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Magical color-changing exterior

6 min reading time
The BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA combines the technology of color-changing exteriors developed by BMW with the aesthetic style of South African Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu. Gain exclusive insights into the genesis of this unique product, which is equipped with electrically animated E Ink film segments.

5 April 2024

A quick thought experiment: What if you could change the exterior of your BMW to suit your mood? What if you could choose different colors and patterns to fit the current weather?

The BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA shows that these are real possibilities. With the latest evolutionary stage of color-change technology using E Ink, BMW is opening up a new world of unique and unprecedented customization options in exterior design. This is where technology, innovation, and art converge. Featuring electrically animated film segments, the unique piece embodies the latest development stage of the color-changing technology for vehicle surfaces created in collaboration with the E Ink Corporation.

Innovative homage to the BMW Art Cars

The one-off design piece presented at the Frieze Los Angeles art fair is a tribute to the history of the BMW brand and global cultural engagement. In 1991, Esther Mahlangu designed the 12th BMW Art Car using a BMW 525i. She was the first woman and first African artist given the opportunity to do so (➜ Read also: The History of the BMW Art Cars). “Her art inspired me years ago, when dynamic color changes on the body of a BMW were nothing more than an initial idea,” says Stella Clarke, Research Engineer in Open Innovations at the BMW Group. 

Esther Mahlangu, Stella Clarke Esther Mahlangu, Stella Clarke
Esther Mahlangu (left), Stella Clarke

An interior shot of Mahlangu’s Art Car was even the final image in her pitch deck when the idea was first presented. “Realizing this idea now, working with her, and seeing a thought in her head become a reality is absolutely incredible,” says Clarke.

Mahlangu is known for her Ndebele paintings, the motifs of which originally symbolized important events or celebrations in her culture. The characteristic colors and geometric patterns of this art form are ideal for showcasing the innovative flow technology on the BMW i5 (➜ Read also: BMW i5: with dynamism and a helping hand).

True innovation is capable of triggering delight. And I hope that the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA will awaken this feeling of joy and enchantment in many onlookers.
Stella Clarke

Research Engineer in Open Innovations at BMW

Color change at the touch of a button

Digital experiences will soon not just be limited to displays. Instead, real and virtual experiences will continue to merge. This was impressively demonstrated by the BMW iX Flow featuring E Ink (➜ Read also: To the Polar Circle with the BMW iX), which was unveiled in 2022 and can change its entire exterior color from black to white and back again at the touch of a button.

The crux of the color change – the physical phenomenon of electrophoresis – is based on a technology developed by the E Ink Corporation and used in a similar form in e-book readers.

E-Ink, color-change technology E-Ink, color-change technology

The surface coating of the BMW iX Flow featuring E Ink contains several million microcapsules, each the diameter of a human hair. Each of these microcapsules contains negatively charged white and positively charged black pigments. Depending on the setting selected, an electrical impulse ensures that either the white or the black pigments accumulate on the surface of the microcapsules and thus give the vehicle body the desired color.

Beyond visual aspects, this technology also has functional aspects. For example, color change influences light reflection, which in turn influences heat absorption, i.e. a white surface reflects much more sunlight than a black one. In strong sunlight and high outside temperatures, the temperature of the vehicle and passenger compartment can be reduced by switching to a lighter exterior color.

In cooler weather, a dark-colored body shell helps the vehicle to absorb noticeably more heat from the sun. In both cases, targeted color changes help to reduce the strain on the vehicle climate control.

1,349 individual film segments

In 2023, just one year later, the first multicolored implementation followed. Up to 32 colors are displayed on the 240 individually controllable E Ink film segments of the BMW i Vision Dee (➜ Read also: Hi, I’m Dee! Welcome to my hub!).

The latest development stage now enables even more colors and patterns. On the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA, the animated film segments extend in numerous strips over the sides, roof, hood, trunk, and rims. The BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA is equipped with 1,349 film segments, each of which can be individually controlled to highlight the complex ornamentation in precise detail. As a result, the colors, and patterns typical of Esther Mahlangu’s art are presented in ever-changing compositions.

E-Ink, color-change technology E-Ink, color-change technology

The addition of NOSTOKANA in the Art Car’s name is a deliberate choice; it is the name of Esther Mahlangu’s first son and in effect also Esther Mahlangu’s indigenous name, as, in Ndebele culture, mothers take their firstborn son’s name.

Curiosity drives me. It all starts with that.
Stella Clarke

Research Engineer in Open Innovations at BMW

The symphony of science and art creates new ways of thinking

With the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA, technology itself becomes art. For Clarke, this is a harmonious symbiosis: “Technology is key. You can develop something magical with it. For me, magic always goes hand in hand with a touch of disbelief or astonishment. You question how the trick works.”

One character trait plays a key role for Clarke: curiosity. She approaches this with a childlike curiosity: “Art explores boundaries. Art pushes boundaries. Art ignores technical limitations and sparks inspiration, enthusiasm, reflection, and joy. Triggering such feelings with technology can be challenging – that’s why the fusion with art and this way of thinking can help us break new ground here too.”

At the end of this path, will there be technological advancements that make it possible to change the color of your BMW in everyday life – just like changing your outfit? The more robust the film segments become with each further iteration of development, the more they facilitate potential series production. For the time being, the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA will remain a one-off.

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Author: Markus Löblein; Art: Lucas Lemuth, Madita O’Sullivan; Animations: E Ink; Photos & Video: BMW

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