BMW hired me to give an opinion on their latest car technology

What if cars could communicate with cities? How would this change the way we traveled? What would it do for the environments we poison with carbon dioxide?

This is an idea I haven’t stopped thinking about since BMW brought me out to Frankfurt two weeks ago. They gave me a sneak peek of some of their newest automotive technology that sparked an idea in me. An idea where car and city might one day communicate. Not in the verbal sense. But in a way that moves us closer to better harmony between humans, their machines, and the environment.

Do BMW’s cars communicate with cities currently? No. Is this idea in BMW’s plans? I’m not sure. However, it’s my vision I want to share with the world.

In order to understand this vision of car-to-city communication, I need to lay some groundwork of how I’m thinking about our cities.

Heart of the City

For most of its life, the plot of land we call Frankfurt was a swamp amidst the Main Valley. If we could transport back just a few thousand years, we’d see an entirely green, water-flowing lowland beaming with life. More importantly, an ecosystem operating in symbiosis – perfectly balanced.

Today, a concrete mass has overtaken this city (like so many others). A side by side comparison would lead onlookers to believe that the plot of land has lost its life.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When humans settled this area nearly 2,000 years ago they introduced an entirely new, but not all that foreign, ecosystem to this plot of land. An ecosystem that consumes, produces, and experiences the cycles of time just like nature.

Trees have been replaced by apartment complexes. Waterways exchanged for plumbing pipes. And creatures for humans.

Frankfurt is still a living organism. Every city is a living organism.

It’s an organism made up of two parts: infrastructure (the stagnant parts like roads and buildings) and inhabitants (the moving parts like cars and humans). The interplay between the two is what makes “Frankfurt the city” a living thing.

Have I lost you yet?

The point here is that like any organism, the city organism encounters problems. Overgrowth, flooding, decay, waste mismanagement, congestion, etc.

“Frankfurt the city” has lost the symbiosis it once had as “Frankfurt the swamp land”. The organism is out of balance.

We’ve long focused on changing a city to accommodate its inhabitants. Look at the mega-cities that seem to never stop growing outward and upward. But now it’s time we started changing the inhabitants to accommodate the city (organism). The city depends on us to change.

Car-to-City Communication

The clearest problem facing city organisms is congestion. Most of us see congestion and think of all the people late for work. But from the city’s perspective, areas of congestion are actually painful wounds exerting excessive carbon emissions. The flow of movement is completely out of alignment.

Considering that BMW (and all other car companies) are a major part of the problem, many of them are looking for ways to create new technology that enables smarter cities to exist. What’s BMW’s contribution to healing this wound?

BMW has taken the first step in creating a car that communicates with the city organism. (At least that’s the way I see it).

BMW’s newest prototype is built into their X5 plug-in hybrid car with eDrive system. It doesn’t communicate verbally, but rather through the technology at its disposal – GPS and hybrid engine. These three parts – the city organism, the GPS, and the hybrid engine – communicate to determine when it’s best to switch into electric mode. 

In the heart of Frankfurt’s city center is an Umwelt Zone (environment zone) – designated as a place of limited emissions. BMW geofenced this area – basically meaning it has digitally designated where the Umwelt Zone starts and ends.

When their prototype crosses into the Umwelt Zone, the GPS recognizes that it has “crossed the fence” and it automatically kicks into electric mode – going fully emission-free. They are doing their part to heal the wounded city center. And it doesn’t depend on the unreliability of human behavior to switch to electric mode. The car and city communicate to make the transition.

On top of that, they’ll be layering a credit system (so-called “BMW points”) where drivers are rewarded for driving electrically with the BMW plug-in hybrid. And when driving electrically in the eDrive Zone you get double the points. Therefore, incentivizing electric mode in the city’s congested center. In turn, these credits can be spent on charging.

Congestion is like clockwork in every city’s center. Carbon emissions are particularly concentrated in the areas where traffic is at a stand still. From Tokyo to Toronto, Munich to Madrid, every city organism is wounded by congestion. They all could benefit from this idea.

One day, Frankfurt will return to a state of symbiosis, with man and nature in unison. For the time being, BMW has inspired a new form of Smart City – one that uses its inhabitants as intelligent nodes that can adapt to the city’s needs.

Where does it go from here?

What’s Next?

At the moment, BMW facilitates the prototype car’s communication with the city. But I’m imagining how more technology can be layered upon this base to make it an elaborate and advanced smart city concept that benefits both the city organism and the traveler.

First, I think they could expand the double-points from just Umwelt Zones to construction zones and public parks. There are a lot of people in these areas exposed to carbon emissions and BMW could incentivize people to cut off the combustion as their cars passed these places.

Then, advancing this system with real-time traffic data could turn this from a “zoned switch” to a “traffic-dependent switch”. Digital maps, through accelerometers and GPS, are already collecting loads of real-time traffic data. Additionally, massive projects like Replica aim to create the de facto database of how people move throughout cities worldwide. This information paired with BMW’s tech could really advance how they determine what areas of a city their electric mode would be most effective in reducing emissions.

And lastly I think they’re really onto something big with their credit system which could expand into a gamified transit initiative. Essentially, they could reroute city traffic for better city efficiency by creating incentives for drivers. BMW drivers would get options to earn extra credits to take a longer route that won’t add to traffic.

The important part of this possible future for BMW is that it’s in the name of healing the congested areas where the city organism is experiencing pain.

Honestly, before BMW showed me their X5 concept car, I’d never really thought about automobiles as an essential player in smart cities. Now I can’t think about Smart Cities without them.

54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050.

United Nations

Mass urbanization is creating a lot of stress on cities worldwide and creating an urgency for smarter cities. We must design our technology so that it can communicate with the city organism. We need to exchange info real-time so that the city organism can influence our decisions to best cater to its needs.

I wholeheartedly believe BMW is taking one of the first steps in creating a bridge between infrastructure, inhabitants, and smart city. In my opinion, they are elevating the city organism by designing cars to solve the city’s problems, which will naturally alleviate many of the problems faced by its inhabitants and infrastructure.

Literally and metaphorically, BMW has started the conversation between car and smart city. The road to a society of purely electric vehicles is quite a ways away. In the interim, BMW’s moves are helping reduce emissions where cities are most inefficient.