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Car and Driver: Forget EVs, It’s All About Autonomy Now: BMW Recasts Its i Division

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2017 BMW i3

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BMW’s “Project i” was set up to develop electrified vehicles, and the results have been the Mini E, the BMW 1-series Active E, and later, once the group had blossomed into the “i Division,” the i3 EV/PHEV and the i8 plug-in hybrid. The question has been what will the next “i” model be, but according to an interview with Reuters, BMW board member Klaus Froehlich reveals that the company’s future-think division has been relaunched to focus instead on autonomous driving technology.

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That change of mission may explain the recent departure of four key executives from the division. It had been widely speculated that the i Division was beavering away on an electrified four-door sedan, the i5, which would do battle with the production version of Porsche’s Mission E electric sedan and, of course, Tesla. BMW had further trademarked the names i1 through i9, but now it appears the company won’t have much need for them. We wouldn’t expect much in the way of new i-brand models beyond the i8 roadster.

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One reason is that sales of the i3 have proved disappointing, while autonomous driving is the new-new thing that has captured the collective imagination of the auto industry. In the interview, Froehlich shows an even more finely honed sense of the current zeitgeist by postulating that autonomous-driving i cars could allow BMW to launch its own ride-hailing service to compete against Uber and Lyft. If anything, the ride-hailing/car-sharing space has seen an even greater headlong rush by traditional carmakers—with General Motors (Maven, Lyft), Volkswagen (Gett), and Toyota (Uber) all announcing investments or partnerships within the last few months.

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The idea seems to be that these moves will keep carmakers in the “personal mobility” business, even if auto sales fall off as a future of smartphone-hailed, autonomous cars replaces the traditional notion of car ownership and, you know, driving.

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