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100 years of bmw

You're snarled in commuter traffic. Toronto on the Don Valley Parkway. Montreal at the Highway 20 and Route 38 junction. Vancouver, downtown, everywhere. Calgary on the Deerfoot Trail.

Why fret?

Simply switch the BMW Vision 100 from Boost mode to Ease mode and allow the car's computer to take over: The steering wheel and console retract, headrests turn to the side, seats and door trim merge to facilitate conversation between driver and passenger, and the car drives itself.

BMW celebrated its 100th birthday party Monday with a nod to the past and an emphasis on the "next 100 years". Harald Krueger, CEO of the BMW Group, appeared on stage at the company's Olympics-styled presentation – think dancers, singers, acrobats, light shows – with four twentysomething staffers, joined hands on a specially designed emblem and declared, "The future begins now." With that trigger of the verbal shotgun, a digital clock began ticking away seconds on a large screen at the Munich Olympic Centre.

That was for show. In reality, Kruger and many of the 100,000-plus employees watching the telecast realize the future of the automotive industry became apparent years ago. BMW, builder of the "ultimate driving machine," is confronted with the ticklish question of whether combustion-powered vehicles have a future in a society that will possibly be dominated with emission-free, self-driving cars.

BMW's answer, at least conceptually, is to provide the option for a driver to control or to cede control. In Boost mode, a vast range of sensor-activated technology would aid the driver; in Ease mode, the car's computer would transform the Vision into an autonomous vehicle.

"What's fun about being stuck in traffic for 45 minutes every morning?" asks BMW Canada president Hans Blesse. "If you give me the option of using those 45 minutes productively and getting a head start on your e-mails for the day, I would probably do it. To drive to the cottage, forget it, not in the cards. It's a great road, usually empty when I go, and a whole lot of fun to drive. But [autonomous driving] will have its place."

The rub: The Vision 100 is unlikely to be seen on the roads "for 20 to 30 years," Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW Group senior vice-president, design, admitted during a news conference staged in a building BMW used a century ago to construct aircraft parts. "If you are able to imagine something, there's a good chance it could one day become reality."

Meantime, Tesla, Google, Apple, Uber, even the Chinese-financed Faraday Future are threatening to disrupt traditional auto makers with plans to build lightweight, electric, autonomous vehicles.

Having remade itself in the wake of two world wars, BMW today has dexterity built into its DNA, Kruger said. BMW also owns Mini, Rolls-Royce and Motorrad motorcycles, and concept vehicles for each division will be rolled out this year at events in London, Beijing and Los Angeles. As is, BMW globally has reacted with plug-in hybrids and hydrogen-fuel cell cars: the 330e and 740e xDrive, the X5 xDrive, i8 and i3.

Earlier Monday, during a shy-on-details press conference, Krueger said, "The car will soon be your digital chauffeur and personal companion. Transportation will become a personal experience."

During the past half-century, BMW demonstrated an unerring knack of adapting its vehicle lineup to meet demand. The company sells two million units annually – including a record 42,000 in Canada last year, with Mini – to reign as the No. 1 producer of luxury vehicles globally. BMW is ranked by Forbes as the 16th most valuable brand globally, behind only Toyota among auto makers.

The flagship 7 Series stands a primary example of one model leading to the next. The E23 (1977-86) featured "computer controls", a driver's airbag and interior lighting delay; the E32 (1986-93) had electric window lift, a 12-cylinder engine – the first by a German company since the 1930s) – and traction/stability control; the E38 (1994-2001) came with a nav screen, climate control and memory seats; the E65 (2001-08) integrated iDrive infotainment, roll stabilization, a six-speed automatic, push-button start, radar cruise control and an aluminum chassis; the F01 (2008-15) brought in a head-up display, surround view, real-time traffic information; the most recent G11/G12 (2015-) introduces gesture control of the infotainment system, executive lounge rear compartment, carbon core, a touch command tablet, 3D surround view, wireless charging and lane-hold assist. The 7 Series starts at $114,000 in Canada.

"What it is, and this is my own personal opinion, is the way they talk to you," Blesse said. "The 3 Series really put us on the map in Canada, and my first BMW was an [all-wheel drive] 325iX. The joke we used to have – if you drive over a coin, you could tell if it was heads or tails. It just gave you that much feedback and the feedback gives you the confidence to drive the cars."

Yet, the lineup is gas-powered and no model is driving itself. In Canada, BMW sells 34 models and of those, two are electric – the i3 and the plug-in hybrid i8. Some 30,000 i3s sold worldwide last year.

What's next?

The Vision 100. Maybe.

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