The BMW enclave is a suitable mix of high-tech and throwback cool.

A few days before the Shanghai Motor Show kicked off, we were part of an international group of media that was invited to have a look at the BMW Designworks Shanghai Studio and ConnectedDrive Lab facility. The building that BMW found to house its Chinese think tank is in a lovely part of Shanghai known as the former French Concession. The late 1890s and early 1900s French architectural style, brick-paved streets and tree-lined spaces feel a world apart from the ultra-modern heart of Shanghai, and the BMW enclave is a suitable mix of high-tech and throwback cool.

We were visiting, in short, to understand just why BMW has found it important to have design and research capability in China. As it turns out, answering those questions also served to shed some light on the Chinese auto market as a whole – what it looks like today and where it's going over the next few years.

Of course, the basic idea of developing new facilities and human resources in a foreign market is to be able to better design and build cars for that market. In terms of design, this isn't a new concept. In terms of BMW design, and more specifically its DesignworksUSA team, the concept has been a reality for more than ten years now. In Shanghai, the process is just getting going, with the BMW team getting a late start, setting up shop just last year.

The Shanghai-design team is an international bunch, composed of Europeans, Americans, Asians and native Chinese. Working with the groups in Munich and in California, Designworks splits its time between in-house and external projects; roughly 50/50. As of yet, the new guys in Shanghai haven't worked on a customer project on their own, but they have contributed meaningfully to work for the home office. The industrial design projects that DW has laid its pen to include things as diverse as a John Deere project to a minimalist office furniture company called Allsteel, in addition to the wants and needs of BMW. Where the outside projects help to diversify and inform Designworks as a whole, the goal for the Shanghai office is to have an ear to the ground for new trends and styles that are bound to crop up in one of the world's largest mega cities.

Projects that DW has laid its pen to are as diverse as a John Deere and minimalist office furniture company Allsteel.

In fact, the concept of following mega-city trends will inform the work that his happening at the BMW facility, even outside of the design department. The ConnectedDrive engineers in Shanghai have a ground-level view of not only the challenges they see in China, but also are seeking a better understanding of what the Chinese people view as innovative solutions.

A great example here has to do with the crippling traffic, in and around the city. Much has been made of the Chinese inclination to be chauffer driven; an idea that makes sense when you consider the wealth of China-only long-wheelbase-model cars and the aforementioned traffic snarls in huge cities. BMW is learning that actually represents a changing and/or incomplete picture of the situation today. While it's true that heavy traffic affects the lives of all drivers, it's not the luxury of a chauffer that makes LWB cars attractive; especially for younger Chinese who prefer to drive themselves. Instead, the idea of having a car with great interior volume, especially maximized in the rear seats, has to do with making space for the driver's friends, family and business associates – people that he or she cares greatly about. It's a concept that BMW has labeled the "Inner Courtyard" and it's helping to direct research into a new generation of semi-autonomous cars.

Think about it: You're a young, well-paid Shanghainese professional, who hasn't grown up with a passion for driving, maybe, but you certainly consider luxury cars to be highly desirable. During your daily commute, which is both long and fraught with potential fender benders (there's still an awful lot of weird driving out there), you're likely to be either using your smartphone a lot, or missing out on calls, texts, and the daily news.

A concept that BMW has labeled the "Inner Courtyard" is helping to direct research into a new generation of semi-autonomous cars.

(A quick aside here: we're not being glib with the smartphone comments. We're told that the Chinese are rapidly ramping up usage to stay in touch with especially large family groups. In terms of news, it's not as simple there as it is here to get the real story. China's version of Twitter, Weibo, is a primary source of unfiltered information, but it's "harmonized" by the watchdogs about every two hours. That means you've got to check in pretty regularly to be sure you're not missing out on something your government might not want you to hear.)

BMW's proposed solution to all of this is what it's now calling Connected Foresight. Essentially, the experimental system uses a collection of vehicle sensors, environmental sensors and data from other vehicles to drive through the worst of the crawling traffic situations. It's technology that BMW and other automakers have been working on for some time, and it's a ways out from series production at this point, but it's just the sort of thing that the Shanghai ConnectedDrive lab hopes to be able to contribute meaningfully to down the road.

How does the traditional BMW driving experience fit with this new world of computer-steered cars and "drivers" looking up restaurant reviews?

The new facility also has an Apps lab, which is doing a lot to help with the same in-car connectivity shoppers in Europe and the US are after – for better or worse – but with applications that are relevant and high-use by Chinese customers.

One bit that was troubling us during all of these talks and presentations, was how the idea of the traditional BMW driving experience – The Ultimate Driving Machine and all that – fits in with this new world of computer-steered cars with "drivers" looking up restaurant reviews, etc. We posed the question to Ian Robertson, BMW executive bigwig, at a roundtable at the Shanghai Motor Show. His response was that drivers "could have all of those things," meaning an enthusiast-oriented car that's also, perhaps, semi-autonomous. Robertson maintains that, "Taking the pain out of the commute and traffic does equal more driving joy." We see where he's going with that, and for drivers that might not care about feel, directness or at-the-limit behavior, he might just be right. We're still not ready to suggest full enthusiast buy-in, however, not by a long ways, and not without a few test drives under our belt.

Still, there's a lot going on at this tucked away little spot in the former French Concession – BMW has even collected used EV batteries to build a grid-augmented, solar-charged battery bank – most of which should lead to both better products for near-term customers in China and more innovative ideas for future products for all BMW markets.

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