BMW, which became the world's largest maker of luxury cars by focusing on Autobahn thrills, is shifting gears to automated driving as urbanisation and changing attitudes toward cars redefine transportation.
"In the future, 'Sheer Driving Pleasure' will also be defined as liberating drivers through automation," BMW said Monday in a statement as it celebrated turning 100 years old. "The company is on the verge of realizing automated driving. With it will come a series of technical challenges, but also a major opportunity for revolutionizing mobility."
Vehicles moving autonomously is a question of ''when,'' not "if,'' BMW said, adding that it sees people still wanting to take over the wheel at times to experience the thrill of driving. The look into the future comes as the Munich-based carmaker teeters on the edge of losing the top spot in the luxury-car market it's held since 2005.
With sales growth lagging behind No. 2 Mercedes-Benz, BMW is under pressure to show it can still innovate. To that end, the company presented a concept called BMW Vision Next 100, imagining a vehicle that will allow drivers to select when they want control over the wheel and when they want to do something else, with an interactive windshield that can warn of bicycles, pedestrians or other road obstacles.
"BMW drivers will be able to let their cars do the work - but only when the driver wants," the company said.
Watch: BMW i-cars production line
BMW isn't alone grappling with how digital, urban lifestyles are changing what people expect from a car. The industry is set to experience a "much wider kind of competition" as artificial intelligence makes it possible for vehicles to talk to each other, drive themselves and free up people's commuting time, Dieter Zetsche, chief executive officer of Mercedes parent Daimler, said last week.
The concept car is a hint toward the priorities of BMW's new CEO Harald Krueger, 50, who took charge in May. He is due to present a new strategy for the company on March 16. The company wants to stay ahead of Mercedes and Audi, the other rival for the luxury-car market's top spot, Krueger said at the Geneva International Motor Show last week.
How will we justify the existence of vehicles by BMW, a brand for whom the individual and sheer driving pleasure are the focus of everything?
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BMW's last major strategic shift was in 2007, when then-CEO Norbert Reithofer pushed the sporty brand to invest billions to reduce fuel consumption, produce its first electric vehicle and pioneer the mass-production of carbon fiber. The youngest head of a major carmaker, Krueger is part of a generational shift that's now looking for ways to respond to new challengers such as Apple and Google, which the BMW CEO on Monday described as competitors.
"In the not-too-distant future, most vehicles will probably be completely self-driving - people will get around in robots on wheels," BMW said. "How will we justify the existence of vehicles by BMW, a brand for whom the individual and sheer driving pleasure are the focus of everything?"