BMW i wants to build the ultimate self-driving machine

EV brand changes its mission amid struggles, leadership departures.

Just a few years into its short life, BMW's i sub-brand is changing its mission from the pursuit of the electric cars to building the ultimate self-driving machine. That's according to Klaus Froehlich, shown above, a BMW board member and the head of research and design.

"[BMW i] is now in ramp-up stage," Froehlich told Reuters. "We call it Project i Next."

Project i Next won't abandon the electric car model – but instead, its next EV will feature the next-generation of self-driving technology. This is not the first time we've heard of BMW's autonomous aspirations, but it's the first time we've heard of a new name or designation for the brand. According to Reuters, BMW won't sell its next i-badged EV until 2021 – whether that's the oft-rumored i5 or another vehicle all together remains to be seen. Whatever BMW calls it, driverless tech will be a priority.

Froelich added that such a vehicle could allow the company to fire up its own ride-hailing service to challenge Uber and Lyft, and their automotive allies, Toyota and General Motors. BMW is still working on its partnership strategy in that realm, Froelich told Reuters, but the company isn't sitting still – it made a small investment in ride-sharing app Scoop late last month.

A raft of electric car competitors – Tesla, obviously, but also Porsche and Audi – and the struggling i3 are forcing BMW i's hand. It only sold 11,000 i3s here in the US last year, and with just 2,272 sold over five months, it's on pace to do less than half that volume in 2016. A Chinese electric startup has also plundered the brand's leadership ranks, Reuters said. Bloomberg claims this startup is Future Mobility Co., which is backed by Foxconn (among others). Just five months into 2016, i has lost the head of its powertrain group, Dirk Abendroth, its VP of product management, Henrik Wenders, and the head of the i8 program, Carsten Breitfeld. Considering these woes, changing gears might be i's best option for long-term viability.

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