The development of autonomous cars continues apace, but just like a lot of other nascent technologies, it appears to leave many unanswered questions. Most of what we understand about car design, both internally and externally, remains a work-in-progress. This implies that recognized brands have to instill their DNA into a completely new type of car. Dr. Alexander Kotouc, who heads BMW’s i Product Management has some interesting insights about providing 'Sheer (Self) Driving Pleasure’ in the autonomous and electric era.
Dr. Kotouc is among the people who are very qualified to discuss the future of the car. He is a founding member of the BMW i and was instrumental in the creation of the BMW i3 and i8. This division was established with the aim of developing plug-in electric vehicles for use in modern-day mega-cities. The project led to the evolution of the Mini Cooper EVs, electric 1 Series and ultimately the BMW i3.
Investing time and money in the advancement of electric mobility appears to be no-brainer today, but it was a big deal for BMW during the mid-2000s.Then, battery power was considered to be inconsistent with the formidable reputation of sleek six-cylinder engines, and the company’s top brass were reluctant to put money in the development of tiny cars.
At present, aspects of the efforts of the i division have permeated into most of the BMW range. Examples include the iPerformance hybrid 3,5 and 7 series, the X5, the i3 and i8. Plug-in hybrids like these are a more realistic than pure electric-powered cars in some instances, coming with a 30 kilometer(18.6 miles)battery range that is then supplemented by a petrol-based engine. They make a lot of sense in areas where commuters have to travel long distances daily.
Dr. Kotouc states that the company is aware that there are customers who require to travel long distances, and BMW would never advise people who drive 600 miles to use the i3. He adds that it is not reasonable since they will need to make many stops which can be quite annoying. On the other hand, a plug-in hybrid can easily cover that distance these days, and plug-ins are set to improve further in the future.
For now it is reasonable to use plug-in hybrids. But a time will come where lithium-ion cells will have sufficient power to deliver a range 400 to 600 kilometer using a light, compact package. BMW and its main competitors is counting on a major surge in demand to reduce the development costs over the next ten years.
According to Dr. Kotouc, the company projects the electric cars to have a 20% share of all sales in the entire BMW stable by 2025. He adds that the company sold 2 million BMWs this year, which means that if 20% of the sales were electric, the economies of scale would send battery prices tumbling down.
On the question of the right battery size, Kotouc opines that instead of developing a heavier battery that can do one thousand kilometers, it is more prudent to develop better charging solutions and infrastructure. If that happens, a battery with a range of about 400 kilometers is all that is needed.
Autonomy is another important element of future mobility. In this regard, BMW plans to design and have the autonomous iNext car on the road by 2021.Since the driver’s role is reduced, there are a number of questions regarding how a future car may look like. Dr. Kotouc asserts that whereas some self-driving systems can already cope with the driving load under particular conditions, it is not viable to extend that capacity to all conditions.
He explains that we could initially see autonomous driving in environments that are secure, for example highways, freeways and situations that have speed limits, on long lanes and different lanes. Leaving the highway makes things quite complicated.
Dr Kotouc points out that in cities like Bombay, there are many activities on the road, particularly unexpected things such as traders selling stuff and donkeys walking on the road. He notes that we may never drive autonomously in such environments.
Rather, he envisages systems that allow human drivers to take over driving control especially in tricky situations. After managing to get a handle on the situation, they then hand back the controls to the car’s electronics. This brings in the question of whether cars of the future will require to have a steering wheel.
Kotouc is adamant that BMW cars will always be fitted with a steering wheel to let drivers take the wheel, and that the only thing that may change is how the steering wheel looks like. Arguing that a car will remain a status symbol, he adds that he is confident that the BMW brand will remain strong, even with the expansion of mobility services and car sharing.
In his opinion, no matter how much car sharing services improve, there will always be people, including himself, who just wish to own a car. This is not likely to go away, and it is a desire that has persisted since the stone age.