The Story Behind BMW’s Pinnacle Electric Car, The I7

Bernice

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Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este is a dazzling affair. Here, on the shores of Lake Como, a splendor quite removed from the realities of our current times, sit exquisite motor cars of another time alongside a sprinkling of new metal that looks to the future. This year, among the parade, is the i7, BMW’s pinnacle electric car. Framed by the 16th-century villa, its presence is discreet — almost shy. This is not a product that wants to shout its wealth and knowledge. Rather, with experience being the new luxury, the i7 is entirely devoted to providing just that.

I’m stopping off at Villa d’Este en route to other parts of Italy on an assignment to explore another world straddling past and future, tradition and innovation: wine. The story of wine may go back much further than that of the motor car, but they share similar challenges. With deep environmental concerns and an evolving consumer landscape, future-facing makers are looking at how best to marry the past with a more progressive future that is ultimately kinder to the planet.

They say crises can offer an opportunity for a new renaissance. BMW seems to think so. The marque has been at the forefront of electrification with the i3 and i8 premiering the new electric age. It’s hard to believe these cars are now almost a decade old, yet in terms of design, they broke rules and explored new ways of making. Not all these brave ideas have made it directly to the mainstream electric-powered production cars, but you can trace ideas from the two in the current models including this latest i7.

The i7 xDrive60 you see here (a sportier i7 M70 xDrive will follow in 2023) offers some 544 horsepower, will sprint to 62mph in just 4.2 seconds and provide 387 miles of electric range. Inside the pristinely polished exterior are the marque’s most advanced technologies to include a curved display and new interaction bar, multi-sensory vehicle experiences through the new iDrive replete with mood-enhancing soundtracks tailor-made by Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer and, the pièce de resistance, the 31.3-inch 8K Theatre Screen with Amazon Fire TV.

I spoke with BMW Group vice president of design, Adrian van Hooydonk, to discuss the car, as well as gauge his thoughts on how the automobiles on display at Villa d’Este, many of which were groundbreakers at the time, will inform his creative thinking.

You showed some great radicalism with your early electric cars — the i3 and i8. Yet visually, apart from a few electric drive indicators, the i7 follows the same design theme as the regular combustion engine 7 Series. Is this the strategy BMW is taking with its electric cars going forward?

Yes, this is deliberate. When we did the i3 and i8 it made sense to create an electric BMW i sub-group as an incubator of all things new. This way our traditional customers could take note, but not feel threatened by our new activities. Simultaneously we attracted the attention of new customers who saw us as forward-thinking. Mainly, these two cars allowed us to explore a new form language that is cleaner and yet premium, which has filtered into our other cars, especially the iX.

But we always knew BMW i would need to be brought back into the core of the brand. It’s no longer enough to do niche electric cars — it has to be an integral part of what we do. I feel a car like the new i4 achieves this.

The i7 focus seems to be on the driver and passenger experience, rather than making a bold exterior statement. Is this on purpose?

Yes, the i7 has been designed from the inside out since the customer spends more time in their cars. The exterior is clean as you have a better chance of the design surviving longer. Also, when you look at its profile, you need to sense that this is a comfortable car. You know, this isn’t car design anymore but creating an experience. My job used to be about sketching wheels and a body; it is now so much more than that.

You’ve cleared the interior of clutter, opted for a smaller screen and introduced what you call “shy tech” — with information appearing only when and if needed. Can you explain your approach?

The home and car used to be separate worlds; now customers expect a car interior that is more akin to their living environment. Our concept of shy tech helps make all this technology onboard manageable. Here, the user interface groups certain set-ups under My Mode — sport, efficiency, theatre, relaxed — so you don’t get lost in the menu. When you click on theatre, for instance, the cinema screen appears in the rear, sun-blinds activate, the lights dim and surround sound comes on.

The 31.3-inch Theatre Screen couldn’t have been an easy task to achieve.

The panoramic big screen in the rear passenger area, new to this segment, can show two separate movies at once or be programmed to project ambient lighting. It isn’t fixed to the backrest and can be folded away. We did a lot of tests to make sure you don’t get motion sickness by allowing the passengers to peer under the screen.

And can you explain the crystal bar at the front?

