At CES today, I watched a man wave an empty car into an open parking spot.
But that's old hat, really. Self-parking cars have been around for a while, and I even served as a hapless passenger in a self-parking BMW i3 last year. Science fiction brushes up with the auto industry so regularly these days — not just in concept form, but in production — that eliciting a genuine jaw-drop is nearly impossible. I mean, seriously: I've been in a self-drifting BMW, too. A BMW i3 could rocket into space, deliver a payload to the ISS, and autonomously land back on the Strip next year and I'm not sure I'd be surprised.
But BMW didn't just show me a self-parking car this year: the highlight of its brief press conference this morning was the (awkwardly named) i Vision Future Interaction Concept, an almost-real car paired with a lot of almost-real technology. Parts of what I saw in this car today could easily be in cars debuting this year, and certainly within the next couple. There's a certain excitement to the sheer volume of near-future-ness in this particular concept car — the future that's close enough to touch, and to imagine in your driveway. It doesn't hurt that it's beautiful, of course.
The concept is based on the i8 Spyder, a topless version of the stunning i8 that has been shown in the past but never released. (And I'm skeptical that BMW would've just shown it again if it didn't actually plan on putting an i8 Spyder you can buy on the road soon.) But it gets far more interesting inside, where the normal i8 interior has been replaced with a 21-inch ultra-wide display, mostly in front of the passenger, that is used to control virtually every function of the car.
How does that work for the driver, exactly? A new gesture control system — BMW calls it AirTouch — that lets the driver point at the UI from afar and "push" in space to select items. I have no idea whether it's any good in practice, but the fact that it replaces every single button on the dashboard is particularly compelling on BMW's slickest car. And there's something to be said for an interior dominated by beautiful color displays, particularly on the cusp of self-driving, where we're all be looking for new ways to spend our time on the road.
Other BMW reveals at the show include a helmet with a built-in heads-up display for motorcyclists and BMW Connected, a cloud platform for connecting BMW cars to apps and devices. That's not terribly interesting in the context of modern car connectivity — basically every car has LTE or is getting it soon — but the company showed Connected on a trick mirror that lets you seamlessly pivot from primping to keeping tabs on your car's battery status.
I'll be honest, this hodgepodge collection of demos is why I love the auto industry right now: there's a mad rush to figure out what a car looks like in an age of smartphone-addled urban professionals who love Uber. That rush is making some weird things happen, and BMW somehow found a way to collect it all in one tent.