Future of motoring is just around the bend, and it's going to be a wild ride
While test-driving the tantalising electric BMW 1 Series Coupe in Germany, Iain Curry sampled some of the company's other forward-looking technology
Technology with your car, sir? In living memory, this used to be a digital cassette player or perhaps electronic fuel injection if you were of a sporty disposition, but it's fair to say the game has moved on a bit.
At the launch of BMW's new all-electric vehicle -- the 1 Series-based ActiveE -- the Munich company took the opportunity to showcase its raft of forthcoming and future innovations set to become commonplace.
So while cementing the fact that BMW considers electric vehicles (EVs) an integral part of its near-future showroom line-up, customers can look forward to the likes of laser headlights (best said with a Mike Myers accent), night vision, gesture recognition and augmented reality driver assistance.
Yes, it all sounds a bit Q Branch from the James Bond films, but we're going to have to get used to such technology in our transport: it's either already in that new car at the showroom or due in a few short years. Just pity the poor BMW salespeople who'll practically need PhDs in electronics and computer science to try and explain it all to customers.
But surely the toughest job of any salesperson right now is convincing buyers that EVs are a viable alternative to petrol, diesel or even hybrids. Well, the suited and booted staff at BMW dealerships are going to have to: come 2013 (possibly a little later in Ireland) they'll have the lightweight i3 electric 'Megacity Vehicle' to shift. This i3 is no fad, either; it's a mass-production electric mini-MPV designed for city use that could be potentially game-changing. BMW taking EVs seriously? You bet, and this isn't a marque that messes around.
Which brings us on to 2011's new fully-electric ActiveE. On outward appearance it looks just like your typical BMW 1 Series Coupe, albeit with some fancy circuit board-esque graphics, a noticeable bonnet bulge to house one of its three battery packs, and a rear bumper bereft of exhaust pipes.
Underneath it's all change, however. BMW has taken a standard 1 Series Coupe, chucked away its conventional internal combustion engine, gearbox and fuel tank and replaced it with a synchronous electric motor; gear and power electronics; and, of course, a plug socket behind the filler cap.
But before you electric lovers hotfoot it down to your local BMW dealership to order an ActiveE, it's not that easy sadly. These left-hand drive-only zero-emissions BMWs are not for general sale; instead around 1,000 examples will be leased on a two-year scheme in the US, select parts of Europe and China.
There's no official word stating when any will be offered for lease in Ireland, or for how much, but a fair number are expected to be silently cruising the streets of London during next year's Olympic Games as part of BMW's sponsorship deal. This may be the closest we get to see of them.
So why should we care about this ActiveE then? Simply put, it features the electric powertrain that will be going into 2013's BMW i3, and as mentioned it is this car that could soon be the new EV benchmark and swaying factor to see us all flirting with EVs when it comes to our next new car choice.
The ActiveE gives us an insight into the near future therefore, and the 1,000-odd lease vehicles and their temporary owners will provide BMW with invaluable feedback into how we consumers respond to, use and adjust to an electric car life.
The feedback could well be positive. All EVs take some getting used to in terms of the required driving style, but after a short steer the ActiveE proved as smoothly refined as you'd expect of anything with a BMW badge. And that includes the electric motor, single ratio transmission, ride quality, steering and handling.
It's by no means perfect: it has a hefty kerb weight of 1,815kg that does nothing to help range or performance, and a chunk of boot space has been lost to house a battery. But we mustn't forget this is a 1 Series originally designed for an internal combustion engine and then adapted to become electric.
Positively, there's ample performance in the ActiveE despite its bulk. A 0-100kmh time of 9.0 seconds may not sound smoking hot, but how often do you reach such speeds in town? It's off the line where EVs come into their own, bolting away with full torque available from standstill. All in almost haunting near-silence and with barely-believable smoothness and never a gear change to interrupt proceedings.
Get used to this and the ActiveE almost feels like any other 1 Series BMW, with driver and passengers cosseted in a familiar cabin. Lift of the throttle, however, and the game changes.
At this time the electric motor assumes the function of a generator, feeding the electricity gained from kinetic energy back to the ActiveE's battery. The knock-on effect is a large amount of braking torque, quite aggressive in fact, meaning you can time your lift-offs so you never need the brake pedal. Your brake lights come on as soon as you lift your right foot, and it takes no more than a quick drive to get used to and then master.
This electric 1 Series is a genuinely brilliant around-town proposition, even if it can't zip in and out of traffic as a lightweight city car can. But with BMW staying true to its driving principles: rear-wheel drive, 50:50 weight distribution and an excellent chassis with beefed-up 300mm brakes, it proudly holds two fingers up to most other electric cars in terms of driving dynamics.
But the ActiveE is not the electric car BMW wants to be defined by -- that privilege will be left to the i3. It will have been designed from scratch to be fully EV relevant, including being of lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastic construction. That will ensure the i3's range will easily eclipse the 160km quoted for the 1 Series ActiveE -- a figure not really enough to quash the dreaded 'range anxiety' that puts people off EVs.
So this not-for-sale electric 1 Series is best seen as a test bed; and a noble one at that to ensure the i3 is the best it can be at launch in 2013, and so it sells.
Such future planning has always been key to BMW's relentless success story, which perhaps explains why its Research and Innovations Centre in Munich employs over 9,000 staff working towards enhancing convenience, infotainment and safety in its vehicles. And that equals some very cool stuff soon to arrive on BMWs.
On the subject of the i3 electric car, all signs point to laser lights being available at launch. The BM boffins suggest laser lights are stronger, better, brighter and see further than current LEDs, and they're energy-saving to boot. Lasers for our cars? Told you this was Q Branch stuff.
Also soon to arrive on certain BMWs is the Dynamic Light Spot, where the car fires a targeted beam of light at pedestrians wandering in the road at night (think pub closing time). Not merely to dazzle them for their silliness, but to make them a bit less likely to be hit.
Proactive Connectivity is just around the corner for BMWs too, where the car predicts what will happen in the next two minutes in terms of road conditions and hazards. To make this possible, a fusion of data is sent wirelessly to the car from traffic lights, variable speed limit signs, traffic monitoring systems and other connected cars.
Gesture recognition (a la 'Minority Report') to allow the driver to interact with the likes of audio and satnav with the wave of a hand is still being perfected, but the sci-fi sounding Augmented Reality looked good to go. This uses an advanced head-up display (projected on the windscreen) where navigation directions merge with reality, and hazards are indicated in the driver's direct line of vision. All a bit far fetched? Just remember 20 years ago most of us hadn't even heard of traction control or airbags: today we expect satnav and internet connection in our cars.
Technology moves fast, and BMW is moving it along faster in our cars than most. If the rest play follow-my-leader, the mass-produced electric car revolution may be closer than we think.
Sunday Independent Supplement