In much the same way as modern architecture where you don’t see ventilation and heating functions anymore, the crystal bar incorporates functions such as air ventilation. I was inspired by (architect and designer) Patricia Urquiola’s work as she creates in a warm, welcoming, very human way. We didn’t want to do a luxury that is cold.

I’m pleased to see you’ve moved away from traditional leather upholstery on the surfaces to work with a cashmere-wool blend which, to me, is a much more modern expression of luxury.

We’re very excited that for the first time in years we have cloth in our top-of-the-line car and it is a beautiful fabric. Cashmere is warmer than leather and is more welcoming. The material needs to be durable and we’ve found a solution to work with cashmere for automotive use. Cloth has long been the entry-level option with leather being at the top. We want to reverse this. I’m happy we launched this in the 7 as if you can succeed at the top level you are more chance of progressing further down the line. We are planning to go leather free with MINI and will review this option on our BMW car line-ups too.

With the absence of the hum of the combustion engine, the electric car sound is a fascinating subject with each brand exploring its avenue. Yours involves working with composer Hans Zimmer. Does the sound design impact your creative process?

Our sound designers worked with Hans Zimmer to create the different soundtracks for the various drive modes. We now have sound hearings alongside exterior and interior viewings — sound has become part of our design process. It can be very emotional. Ours is a technology company so they are always measuring what works better, but you can’t with something like sound. You have to trust your emotion.

The recent BMW i Vision Circular takes an interesting approach to how certain materials and manufacturing processes can create a system for full circularity. How much do these study vehicles impact your work on production cars?

This project is about the complex management of CO2. We know that if we want to uphold our contribution to the Paris climate agreement then we need to look at the full picture: design, production and usage. Once cars go zero-emission, which they will do, then you need to focus on their creation. Using raw materials is energy consuming so reusing what you’ve already had will reduce energy use.

The Vision car incorporates these ideas. It helps us to do projects that are focused on single topics. It also helps us to tell this story in the public domain as we need our suppliers to think this way too. Up until now, they were happy to provide us with new raw materials; now they have to rethink and offer us used steel and aluminum. We are actively investing in start-up companies that are exploring new fabrics and manufacturing processes.

What possibilities does the next level of autonomous drive technology have in helping you as a designer elevate passenger experiences?

We’ve been looking into how autonomous drive can impact the passenger experience for some time and we have a roadmap of how we want to go about this. For the foreseeable future, we see our cars being both physically and autonomously driven. In terms of design, we will still need a steering wheel but I see us cleaning up inside the car since, with driverless and electric cars, you naturally need fewer instruments. It will enable us, in the very near future, to take very big steps in the interior.

For example?

We’re a strong proponent of head-up-display to convey information to the driver and are expanding on the technology. Our vision is for the whole windscreen to be your display, so you don’t need any additional screens. We’re also working on ideas such as what to display when the car is in self-driving mode. Very soon, we’ll show you something about this.

You’re surrounded here by exquisite examples from car design history. What do you take from such events?

Looking around Villa d’Este, I think we can do a lot more – certainly on the emotional side. The sports cars and the roadster are falling by the wayside since companies are trying to transform their core. The whole industry is going through a transformation that causes stress and pain and costs money.

All the cars we see here required some sacrifice, be it comfort or space. Somehow in modern times customers, especially younger ones, are less prepared to make these compromises. The rise of the SUV coupé can be about people wanting impossible combinations. Where does that leave the classic roadster and coupé? That is a question that I find intriguing. It is certainly something that will keep me busy when I leave here.

Surely the excitement for a designer such as yourself, who comes from an industrial design background, is in re-imagining these evocative designs, these hedonistic motor cars we see here, for the future.

I agree. We need to take it all apart and re-create it in new and exciting ways. We’re in the process of getting the building blocks together; then we can rethink it. But I would like to speed it up somewhat! How? It’s about preserving that emotional theme and taking it into a future, a future that is much more knowledgeable about all the side effects and the connections.

I love cars, mobility, driving. I came to this from an aesthetic point of view, interested in how industrial objects are made. Anyone can do a one-off sculpture. But making something that comes out of a factory in thousands a day, functions and is desirable, is not easy. I’ve been in this business for a while and these are exciting times — more so than ever.

See what the legendary car designer Marcello Gandini feels about the current wave of electric cars, and read my interviews with the former BMW Group creative director Chris Bangle about the need for a radical rethink of design.

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