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Car design: the car of the future in 7 steps

7 min reading time
The design of each new BMW model remains secret until the start of series production. Here you can follow the new BMW X5 through its design process. An exclusive look behind the scenes at the BMW design studio.

A completely new language of forms with fewer, yet more precise lines, a larger kidney grille and a more luxurious interior – the new BMW X5 has a number of new design elements. Who shapes the cars of the future? And what steps are required?

Domagoj Dukec, Head of Design BMW i and BMW M, presenting the M Sport package of the BMW X5 in a decision-making round.

What’s special at BMW: The car design comes from within an internal competition. All designers pitch their drafts throughout several rounds of competition – until at the very end the overall winning design goes into series production.

An entire design process takes several years. Find out what steps are required:

01

Looking ahead: Identifying trends

First, it is a matter of understanding the future vehicle and the context in which it will be driven. Designers have to understand far in advance what will be regarded as modern and cutting-edge in tomorrow’s world – and how BMW customers’ needs may have changed by then.

Designers gain their inspiration from a wide variety of sources – ranging from fashion and architecture all over the world to nature. However, they can also get ideas from the BMW advanced team’s top-secret vehicle projects and concept cars.

02

A question of character: Hand-drawn sketches

The competition begins with hand-drawn sketches, where BMW’s designers initially express their ideas in countless hand-drawn sketches.

“My first point of contact with a new model is a blank sheet of paper and a pencil,” says Anders Thøgersen, exterior designer of the BMW X5. “In your mind, you have a certain spirit and character that you want to bring to the car. These initial hand-drawn sketches do not answer all the questions, but they serve as an abstract guide to the subsequent design process.”

However, the BMW designers do not have a completely free hand. They must rather comply with requirements for the defined character of the future vehicle as well as technical conditions such as the wheelbase, trunk volume or safety requirements.

All the available technological innovations need to be included in such a way that future users perceive them as functional, sensible and visually fascinating at the same time. “A BMW should always tell at first sight what you can experience with it,” says exterior designer Anders Thøgersen.

We designers do a lot of work on computers, but our most important tools are still our hands and our eyes.
Anders Thøgersen,

exterior designer BMW X5

03

Precision: Tape drawings

Alongside the sketches the designers draw their plans on a wall on a 1:1 scale in what is known as tape drawings. Here, they stick the proportions of the vehicle onto a base plan using flexible tape. Base plans are a kind of map of the future vehicle with all technical and structural features.

“When you start the tape drawing, you immediately see the car much more clearly in your mind,” exterior designer Anders Thøgersen explains. “What began as an idea and a concept in the sketches, now gets a concrete meaning.”

In tape drawing, not only the character, but above all the real volume can be recognized with a few striking lines. “And once the tape drawing is complete, I can hardly wait to see the car design in a 3D model,” Thøgersen says.

Therefore, the tape drawings provide the template for the next steps.

What began as an idea in the sketches, now gets a concrete meaning.
Anders Thøgersen,

exterior designer BMW X5

04

Virtual experts: Digital models

At this stage state-of-the-art digital technologies come to play in the design process. From two-dimensional sketches, CAS (computer-aided styling) designers create a virtual three-dimensional vehicle. Among other things, they use Virtual Reality.

Last, but not least, the digital headsets facilitate collaboration between departments. Designers and developers are no longer spatially bound to a model. Instead, they are able to see the model through their VR headsets. Hence, the design process becomes more efficient and also delivers a context – so the new model can be presented in the respective living environment.

05

Shaping: Clay models

So far, the car designs have been two-dimensional, but now the form-finding process becomes three-dimensional. The designers, who concluded the selection process successfully, are given the opportunity to work up their designs three-dimensionally on a 1:1 scale. These models are made from clay.

“A clay prototype is essential for working up surfaces, lines and details perfectly,” Anders Thøgersen says. “A BMW design can be brought to life only in three-dimensional form and original size. It is a thrilling moment for me when you actually see the sketches in front of you as a complete entity – a being that you can walk around.”

Once the clay model is ready, the designers wrap it in special sheeting that imitates the effect of car paintwork. This makes it possible to assess the lines, surfaces and proportions of a clay model in different light conditions.

It takes about one month for a model to achieve the desired level of perfection. Then it goes forward to the next round in the decision-making process. About two years before the vehicle goes into production, the BMW Board of Management selects the winner from the two remaining car designs.

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The final clay model is covered with a special foil. This makes light and shadow effects visible.
The final clay model is covered with a special foil. This makes light and shadow effects visible.
The final clay model is covered with a special foil. This makes light and shadow effects visible.
The final clay model is covered with a special foil. This makes light and shadow effects visible.
The final clay model is covered with a special foil. This makes light and shadow effects visible.
The final clay model is covered with a special foil. This makes light and shadow effects visible.

About clay

Clay is an industrial substance. It is heated and can then be modelled. A clay model consists of a basic frame made of wood and metal that is coated by foam. Only the top layer is clay. The structure is pre-milled on the basis of the CAS data and shaped to perfection by hand. The tools being used are blades, spatulas, sponges and brushes.

06

Internal view: Drawing the interior car design

Interior designers sketch and refine their models at the same time as exterior designers. They also work with clay in this process. In so-called seat boxes, they also make the entire interior come alive – from seats and details to surfaces and materials.

Also in this process, VR headsets provide support. Making it possible to look round a virtual car interior as though you were sitting in it.

“We aim to create an ambience for our customers that is modern, inviting and functional at the same time,” explains Eva Günther, interior designer of the BMW X5. “It should be an atmosphere, which offers the customer both the joy of driving and a possibility to work or relax.”

07

Perfectionism: Fine-tuning

The BMW Design has a dedicated team for the detailed car design as well as for colours and materials. Both on the exterior and in the interior of the vehicle, these fine-tuning experts perfect all the elements down to hundredths of a millimetre. Close coordination among car designers, engineers and production technicians is especially important at this stage.

From this early stage it still takes a few years to pass before the new BMW X5 is introduced to the public.

Globally there are three BMW design centres, in Munich, Singapore and Newbury Park (California). The teams work closely together across national boundaries.

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