EV architecture that will support multiple BMWs, likely beginning with electric takes on a 3-Series sedan and crossover beginning in 2025.
At a Munich preview of the i Vision Dee in December 2022, BMW offered a deep dive into the concept car, as well as the company’s EV plans and battery technologies. Buyers can look forward to dramatically improved driving range and efficiency, and steep cuts in carbon emissions throughout their vehicles’ lifecycle.
An electric avatar
BMW experts stressed that the strikingly designed i Vision Dee is strictly a concept car. But whatever their ultimate form, Neue Klasse models will go a long way to determine whether BMW reaches its goal for EVs to make up 50% of global sales by 2030. Compared with some luxury rivals, including Volvo, Cadillac and Jaguar – which insist they will go all-electric by 2030 at the latest – BMW’s half-EV strategy shows the Bavarian automaker hedging its bets. That strategy includes “iFactories” that can build ICE cars, plug-in hybrids and EVs on a single assembly line, with BMW convinced that not every market and customer will be ready for EVs by 2030. Hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion also is a development priority.
Certain BMW fans may clamor for the company to greenlight the i Vision Dee for production with as few changes as possible: In contrast to some controversial BMW designs, including the iX electric SUV with its bumptious, vertically oriented twin-kidney grille, the i Vision Dee styling is pure crowd-pleaser.
Kai Langer, head of BMW i Design, said the automaker is well aware of controversy over its recent design language, not least from vocal owners. “These are our customers, and you have to listen,” he said. Yet Langer said BMW is determined to push design boundaries. For the Bavarian brand, the worst sin is being boring.
“To provoke no feelings means we’re not doing our job right,” Langer said. “Without something new, there is no progress.”
Akin to the Hyundai Ioniq 5 EV, the i Vision Dee is instantly recognizable as a future-forward EV, even as it carries echoes of vintage design eras. For BMW traditionalists, it’s not another SUV, but a three-box sedan, an almost radical proposition in 2023. “Beautiful things have been done in our heritage, so why not draw from that?” Langer asks.
The i Vision’s pure sedan forms gave BMW a blank canvas for digital experimentation. That includes the E-ink laminated grille, window surrounds and lower door strips, all with microencapsulated particles that can be excited by low current (15 volts and less than 100 milliamperes) to change from black to white and create a movable Electronic Paper Display. Sensors can track the eyes of a human audience and graphically interact with them. Aside from animations or graphical expressions – what BMW calls “phygital icons” – the tech might one day turn vehicles into chameleons, allowing them to transform to any color on the spectrum at an owner’s whim.
“The joy of this is not sensible stuff,” allowed Stella Clarke, the BMW research engineer and Ph.D leading the project. “It’s just really freaking cool.”
As for the dazzling view inside, the BMW defies the current trend toward ever-larger digital displays, now peaking in Mercedes-Benz cabins with the 56-inch (1422-mm) “Hyperscreen.” BMW, whose iDrive became the oft-mimicked pioneer of screen-based infotainment, now is suggesting a hard 180-degree turn toward no interior screens at all.
Instead, a “Mixed Reality Slider” projects increasing levels of immersive images on the windshield; from simple head-up style readouts, to ultimately, a windshield entirely filled with VR imagery, whether a driving game or training simulation. During a demonstration at a BMW test center, journalists donned a VR headset and drove a BMW M3 at high speed, while immersed in the virtual urban streets of “BMW Town”, avoiding “obstacles” and picking up award coins in the virtual path.
“You’ll decide how you want to interact with the car,” said Olivier Pitrat, the engineer in charge of UI and UX design, while stressing that operator safety will remain tantamount.
This potentially revolutionary move allows BMW to design dashboards with old-school luxury, materials and craftsmanship in mind, rather than giving the space to an oversized screen that many designers view as the antithesis of luxury.
“We think we have a better way,” Langer said. “You can’t watch Netflix in your front seat anyway, and no one wants to look at a giant, switched-off TV in their living room.”
The i Vision Dee carries those minimalist ideas further via so-called “Shy Tech.” Instead of analog controls for interior door handles, for example – or haptic switches whose balky operation or poor tactility often are loathed by consumers – BMW embeds electronic door releases directly in surface materials, whose ghostly outlines only appear when a user’s hand approaches.