Before I met BMW’s iVision Dee at a press preview event in Germany—prior to a public reveal at CES in Las Vegas last week—I’d never seen a car blush, let alone had one make me blush. But then the electric BMW began changing colors and facial expressions, talking at me in intimate detail, splashing a digital avatar of my face on its side window, and filling its windshield with head-up display (HUD) projections worthy of Minority Report.
The “Dee” in this radical concept sedan stands for “Digital Emotional Experience.” That includes its eponymous, sultry-voiced virtual assistant. The body’s 240 laser-cut, Kindle-style “e-ink” panels let the BMW transform instantly to one of 32 exterior colors. Excited by low current—15 volts and less than 100 milliamperes—the panels’ microencapsulated particles create a moveable e-paper display. Feeling hot pink today? Go for it. And don’t worry about dinging the electric driving range: The chameleonic material uses nominal energy, and only while it’s shifting color to another shade.
In place of the overwrought double-kidney grilles that have sparked controversy on some recent Bimmers, the iVision’s face is a blank canvas for a variety of shapes or animations. The iVision can track a person’s approach to communicate via “phygital” icons that mimic human expressions such as joy or astonishment. Think Pixar’s anthropomorphic “Cars” come to life, minus the guzzling V-8 favored by Lightning McQueen.
This illustration of the BMW iVision Dee’s interior shows how heavily it relies on voice assistant input and head-up display (HUD) output to the driver. BMW
Inside, the BMW is just as daring. This handsomely minimal sedan eschews the ever-larger screens of Mercedes, Tesla, and other models. Instead, toggling a “Mixed Reality Slider” fills increasing portions of the windshield with driver information, navigation overlays, and other artificial-reality displays. Crank the slider to Stage Five and the entire windshield becomes a virtual world, with BMW seeing possibilities in training simulations or games that let people drive real cars through an uncannily immersive digital realm. Or recline the seats and watch the Avatar sequel. Once in motion, BMW chairman Oliver Zipse says the company’s HUDs are far better than screens at preventing distraction and keeping the driver’s eyes on the road.
Kai Langer, head of BMW iDesign, suggests eliminating today’s screens can allow BMW to reserve dashboard space for genuine luxury and rich materials, rather than unsightly, man-cave-size screens that are the antithesis of high design.
Yet below the color-shifting surface and whimsical features lies a deadly serious car, whose technology will be critical to BMW’s goal of making 50 percent of its global output EVs by 2030. The iVision is strictly a concept car, but it rides on the eagerly awaited Neue Klasse platform. That sophisticated new architecture is set to arrive in 2025, likely kicking off with electrified versions of the blue-chip 3-Series sedan and a small crossover SUV.
Today’s electric BMWs work hard to top 480 kilometers (300 miles) of driving range. BMW says its Neue Klasse models will travel about 30 percent farther, putting 640 km (400 miles) within reach. First, BMW is switching its familiar prismatic batteries for the kind of large-format cylindrical cells that Tesla seeks to pioneer with its “4680” cells. (Those cells are named for their 46-x-80-millimeter dimensions.) BMW’s sixth-generation EV batteries are even taller and pack more active battery material inside, in either “4690” and “46120” sizes. They’ll be built in tandem with the Chinese company Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. and other battery partners. BMW battery engineers said the cells pack in 10 percent more active battery material versus its prismatic units, and boost energy density by 20 percent. An improved nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) chemistry reduces cathode levels of pricey, ethically suspect cobalt by 50 percent. Anodes trim graphite content by 20 percent. With 40 percent of the cost of every BMW EV tied up in batteries, the new cells should cut BMW’s battery costs by 50 percent at the pack level. On the environmental front, BMW claims the cells will trim lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions by 60 percent.
BMW’s sixth-generation EV batteries shift from a rectangular-shaped prismatic cell [left] to the cylindrical [right], which the company says boosts energy density by 20 percent and reduces lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions by 60 percent. BMW
Impatient drivers and passengers will appreciate the robust 800-volt architecture—on par with models from Porsche, Hyundai, Kia, and Lucid—that allows charging at well over 200 kilowatts, at least 30 percent faster than today’s models. A leading-edge “pack to open body” design uses the entire pack as a weight-bearing structural member, saving more space and weight.
Pack sizes will range from 75 kilowatt-hours to a beefy 150 kWh, with motors cranking out anywhere from 268 horsepower to a dizzying 1,341 horsepower, enough to challenge any Tesla Model S Plaid or Lucid Air. Compared with more-volatile prismatic cells, these heat-shielded cylindrical cells can be individually monitored and isolated to avoid thermal runaway. In contrast with current BMWs, the modular design doesn’t require removing the pack to access electronic controls; executives cite those controls as the leading culprit in BMW EV maintenance issues. In keeping with a global trend, the Neue Klasse design will also support lower-cost, ultradurable LFP (lithium iron phosphate) batteries in more-affordable BMW Group models.
While Tesla continues to struggle to bring its large-format cells to production, BMW is confident it can scale up for the showroom. A pilot plant in Parsdorf, Germany, is slated to start production in the first quarter of 2023.
The company further promises 40 percent cuts in carbon emissions throughout the cars’ life cycle, including from battery factories that target 100 percent carbon-neutral production, fed by renewable local electricity. BMW’s ambitious plans call for six new cylindrical-cell-battery factories around the world, with two each in North America, Europe, and China, and at least 120 gigawatt-hours of new capacity. An US $810 million battery factory will spring up in South Carolina, in partnership with Japan’s Envision AESC. BMW is designing that 30-GWh factory to run entirely on carbon-free energy. The batteries will then power EVs from the nearby Spartanburg factory that’s the largest in BMW’s global empire. BMW foresees Spartanburg churning out a half-dozen new EV models by 2030—a virtual competitive necessity thanks to President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law, which limits consumer and automaker tax breaks to cars, batteries, and even battery materials sourced from the United States or its free-trade partners.
Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning auto writer and former chief auto critic at The New York Times and The Detroit Free Press.