Winter 2021

BMW i Vision Circular

It looks nothing like any other BMW, but the i Vision Circular is a bold vision of a fully-recycled car. Has the German OEM caught the mood, or is this concept merely evidence of a brand at a crossroads? 

BMW can’t be accused of aggressive design with its latest i Vision Circular concept car, launched in early September 2021 at the IAA Mobility show in Munich. But while there was no enlarged and flary-nostrilled grille to upset the traditionalists, the concept’s overall design – and its light-purple, velvet-upholstered interior in particular – was in some ways as bold a move as those big grilles. It certainly caused more than a few furrowed brows of confusion, and in some cases derision, from the media gathered there. BMW released a statement at the time of its global reveal from long-standing SVP of BMW Group design, Adrian van Hooydonk: “We gave thorough consideration to circularity from the outset during the design process. As a result, this vehicle is packed with innovative ideas for combining sustainability with a new inspirational aesthetic – we call this approach ‘circular design’.”

‘Circular design’, according to BMW, embraces four basic principles – to Re-think, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – and the brief for the i Vision Circular was to imagine a sustainable car for the year 2040 made of 100% recycled materials. A laudable aim no doubt and very timely too, given grave concerns about the effect of man-made emissions on the planet that world leaders discussed at the ‘COP 26’ United Nations Climate Change conference just two months later. But achieving a sustainable design that future BMW customers might actually pay a premium for is a whole other kettle of fish, and a challenge that must be met if the approach is to be successful.

Head of design for the BMW brand, Domagoj Dukec acknowledges as much, but reckons his team cracked it: “We set ourselves the challenge of designing a 100% circular vehicle, while at the same time meeting – and in some respects exceeding – our customers’ self-evident expectations when it comes to lifestyle and luxury.”   
In our quest to judge for ourselves and up close – at the Munich show we only saw the i Vision Circular from afar behind a roped-off area – in early November Interior Motives intercepted the concept on its way to Glasgow’s ‘COP 26’ event. At a brief stop at BMW’s posh Park Lane dealership in central London we sat inside the controversial cabin and had a one-to-one interview with head of sustainability at BMW Group Design, Daniela Bohlinger.

"The unexpected design doesn’t include typical interior cues from the Bavarian brand, or even the wider environmental automotive playbook"

She explained that due to COVID-19 restrictions, much of the design process was done remotely via video conferencing, and while senior management were kept in the loop, they only saw pictures and samples before the finished car’s first internal reveal. Judging by additional sketches BMW sent to Interior Motives, the colour scheme options were varied and diverse in approach, perhaps because initially the designers didn’t know what materials would qualify as being sustainable enough, or how some recycled materials would react to being moulded and stretched into new shapes. The only reference Bohlinger name-checks on the initial mood board was a vegan Nike sneaker made from recycled trash with a flecked sole to highlight its mixed-up ‘secondary source’ beginnings.

Even the concept’s size was not clear at first. “We thought about starting with a bigger car,” she reveals, “but then decided to show that luxury and ‘pure driving pleasure’ can happen in a small car. This concept is based on the BMW i3 footprint.” Despite seeking to use more recycled materials than within a current-day BMW production car – which uses on average 28% by mass – Bohlinger says BMW employed the same suppliers as usual. However, she says the teams could not go into considerable depth to develop them within the 9-14 months project timeframe, again due to restrictions caused by the pandemic. “The textile was woven with the same people we usually use. But we couldn’t go ‘into the process’ like we would normally,” Bohlinger confirms. “That’s why it was an interesting surprise for everybody.” 
The unexpected design certainly doesn’t include typical interior cues from the Bavarian brand, or even the wider environmental automotive playbook. “There is a perception with sustainable products that they must look slightly ‘eco’, with brown-ish colours and unbleached materials,” she says with a smile. “We wanted to actively break that image.” That BMW has avoided such stripped-back design clichés there can be little doubt. Instead, the i Vision Circular cabin features grey marble-effect recycled plastic doors and interior panels, a massive back-lit and 3D-printed central IP area resembling a faceted block of ice, and lounge-style front seats covered in light purple, ruched, quilted and shiny velvet-style recycled plastic fabric, all sat within satin-gold anodised aluminium frames. With a similarly-upholstered and cushioned rear bench behind – additionally edged by what appear to be chintzy cord loops – it’s certainly like no other BMW interior…ever.

