Exclusive: At 100, BMW sees radical new future in world of driverless cars

Fri Mar 4, 2016 1:06am EST
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By Edward Taylor and Ilona Wissenbach

GENEVA (Reuters) - After a century building what it calls the "ultimate driving machine", BMW is preparing for a world in which its customers will be mere passengers, and the cars will do the driving themselves.

Days before BMW's 100th birthday, its board member for research and development described plans for a completely overhauled company, where half the R&D staff will be computer programmers, competing with the likes of Google parent Alphabet to build the brains for self-driving cars. (GOOGL.O: Quote)

"For me it is a core competence to have the most intelligent car," Klaus Froehlich told Reuters in an interview at the Geneva auto show.

As a high tech world opens new business opportunities, BMW sees its competitors as including firms like internet taxi service Uber and sales website Truecar, which Froehlich described as "new intermediaries".

"Our task is to preserve our business model without surrendering it to an internet player. Otherwise we will end up as the Foxconn (2354.TW: Quote) for a company like Apple (AAPL.O: Quote), delivering only the metal bodies for them," Froehlich said.

BMW will have to ramp up quickly, striking deals with a new network of suppliers, many from outside the traditional automotive industry.

"We have some catching up to do in the area of machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Froehlich said.

Today, software engineers make up just 20 percent of the 30,000 employees, contractors and supplier staff that work on research and development for BMW.   Continued...

The logo of BMW is pictured during a media preview day at the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) in this September 10, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski