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BMW Vision Next 100

It appears that BMW i is moving towards the autonomous driving route, as part of a wider restructuring at Munich to focus its research and development activities towards self-driving vehicles, according to Reuters. The electric vehicle sub-brand is being revamped following “lacklustre” sales of its only fully-electric vehicle the i3, of which only 25,000 units were sold last year.

This pales in comparison to Tesla, which has already secured over 370,000 orders for its new, more affordable Model 3. In response, BMW has revised the i3 to boost its range by 50% to 300 km, along with other tweaks. Down the line, a sportier version of the i3 and an i8 Spyder are expected to arrive in 2018, but the main focus would be on the new iNEXT model that is expected to go on sale in 2021.

The last model will offer autonomous driving capabilities, so the company is increasing the number of software and technology experts under the watchful eye of head of R&D Klaus Froehlich.

Currently, BMW’s software engineers consist of just 20% of the 30,000 employees, contractors and suppliers in R&D, but the company wants to raise that proportion to 50% of the overall R&D staff within the next five years. Froehlich told the news agency that he had reorganised research and development across the company in April.

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Munich’s push towards autonomous driving has resulted in the hiring of machine learning and artificial intelligence experts, as well as the integration of existing assistance functions such as cruise control, emergency braking, lane-keeping support and automatic parking.

This restructuring follows the departure of several high-ranking employees from BMW i this year. Powertrain group manager Dirk Abendroth, vice president of product management Henrik Wenders, head of the i8 programme Carsten Breitfeld and head of design Benoit Jabob have all been poached by Chinese-backed electric vehicle startup Future Mobility.

Sales of highly autonomous vehicles – which do not require permanent active input from the driver – are not expected to commence until 2020, but analysts at Exane BNP Paribas forecast them to then rise to around 9 million units a year by 2025.

China is likely to be the first market where sales of autonomous vehicles will emerge on a large scale, according to Froehlich. “China is extremely fast implementing technology. Last year more electric cars were sold in China than in all the other global markets combined,” he said.

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A benefit of a fully-autonomous vehicle, said Froehlich, is that it could enable BMW to launch a ride-hailing service, without having to pay drivers. Such a move would give the company a competitive edge over other services like Uber, which has made the part-time use of a car as convenient as ownership, causing a decline in car sales.

Toyota recently announced its intention to invest in Uber, while Volkswagen has teamed up with another service, Gett – the latter will involve an investment of some US$300 million (RM1.23 billion). A partnership with a ride-hailing firm is something BMW is willing to consider as well, especially in places like China; however, Froehlich said that the company is still working on its strategy for such a move.

The Reuters report also suggested that BMW is looking to expand in the field of reserving parking spaces and electric charging stations over mobile phones, a market which it says is still fragmented from country to country. Munich has already invested in two digital parking and payment services, ParkNow and Parkmobile. “We want to actively participate in a consolidation process,” Froehlich said.