Although the looped fabric borders look like the sort of adornment you might find on a flamboyant granny’s curtains or sofa, Bohlinger says the design team actually drew inspiration from snowboard fixings. There is a functional aspect behind the ones on the i Vision Circular - they act as pulling points to enable easy removal of the fabric-covered cushions and door card panels. For a similar reason, the quilting in the front seats is held in place by press studs. Both are examples of ‘going circular’, by avoiding glue and bonded materials and so making parts of the car easier to dismantle when individually worn out, or when the car is ready for recycling.

Another ‘circular’ example can be seen on the rear shells of the front seats – also made of recycled plastic but this time colour-flecked a bit like the Nike sneaker mentioned earlier – and where a circular button can be pressed to ‘quick-release’ the seat’s constituent parts. (Before recycling, when in everyday use, it would be good to factor-in a child-proof lock to avoid accidental chair deconstruction by young fiddling hands of course!) Apparently, the button’s abstract pattern also spells out the word ‘circular’ if you stare at it long enough. Either way, it’s a stylish addition to the seat back and laudable for its functional consideration.

Elsewhere, Bohlinger points to rear ceiling lights made from repurposed iDrive controllers from the new BMW iX and elegant 3D-printed door hinges full of holes for aesthetic effect, and also weight-reducing benefit. 

Arguably the most conventional-looking part of the i Vision Circular’s cabin is its steering wheel. Whether one will be needed in 2040 is a moot point – Bohlinger concedes they decided to be conservative about that aspect – but it has been made in a sustainable way using 3D-printed, naturally-treated recycled wood powder. ‘Crystal’ inserts made of the same bio-based plastic as the centre dashboard house touch-sensitive controls either side of the satin-gold spine of the steering wheel, and in the centre of that structure – like on the car’s front face – is an engraved BMW logo. This avoids a stick-on badge. It looks as premium and clear as the current physical badging, if not more so.

"The i Vision Circular interior seems too random and 'not BMW enough', however laudably sustainable each constituent part is"

Other components that currently take up room in that area – like the speakers – are located beneath the head restraint cushions. Each seat has its own dedicated sound zone, meaning multiple users can employ their own device to control a specific speaker and not interfere with other people’s audio choices. 

Further cabling and electronics are avoided by the use of a mechanical roof shade for the rear of the cabin, where two interior glass panels with graphic patterned parallel lines printed on them can be pushed together by hand to vary the level of shade between 50-100%. It sounds a bit old school, but effective nonetheless.

All in all, these details show that BMW’s designers have thought long and hard about how their approach could have a positive environmental impact, not only regarding sustainable surface finishes but also on the inner structure of the car’s layout. However, there is a jarring aspect about the i Vision Circular, to these eyes at least – the interior material, and colour choices in particular, don’t chime with any current production or even forward-thinking conceptual BMW brand values. Buff the engraved BMW roundel logo back down to smooth on the steering wheel, and arguably the cabin could be from any brand, and not necessarily a tasteful, premium-centric one. In fact, there are almost no BMW reference points at all, and even when you are imagining far into the future – in this case 2040 – it’s sometimes useful to take humble 2021 earthlings with you by giving them something they can relate to. Yes, it is a forward-looking concept, but the i Vision Circular interior seems too random and ‘not BMW enough’, however laudably sustainable each constituent part is.

SVP of BMW Group design: Adrian van Hooydonk

VP of BMW design: Domagoj Dukec

VP of BMW i design: Kai Langer

Head of BMW i Interior design: Matthias Junghanns

Head of sustainability at BMW Group Design: Daniela Bohlinger

Head of BMW i Colour and trim: Claudia Geidobler

User interface designer, BMW Group design: Olivier Pitrat

Project started / completed: autumn 2020 / summer 2021

Launch: Munich, Germany / September 2021

Dimensions (mm)

Length: 4031

Width: 1872

Height: 1540

Wheelbase: Undisclosed

Text: Guy Bird