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The BMW Vision iNEXT debuts during the auto trade show, AutoMobility LA, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Nov. 28, 2018.

David McNew/Getty Images

If you ask BMW, the inside of the car of the future will look more like a hotel than … well, a car.

At least that’s how the German manufacturer is positioning its Vision iNext concept car, shown last week at the Auto Mobility show in Los Angeles. Textured wood, light-refracting glass, mottled green-blue fabrics – the iNext is supposed to feel more like the lobby of a Kimpton or Andaz property than the inside of a BMW.

“Most future visions lack warmth,” says Matthias Junghanns, head of interior design for BMW’s i division. “But this feels more like modern furniture.”

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Plenty of ink has been spilled over the past few years about the rush toward electrification and autonomy, but car makers haven’t said nearly as much about how that transformation is going to affect the actual driving – or rather, riding – experience of passengers.

If cars are able to drive themselves for a good portion of a journey, their interiors are necessarily going to require some rethinking and reconfiguration.

BMW expects the all-electric iNext to be capable of Level 3 autonomy – where the car can handle most aspects of driving, although the driver will still have to be ready to take over at any time – when it begins production in 2021.

Assuming transportation regulators allow such vehicles on roads by then, passengers and drivers may find themselves with more time on their hands than they currently have. They’re going to want to lounge around and socialize with each other more as a result, Junghanns says, which is why the car maker turned to hotel lobbies for design inspiration.

If cars are able to drive themselves for a good portion of a journey, their interiors are necessarily going to require some rethinking and reconfiguration.

MIKE BLAKE/Reuters

With its wood surface mounted atop a prism-like glass stand, the centre console is reminiscent of a high-end coffee table. Turquoise jacquard fabric stretches from the console across the entire rear seat bench and up onto the rear doors, creating a wraparound sofa-like feel.

The headrest on the front passenger seat, meanwhile, folds down backward to create an armrest. Whoever is riding shotgun can turn around and comfortably chat with passengers in the back.

BMW is also extolling what it calls “shy tech,” or the hiding of technological features and interfaces when they’re not needed.

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When in “boost” mode, for example, the car’s steering wheels and pedals are in normal positions. But when autonomous “ease” mode is active, the wheel retracts forward while the pedals go flat into the floor.

The rear seat surfaces, meanwhile, are themselves interfaces that light up when touched. Passengers can program their own control prompts, so drawing a musical note on the seat with your finger, for example, can turn the audio volume up.

The overhead light in the car’s rear can also track what you’re reading and follow it if it moves, which means hitting a bump won’t distract you from your book.

“Technology retreats in the background,” Junghanns says. “It’s only visible when it’s wanted or needed.”

BMW's designers aren’t just focusing on powertrains and self-driving algorithms: They’re also thinking about how increasing autonomy is going to change the experience of driving – or rather, being driven around.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

How much of these puffed-up and no-doubt expensive features will make it into the final vehicle, and which are doomed to remain pie-in-the-sky fantasies? It’s too early to say, according to BMW. The touch-enabled fabric seat, for example, hasn’t been tested for durability or cleanability yet.

“It’s just a vision for now,” Junghanns says.

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The ideas at least aren’t too far out of line with what other automakers are suggesting. Volvo, with the 360c concept car it unveiled in September, expects vehicles will resemble private train cabins as they approach full Level 5 driverless autonomy. Interiors could have facing sofas with tables in between, or even foldaway beds.

Renault also revealed its futuristic EZ-Ultimo concept car in October at the Paris Auto Show, also promising luxury. Wood, leather and even marble figure throughout the airliner-like cabin, which has an armchair and couch. Like the iNext, electronics slide discreetly out of sight when not in use.

For its part, BMW is stressing that the point of the iNext is to highlight that its designers aren’t just focusing on powertrains and self-driving algorithms. They’re also thinking about how increasing autonomy is going to change the experience of driving – or rather, being driven around.

“To make it look this clean and simple is not that easy,” says Harald Kruger, chairman of the company’s board of management. “People want the new technology, but they don’t want it to complicate their lives.”

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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