Mini Vision Next 100 Concept: It's the autonomy, stupid

  • Image Credit: Mini
The concepts that Mini and Rolls-Royce showed off today – the Vision Next 100 Concept and 103EX, respectively – are all about autonomy. The Rolls-Royce doesn't even have a place for a "driver." And even though both are very much blue sky concepts, corporate parent BMW thinks it will make fully-autonomous cars within the next five years.

That's according to Peter Schwarzenbauer, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, MINI, BMW Motorrad, Rolls-Royce, and Aftersales BMW Group, who also told us that both cars, at least in concept, are fully electric. The Rolls-Royce has dual-drive, 250kw motors mounted fore-and aft, on front and rear axles.

While the Rolls is clearly a luxury concept for the monied few, the Mini is very much focused on a shared economy. Holger Hampf, Head of User Experience, BMW Group, said the chief design challenge of a car-sharing world is producing a car that could in theory mean different things to different borrowers. You get exclusivity because each car would morph according to the borrower's desires. BMW/Mini already have a car-sharing program in London called DriveNow, and a pilot program in Seattle called ReachNow, focused on the idea of shared exclusivity.

ReachNow, which allows Mini/BMW owners to lend their cars out in an AirBnB-type scheme or to borrow "fleet-style cars," are immutable – however the car that was ordered is what the borrower or the owner will get. That's great if you're the owner, but it's also challenging for both anyone who'd buy that car used or for anyone borrowing the car. And if the future of most cars is a shared model (Ford is now offering multi-person leases among up to six buyers in a pilot program in Austin, Texas), customization is impossible. The result is what Schwarzenbauer derogatorily calls "normed." He says carmakers have to relearn to brand for a world where ownership is devalued but customization is key.

To that end the MINI VISION NEXT 100 is "skinned." We've seen this before with the BMW NEXT concept that was revealed at the NY Auto Show this past spring, and the idea is to use the exterior of the car as a canvass that changes according to setting. Indeed Mini envisions that in a multi-driver household, the vehicle's customization could easily include changing colors according to driver preference – automatically. Dr. Ian Robertson, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Sales and Marketing, explained that BMW already has the technology to use a car's external sensors to positively ID the owner. The car could then re-skin itself on the fly, for instance between autonomous loans (where the Mini drops off one borrower and then drives itself to another loan).

Part of this, too, is cueing expectations. The same way apps get updates, "refreshing" the smartphone experience, cars need to keep evolving to stay compelling to buyers/borrowers and of course to encourage brand loyalty.

Hampf said that customization would continue to the drive experience, again with the idea each owner/driver would have driving behavior logged. For instance, you wouldn't have to adjust suspension or throttle sensitivity; the car would know what you prefer in city or country driving, with all "settings" fading into the background. "We could easily turn it into a John Cooper Works if that's what you prefer."

This also explains how the concept doesn't need a typical instrument panel. The entire windscreen is a display, and any ancillary setting would be by voice.

One part of the formula that proved more challenging, Hampf says, is designing around sharing or at least split ownership. In this concept Mini used materials that will change with age, and rather than, say, the polish of a worn steering wheel. The idea, Hampf explained, is to cue a driver about quality. That explains why designers have used materials like brass and recycled cellulose that are meant to change with age.

This is obviously in contrast to a "skin" that acts like a display, because physical wear signals tangibility in a world of increasing disposability. Hampf says that's key though for not just Mini, but the entire BMW Group DNA to transition, say, from less leather to more wood, and even to allow materials to be porous rather than hermetically seal them. "That's what our buyers want, a personality alive to each consumer."

That's certainly what Mini owners have wanted, where mass customization is part and parcel of the buying process today. This concept suggests a leap forward for the brand of even more exposure to more customers. The tough task ahead is preserving Mini-ness the way a top restauranteur nails exclusivity even when the customer experience is fleeting. That's hardly just a Mini problem, but for a carmaker so reliant on unique iconography it is a steeper challenge.

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