Can a 'driver's car' brand mission and driverless tech coexist?

DETROIT -- If your calling card is “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” what do you do when the machines drive themselves? How can you reconcile autonomous vehicles with your brand’s deep-rooted mission?

BMW design director Karim Habib conceded the problem a few minutes after taking a look at the pilot-less “F 015 Luxury in Motion” on rival Mercedes-Benz’s stand here.

“When you talk about a self-driving car and BMW most people are going to ask, ‘What’s the point?’” he said. “But this technology is something we have to do and we want to do. And as a designer that problem-solving thing is pretty important to me.”

Habib points out that similar concerns were raised a couple of generations ago with the arrival of antilock braking and anti-slip controls.

“That’s the way race drivers and driving enthusiasts thought about ABS,” Habib said. “They said, ‘I don’t need that. I know how to brake.’ Now [ABS and anti-slip] are things we don’t really question.

“The challenge will be to make you a better driver, not make you a non-driver,” he said. “It is to allow you to enjoy it more. If you’re in traffic and not driving or only half-driving or are using assisted driving, then you are not doing the boring driving. But where it’s fun and the roads are free and winding, well then you are driving.”

The key design opportunity involves the interior. It’s all about seats that are really chairs and that turn and face the rear seat passengers. The vehicle becomes a living room on wheels, a comfort pod, a hothouse of entertainment. All fascinating to contemplate. But Habib says the possibilities for exterior design also are intriguing.

“If at a certain time we actually arrive at an accident-free world then all the legislation laws changes, all the pedestrian safety and crash regulations will change,” he said. “And then the proportions of the vehicle change. You won’t need crash zones, you won’t need side crash beams anymore and so on. That would change the ways cars look.”

What does Habib have in mind?

“In an extreme way, if you don’t have the crash zone, you could have glass all the way in the front you could have glass going all the way to the bottom,” he said. “You don’t need anything.

“In theory, that could work,” he added. “Of course, psychologically I don’t know if you want to drive a car that has glass that goes all the way down.”

Has he been making sketches along these lines?

“I won’t comment,” said Habib, “but obviously we have been thinking.”

You can reach Richard Johnson at

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