BMW: ‘Be careful that cars do not become too cold due to electrification and digitization’

BMW interior

Frank van Meel may have just become CEO of BMW M, but in recent years the Dutchman has mainly supervised the development of the electric iX and the modernization of the luxury segment of the BMW Group. AutoWeek spoke to him about the big changes of the moment.

Luxury cars must, however, not only innovate in terms of propulsion, but also in terms of digitization, right?

“Digitalization is the next big thing anyway, also in our industry. A car is gradually becoming a mobile device that you can literally sit in. The new iX shows how far we are at BMW on that front, with 5G connectivity for over-the-air updates or options and a whole host of processors to run all those applications flawlessly. We must, however, ensure that electrification and digitization do not make cars too cold, especially in the higher segments, where customers expect more than a well-functioning car. Such a product has to evoke emotions and at the same time create a desire, which is not so obvious in a digital environment.”

So luxury cars should above all remain unique and tell their own story?

“Indeed, otherwise we risk making cars that have all the bells and whistles, but don’t provoke an emotional response. The accompanying story has to be right in order to appropriately combine our heritage with new elements to create a desirable product. Unfortunately, there is not really a calibrated recipe for this, but we do have ingredients that we can apply to different models. For example, the iX introduces a series of technologies that stay neatly in the background and fall under the heading of shy tech. The filler cap of the spray reservoir under the BMW emblem is a good example of this, but it can also be done digitally. For features such as heated interior panels, we base ourselves on the smart home principle, where everything happens discreetly in the background. In a luxury car, for example, the ventilation should not blow into your face, but it should work.”

BMW interior

Should we call this new luxury style minimalism?

“We sometimes say that our cars have fewer and fewer buttons, but are certainly not ‘buttonless’. You still want physical keys for important functions, especially with an active driving style, which makes strumming on a screen difficult. That is why we allow many processes to work automatically, with or without a predictive function that gradually learns to unburden the user. In addition, we let the driver assistance systems work together with navigation and other sensors to feel for themselves when a city center is approaching and, for example, to select a different form of recuperation of the braking energy. The driver can adjust everything himself, but also has the option of leaving certain settings to the car brain.”

Don’t you fear that new users in particular will be overwhelmed by all these possibilities?

“Our job is to make the familiarization phase of a new car as short and as easy as possible. I also think that shy tech can help with that too, because it works automatically in the background, without the user having to do anything about it. The functions that you as a new owner have to discover for yourself should therefore not be too numerous. We strive to keep the controls of our cars intuitive in the first place, even if you haven’t read the manual. Then you may not know all the functions, but the main functions are obvious anyway. If you then want to get more out of your car, you can improve your knowledge quite easily in various ways.”

BMW interior

To what extent are luxury cars still being developed for passengers in the back seat?

“That differs from model to model. Logically, we pay a lot of attention to the rear passengers in the 7-series, but we actually do that with the X models as well. For example, Chinese customers like to be driven in an SUV or take their parents – who often pay for the car – everywhere. So we can say that the rear seat is steadily gaining in importance, which presents an additional challenge for our engineers. After all, a 7-series should feel like a real BMW at the wheel, while the passengers in the back seat mainly desire comfort.”

Despite the crisis, the market for new luxury cars and executive cars is really booming. How do you explain that?

“The demand for luxury is not declining because of a pandemic. After the major lockdown of 2020, we saw that many customers had something to make up, as it were, and wanted to reward themselves after a difficult period. The popularity of young used cars grew due to the increasing delivery times as a result of the lack of semiconductors. Yet a far-reaching form of personalization is still the ultimate form of luxury. For example, we recently had a 7-series where all the chrome had been replaced by real silver or another completely covered with fish skins on the inside, at the request of a Scandinavian fishmonger. The most notable was a 7-series with diamonds in the door trim, for which we even engaged a valuables transport to get the parts safely to the dealer. Luxury has many faces.”

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