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A look at BMW's future: With Krueger out, there are contradictory predictions

Shared mobility, autonomy — and a dissenter on battery electrics

BMW Vision M Next
BMW Vision M Next / Image Credit: BMW
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That didn't take long. Last week, we sat down in Munich at BMW's Next event with company CEO Harald Krüger; this week, it was officially announced that he is stepping down.

For a long time, speculation was rife that he may not be appointed for a second term. Krüger had been perceived as a weak leader almost from the beginning. It began with an unfortunate incident at his first IAA press conference in September 2015: Krüger fainted on stage. And BMW had to explain later that his schedule was a bit "too much" for him.

On a later occasion, a spokesman told a select group of international journalists that Krüger had been on his way to meet them but turned around because he was not feeling well: "He is in bed," we were told – as if Krüger needed an excuse, not to mention such a detailed one. Characteristically, his role at the gathering was taken over by R&D chief Klaus Fröhlich.

Fröhlich, an aggressive executive who doesn't shy away from controversy, provided a highly visible sideshow to Krüger's tenure from the beginning. While pressured from below, Krüger was also kept on a short leash by his predecessor Norbert Reithofer, who moved right over to head the company's supervisory board, instead of taking a prolonged break, as good governance might have suggested. Reithofer, we are told, got on the phone with Krüger regularly to provide his own perspective.

Indecisiveness is what Krüger's critics blamed him for, and while we do not fully agree with this assessment, the BMW Next event could serve as a good illustration for the weaker aspects of his tenure.

A kid's supposed dream

Conceived to offer a glimpse into the future of the company and its technological prowess, the event was framed by a quasi-theatrical performance featuring a BMW engineer in the form of a father trying to figure out what kind of mobility his little daughter might wish to enjoy in the future.

Rather unsurprisingly, the girl checked the box for every modern automotive cliché – think "clean," "shared" and "autonomous." Regrettably, she failed to ask for a rear-wheel drive coupe with a straight-six and a manual transmission (without mandatory rev match), as part of the audience might have preferred.

Such a request would have amounted to an act of civil disobedience at an event designed to tout BMW's push for – you guessed it – electrification, shared mobility and autonomous driving.

But OK, Lucy and M Next could be fun

That's not to say that there was a lack of excitement in Munich. In fact, an electrified 5-Series called PowerBEV (aka "Lucy") truly wowed the audience. Outside, the car is almost indistinguishable from a regular 5-Series, save for the gaping holes where you would expect the exhaust pipes. But when Lucy moves, she does so with a vengeance — 60 mph comes up in less than three seconds, and she tops out beyond 155 mph.

Unlike a Tesla Model S, Lucy's power is served up repeatedly and consistently. "Even when driving very fast, it is almost impossible to cause the batteries to restrict power," we are told, and "[a] full lap on a racetrack is easily possible without power loss." Rated at more than 720 horsepower and a whopping 848 pound-feet of torque, this is an impressive executive sedan – and one whose powertrain hints at the upcoming BMW iNext and i4 series production models (although they will do with two motors).

Another looker was the 600-horsepower M Next concept, significant in several ways: It nurtures the strong-yet-unsatisfied craving for a replacement of the legendary M1, and it hints at the marriage of BMW i and BMW M – previously explained as the two extremes of BMW's lineup, but now apparently compatible.

Like the current i8, the BMW M Next is not a full electric but a plug-in hybrid, albeit one that features a four-cylinder engine instead of the i8's three-banger. The interior is stunningly futuristic, but to this author the exterior the exterior design seems generic. It might as well have been a rejected Lamborghini proposal circa 2008.

Onward to an autonomous future

BMW did not fail to play up its autonomous driving efforts, and there was even talk of drones, which is an outlandish yet trendy idea in the industry these days. 7-Series prototypes gave a glimpse of how a BMW can replace its driver when equipped with a plethora of cameras and sensors.

In fact, BMW just announced that it would join forces with Daimler to work on autonomous cars up to Level 4, aiming for a 2024 market launch. This can be read in two ways: Sure, Germany's best are teaming up to create the best autonomous driving systems in the world; but also, they may be trying desperately to cut the losses on a technology for which both a legal framework and an appropriate infrastructure are absent. We suspect it's a combination of both.

For a glimpse of a possible future, BMW also introduced a geofencing function that automatically shuts off your plug-in hybrid's gasoline or diesel engine as soon as you reach an urban area that has banned internal combustion engines. This, of course, opens up a can of worms: If your car can be meddled with remotely as soon as you enter certain areas, all bets are off. In fact, European regulators have already let the cat out of the bag: They want to force cars to obey speed limits, using the very same technology.

Is the future electric?

BMW made a bold statement: Two years earlier than originally planned, now in 2023, the company aims to bring 25 electrified models to market. At least 13 of them will be full electrics. A casualty of this seems to be improved internal combustion engines, which were entirely absent at the Next event. It would seem to the casual observer as if BMW had abandoned engines, once the very core of the brand.

But this impression was thoroughly annihilated by the stunning statements given by R&D chief Klaus Fröhlich. He confided to a group of journalists that "there are no customer requests for BEVs. None.” And doubled down: “There are regulator requests for BEVs, but no customer requests.” Except for China and California, he intimated, people would be better off with hybrids.

BMW has subsequently tried to downplay the statements. And the signals are confusing, as Fröhlich has also taken a sharply critical view of synthetic fuels, one of the approaches that could save the internal combustion engine. If the CO2-neutral production of these fuels counts towards reaching CO2 reduction targets, customers and carmakers could be spared a wide rollout of battery-electric vehicles. Yet Fröhlich, ever the engineer, points to the inefficiencies of synthetic fuel production.

Whether he takes over at the helm of BMW or whether that task falls to the mild-mannered personnel chief Oliver Zipse, challenges have never been more complex in the famous four-cylinder tower in Munich-Milbertshofen.

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