BMW Debuts The Vision Next 100 Concept, Showing Us What We'll Be Driving In 30 Years

Not content merely to celebrate its status as the world’s largest luxury automaker for most of this century, BMW used its 100th birthday on Monday to reveal its vision for the future.

What does the car of tomorrow look like? The debate over the fate of transportation can be distilled into a single question: will it have a steering wheel, or won’t it? BMW is hedging its bets. Its concept car, the BMW Vision Next 100, comes in two modes: one that helps a driver reach peak performance and one that leaves the driving to the car.

BMW hosted hundreds of journalists from around the world at Munich’s Olympic Stadium on Monday to showcase the boxy gull-wing sedan. Even Angela Merkelappeared in a video message that apologized for missing the party but commended BMW for its contribution to the German economy.

Certainly, the Vision Next 100 raises more questions than it answers. BMW declined to say how much it might cost, when it might be available, or what kind of powertrain it might have. But executives did say the concept was closer to two or three decades away than a full century.

BMW is the latest automaker to embrace the uncertainty of driving’s evolving future by branding itself as a “mobility company.” That’s a challenge for a business that goes by the tagline “sheer driving pleasure.”

That’s why the Vision Next 100 represents a compromise. The heart of the concept is that the car kowtows to whatever the driver wants. That means you can retain the emotional experience of driving – when you want it – or relinquish control in a traffic jam.

“Our car will soon be our digital chauffeur and our personal companion,” Maximilian Schöberl, executive vice president of corporate affairs, said through a translator at a press conference before the reveal.

Indeed, the phrases “ultimate driver,” “intelligent co-pilot” and “companion” played on heavy repeat during Monday’s celebration. The Vision Next 100 is supposed to represent the best of both worlds, where both driver and car are as smart as possible. “Boost” mode helps a driver perform better through a multitude of functions. For example, the car can calculate a bicyclist’s path, even when obscured behind a truck parked in a loading zone, to help the driver avoid it. The entire windshield becomes a head-up display that maps the best route, road conditions and potential obstacles.

The car regulates the flow of information, "sending only the necessary bits to the driver,” while transmitting the data up to the cloud and to other vehicles on the road, said Adrian van Hooydonk, senior vice president of BMW GroupDesign.

“Ease” mode provides a more laid-back experience, truly: the driver’s seat reclines so that he or she can indulge in other tasks, such as reading, talking or napping. Meanwhile, the car communicates with the outside world, lighting up to signal that it’s in self-driving mode and winking at pedestrians to let them know it’s safe to cross the street. The steering wheel – a horizontal column that can only be held at the 9 and 3 position – retracts, turning the car into more of a pod.

What will the steering wheel be called? “Maybe we call it steering furniture,” said Harald Krüger, chairman of the BMW AG’s board. “We are open to suggestions.”