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BMW changes focus of i sub-brand; will target self-driving vehicle segment

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On: Sat, Jun 4, 2016 at 9:10AM | By: Carl Malek

BMW changes focus of i sub-brand; will target self-driving vehicle segment

BMW's green-focused i sub-brand is still relatively new, but for the first time in its short life, the brand is changing its core mission and is shifting its attention from electric vehicles to creating the ultimate self-driving machine. This could be a sign of BMW's bold ambitions for this relatively new segment. It also points towards a new future where i could become a rolling showcase of the company's driverless vehicle technologies.

That's according to Klaus Froehlich, a key BMW board member and the chief of research and design for BMW. "[BMW i] is now in the ramp-up stage", Froehlich told an interviewer with the publication Reuters. "We call it Project i Next". Project i Next won't completely abandon electric car production; it will implement next generation self-driving technology in its next EV offering. This is not the first that BMW has stated intentions to produce self-driving vehicles, but it is the first time that the company has offered a new designation and name for the brand. It is currently unknown when BMW will unveil this new model which could put BMW's driverless technology at the forefront of its broader mission.

This would include challenging Uber and Lyft in the growing ride-sharing sector. While BMW is not as advanced in this arena as GM, Ford, or Toyota, the German firm is not sitting by idly watching; it has kicked off its own initiative to enter this lucrative business. This was highlighted last month when BMW made a small investment in the Scoop ride-sharing app.

These recent moves come at a crucial time for the i brand, which is facing mounting pressure from a host of rivals including Tesla, Porsche, and Audi. Not helping matters is the poor sales performance of its i3 city car. The tiny EV has seen its share of struggles with sales only hitting a modest 11,000 units last year. These figures are expected to plunge by at least half especially since it only sold 2,272 units over the past five months. Even worse, the brand is also experiencing turmoil in its leadership with several key figures leaving during the early part of 2016. These include Dirk Abendroth, head of its i-powertrain group, VP of product management, Henrik Wenders, and the lead figure in the i8 program, Carsten Bretfield. According to a Bloomberg article, these three men jumped ship to Future Mobility, a Chinese startup company that is backed by Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Foxconn Technology Group.Tencent is Asia's biggest internet company, while Foxconn is a key maker of iPhones, iPads, and other Apple Inc. products.

Future Mobility's research and development projects will be based at its headquarters in Shenzhen, China. Other R&D units will be located in Europe and Silicon Valley. Their focus is on powertrains and autonomous driving. There are also plans to construct an autonomous electric vehicle assembly plant in China.


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