Over the past year, BMW has celebrated its century's-worth of innovation by presenting an array of cars they imagine will represent what transport will look and feel like a hundred years from now, known as the Vision Next 100 challenge. Like most things in the future, we can be certain of uncertainty, with the brand themselves summizing that "the next 100 years cannot be predicted – not by scientists, nor by politicians or economic strategists. However, a number of credible prognoses exist that are based on future projections for a variety of figures and factors."
The resulting fleet unveiled in locations like Munich, London and Beijing is a leitmotif consisting of a BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce which are equal parts works of art as they are functioning vehicles – with key tenets in place including green emissions, autonomy, and lines so slick and sharp they could probably produce sashimi if they felt so inclined.
BMW Group Design chief, Adrian van Hooydonk, says the Vision Next 100 challenge was to come up with ideas that pushed the boundaries, but that never felt too foreign or alien: “We wanted to think far enough ahead but not so far that it’s a cartoon or science fiction.”
An airplane hanger in Santa Monica, California, served as the fourth and final stop on BMW's Vision Next 100 project tour. This time, it was the turn of the German brand's Motorrad division to present their own vision of what the future could look like, manifested through two wheels rather than four.
If there were a single facet of innovation that unites all three of the previous projects, it's the idea of having the "ultimate driving experience." While today that comes to mean having the car perform as the driver sees fit, mostly relating to speed and navigation, the quest for forecasting the future relied on an experience where man and machine could work in harmony as it relates to the rapid advancement in autonomy.
"The desire to be on the move is ingrained in human nature," explained Harald Krueger, Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG. "Individual mobility creates freedom and meets the personal needs of people's daily lives."
What all this translates to, and what was demonstrated, was a new type of motorbike in which the rider of the future could either choose to "grip it and rip it" – to be the active rider – or simply bow out when they want to and when the conditions allow it – to become a passive rider. However, for the cars BMW envision a different story. For both the Mini and the Rolls-Royce, the vehicles offer completely driverless experiences where riders are enveloped in a "Grand Sanctuary" thanks to an invisible assistant that serves in a livery capacity.
"Our long-term corporate strategy, Number ONE > NEXT, focuses firmly on the customer and the experience of sustainable premium mobility. We want to offer our customers the ultimate in emotional products and innovative services - today and in the future," said Krueger, as he opened the press conference.
"In the city, daily travel will be all about comfortable, stress free journeys from point A to B," predicts Edgar Heinrich, head of design at BMW Motorrad. "I'll be able to work, relax or communicate when I'm on the move. Most of the vehicles used for this purpose will not need me as a driver as they will be completely autonomous."
The BMW Motorrad Vision Next 100 bike seemingly comes out of nowhere during the presentation. To say that it was quiet would be a vast understatement. It gives you the initial reaction that the blonde model in a black, Cat Woman-style suit has dipped into the archives at Wayne Enterprise and taken one of Batman's bikes out for a joyride.
Aesthetically, the black triangular shape of the frame is a reference to the R32 – BMW’s first ever motorcycle - with additional hints of yesteryear coming in the form of the white stripe and a classic BMW boxer engine shape.
"The design symbolizes the timeless emotionality of motorcycling – from the past to the future," Heinrich says and the BMW Motorrad Vision Next 100 bike certainly seems to check all the boxes for BMW and its beliefs: that mobility is becoming versatile and tailor-made, connectivity is becoming second-nature, technology is becoming human, energy is becoming emission-free, and responsibility is diverse.
Apart from its sweeping lines, the most stunning feature of the bike is that it is incapable of tipping. This is thanks to a gyroscope-aided self-balancing system that can work in harmony with the bike’s "Digital Companion,” which offers riding advice and adjustment ideas to optimize the experience for the driver/rider.
With so much tech onboard the bike, BMW doesn't believe these motorcycles are really capable of crashing. Because we’re dealing with the future here, BMW’s own utopianism envisions riders eschewing traditional helmets in favor of "The Visor." Extending across the entire field of vision and controlled through eye movements, "The Visor" provides active feedback on road conditions and communicates with the bike's Flexframe – the carbon fiber shell that extends from the front to the rear wheel – to enhance both safety for novice riders while at the same time optimizing the experience for seasoned riders through turning dynamics that allow for new steering movements that don't rely on today’s geometrical limitations.
“The bike has the full range of connected data from its surroundings and a set of intelligent systems working in the background, so it knows exactly what lies ahead,” said Holger Hampf, BMW's head of user experience.
Of course, all this begs the question of whether this is something motorcycle enthusiasts actually want? Do people who ride motorcycles want a fully- or near-autonomous experience like that offered in BMW’s Mini and Rolls-Royce concept cars?
"The question is very good, but it's very deep," says Heinrich.
Edgar Heinrich sits proudly next to the bike in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He's just finished doing press with a slew of Asian journalists following lengthy roundtable discussions in German. "The question is very good, but it's very deep," he says.
In the earlier conference he outlined how "the vision vehicle will act with foresight and [will be] able to protect the rider at any time.” Heinrich was well aware of the aforementioned question regarding safety and freedom of movement when he set forth on this design initiative. "Riding a motorcycle is the ultimate sensual and analog experience in a more and more digital world. The wind in your hair, the centrifugal forces, the indescribable feeling in the pit of your stomach,” he says.
"On the other hand, [aspects like] safety and being green will always go up," he adds. "They will never go down. And we have to deal with it."
In other words, in Heinrich’s opinion it would make about as much sense imagining a bike of the future that was as or more dangerous as it would be presenting one with as or more pollutant capabilities.
"But on the other hand, you are right," Heinrich continues. "This danger thing is a bit sexy. This is why lots of people like it. If something is 100 percent safe, I mean, 'no risk, no fun.' So, it's this balance. So the question is also, 'how do I express it?' I have to somehow tame it while also making a 'legal hooligan' out of it. This is what I see here: a legal hooligan."
Heinrich goes so far to believe that items with an analog capability will be viewed with connotations associated with opulence.
"There will actually be a deep yearning for it – particularly in the fully connected future world," he says. "It's in our nature to want to see and understand how things work. In a world full of digital devices, mechanical objects will be a luxury," Heinrich continues.
BMW has always touted these four pieces of automotive technology as being something capable of being enjoyed in a hundred years. However, during the building process, Heinrich not only realized that he needed to strike the perfect balance between technology and purity, but that the future wasn't so far off for this new motorcycle to eventually be realized.
"At the beginning, you think 'this is really futuristic.' But when you think more about it, you think 'maybe it’s not so futuristic.' Maybe it's just around two corners, because lots of these elements are already here. But of course, not in this combination just yet."