Everyone always has something to say about BMW.
The Bavarian automaker has long had a knack for setting the benchmarks with cars like the 3 Series and X5, but when the vehicles change with the times, BMW’s superfans don’t hold their tongues.
“The old cars were better.”
“I’ll never pay for subscription features in a car.”
Now, at CES 2023, a new BMW concept asks: what if the car had something to say as well? And if a car could talk, how would it interact with its user?
This is the BMW i Vision Dee, which stands for “Digital Emotional Experience.” It’s one of BMW’s most radical — yet, in some ways, plausible — concept cars in years. It’s a minimalist electric performance sedan that leans hard into digital features like augmented reality and voice-driven virtual assistants. Think the metaverse or Amazon Alexa but in the form of a sports sedan. The concept also offers the ability to create a driver avatar profile, which can even be projected onto the side window.
If a car could talk, how would it interact with its user?
More than that, the i Vision Dee’s color-shifting grille is like a “face” with its own expressions on top of the virtual voice. This is a BMW that talks back and may even have hot takes of its own. “My father was an E30,” is one thing the car said to me at a recent tech demonstration, and early social media promos for the concept evoked the ‘80s talking car action show Knight Rider.
“The headlights and the closed BMW kidney grille also form a common phygital (fusion of physical and digital) icon on a uniform surface, allowing the vehicle to produce different facial expressions,” the automaker said in a news release. “This means the BMW i Vision Dee can talk to people and, at the same time, express moods such as joy, astonishment or approval visually.”
Like the i Vision Circular from 2021, the i Vision Dee is just a concept car, meant to preview potentially forthcoming designs and technologies that could make their way onto dealer lots eventually. At the same time, the design itself feels like something that could preview a future electric 3 Series or i4 of some sort.
Visually, the i Vision Dee almost looks like a cross between a Tesla Model 3 and one of BMW’s classic sports sedans, like a 2002 or an E30. The kidney grille sweeps across almost the entire front of the concept and a rear light bar does the same across the trunk. The white, almost featureless body is a stark contrast to the fussy designs of many current BMWs, while still keeping signature features like the “Hofmeister kink” of the rear windows.
While BMW won’t directly confirm that this design is intended for production, it’s fairly safe to assume it will influence future cars. BMW’s concepts have a way of turning into reality—see the i8 supercar and i3 city car from the past decade. BMW even calls this “another milestone on the road” to Neue Klasse, BMW’s upcoming EV-specific car platform. That setup is named for the “New Class” of sports sedans and coupes that defined BMW’s image in the 1960s and ‘70s.
While current BMWs tend to be built to offer a mix of internal combustion, hybrid, or EV power — the electric i4 and ICE-powered 4 Series Gran Coupe are essentially the same vehicle, for example — the next round of models is designed from the ground up to be electric for better range and better battery packaging.
BMW says the i Vision Dee also represents a significant evolution of the E Ink color-shifting technology that debuted at last year’s CES and, as a result, can transform its exterior into 32 different colors — and not just one color, either. The concept’s body is divided into 240 E Ink segments, each of which can be controlled individually, BMW says. It’s the first time E Ink is used on the entire outside of a car, and BMW has said the technology could be close to commercialization at the consumer level.
Refreshingly, the i Vision Dee is a three-box sedan, not another blob-like crossover SUV concept. That in and of itself is a bold move from BMW and one that’s at odds with current trends; sedan sales have been on the decline for years as the global market has shifted toward crossovers and trucks.
For BMW, it’s evidence that the sports sedan is still important to the company’s image and bottom line, said BMW design boss Domagoj Dukec at a press preview in Germany last year.
“We want to show our customers, if the world is changing, we will adapt, but certainly we will always be familiar,” Dukec said. “Everybody who’s working within my team, from different cultures and different generations, they love the brand and they know their history. They don’t want that to go away.”
Dukec added, “It’s also BMW. When you talk about the core product… it’s the 3 and 5 Series.”
Who needs screens when you have a windshield?
The i Vision Dee brings good news for drivers who hate the explosion of in-car touchscreens lately: there are no screens here.
The concept’s bare-bones stark gray interior is even more minimal in design than the outside, with a pared-down steering wheel, seats, and what BMW calls the “Mixed Reality Slider”: a touch panel that controls how much information the driver sees on the advanced Heads-Up Display.
The i Vision Dee almost looks like a cross between a Tesla Model 3 and one of BMW’s classic sports sedans
There’s also bad news for drivers who hate screens: the whole windshield is now essentially a display, mixing the functions of a dashboard with an infotainment system and adding in augmented reality features.
Using the windshield to host displays is nothing new; many modern cars project vehicle speeds, navigation, and other data there (and have in various forms since the 1980s). But this concept takes that idea to a whole new level.
Images projected onto the screen include social media posts and AR displays in addition to vehicle diagnostics. The other windows are dimmable, too, if drivers and passengers want to go full VR mode. Would this create a giant distraction? Maybe, but BMW says it’s safer than taking your eyes fully off the road to look at a dashboard-mounted screen.
“Projection across the entire width of the windscreen allows information to be displayed on the largest possible surface — which only becomes recognizable as a display once it is activated,” BMW said in a statement. “[The car] visualizes how an advanced Head-Up-Display could also be utilized in the future for the display and operating concept.”
A version of this system, presumably a pared-down one, will make its debut on the Neue Klasse cars starting in 2025.
“An intelligent companion,” not just a car
But while many of the features previewed on the i Vision Dee certainly won’t be ready for primetime in 2023, they feel like a believable approach to where the increasingly digitally focused automotive industry is going.
The whole windshield is now essentially a display
“With the BMW i Vision Dee, we are showcasing what is possible when hardware and software merge. In this way, we are able to exploit the full potential of digitalization to transform the car into an intelligent companion,” said Oliver Zipse, BMW’s board chairman, in a statement.
That’s cold comfort to the diehards who want BMW to go back to the way things used to be — however they choose to perceive that. It also won’t do for critics of the technologies found in the i Vision Dee. After all, Amazon Alexa did little more than set billions of dollars on fire in 2022, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to pivot to the metaverse has been met with outright scorn. The question remains whether drivers even want some of the features on the i Vision Dee, especially the sweeping displays across the windshield or the talking virtual assistant.
Even as it struggles with things like getting drivers to accept subscription features in cars, BMW says yes. The future isn’t going to be high-revving inline-six engines and manual transmissions, so BMW has to find a way to convince the diehard faithful that “performance” can be defined by things like software speed, charging time, and electric range. The cars it produces in the immediate next few years probably won’t be as wildly ambitious as the i Vision Dee, but it does show that BMW is already thinking in that direction.