BMW launches 'i' sub-brand

After years of talking, BMW has launched a new "i" sub-brand in Munich on Monday, specifically aimed at people living in cities. The German firm has settled on the simple letter "I" for a new range of clean, high-tech vehicles and mobility services.

In the next few years, the company will bring to market two new vehicles badged under the ‘I’ brand. The i3 will be a battery electric-powered city car, which uses a lightweight aluminium chassis and a carbon-fibre reinforced plastic bodyshell, in order to overcome the extra weight of the lithium-ion batteries.

Meanwhile, the i8 will be BMW’s new flagship, green sports car. Judging from the press conference in Munich and the sketches the company has released, this will closely resemble the stunning-looking Vision Efficient Dynamics Concept the company showed at the 2009 Frankfurt motor show. It’ll feature a plug-in hybrid drivetrain not dissimilar to the one in the Chevrolet Volt we tested recently. But with extra power, and thanks once again to lightweight carbon-fibre technology, it should be much faster and more fun to drive, while still having super-low emissions.

But the cars are only a tiny part of the story, as ‘I’ encompasses a wide range of products and services, which BMW plans to offer to help you move around in the city of the future. BMW dubs these "car-independent premium mobility services", and in the world of normal-speaking people, it means you’ll be able to get services that are branded by BMW, which will help and advise you on the best way to get from A to B in a city, without needing to own one of its cars.

In reality, that means smart navigation on your phone, which actually knows which routes are jammed-up, in real time, and advises you of a better alternate route. And a system that knows which parking spaces are free, when. It means journey planners which will tell you what’s the quickest way from one place to another using a combination of private vehicle, public transport and your own two feet. And it means the company will offer its own car-sharing (a better name would be hourly car rental) scheme.

To show it’s serious, BMW’s set up a New York-based venture capital firm, called BMW i Ventures, tasked with taking financial stakes in service providers that it sees as offering innovative service solutions, and which it might want to partner with in the future.

Its first partnership (and investment) is with My City Way, an App that currently provides public transport, entertainment and parking availability information in 40 US cities. BMW says as part of its deal, it’ll shortly add another 40 cities across the globe. It’s clear that we should expect this to be the first of many (tech and service-based) investments and partnerships.

All of which might not sound that remarkable if you’re looking at things from a tech-world perspective. But, in the highly conservative automotive industry this is big news, because it’s the first time we’re seeing a manufacture stand up and say that the future of its business won’t just be about selling cars.

The way that BMW is presenting and PRing this is also important. It feels like the first time that a car company has truly acknowledged and understood the impact that mobile internet and the smartphone is having on the way people live their lives and has seen the opportunity this gives for a much bigger group of people to experience its products and develop an affinity with the brand, without needing to buy one of its cars outright. The fact that is should help inhabitants of cities to move around more quickly and cleanly is just the icing on the cake. As such, we’ll watch how this story develops with great interest.