We don’t usually think of Rolls-Royce as a forward thinking company. This is, after all, a carmaker that still uses a radiator mascot on the front of its automobiles and does almost everything by hand, including the one hand of the guy that does the pinstriping on all Rolls-Royces. On the other hand, Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW and has been for almost 20 years. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of BMW and one of their many celebratory promotions this year has involved the unveiling of a series of “Vision Next 100” concept cars from BMW themselves as well as subsidiaries like MINI and Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce unveiled theirs, which is one of the most radical concept cars of any kind seen this year, at London’s Roundhouse art venue. Rolls-Royce’s Vision Next 100 is basically a design study looking to the future of its customers and luxury mobility as a whole over the coming decades.
Despite the company’s old school charm and rich past, they really seem to have taken the idea of the future seriously. Rolls-Royce’s promotion of the car has been more about flowery language and pontificating about the future of luxury motoring than significant technical details. But the car, which is codenamed 103EX, is propelled by a zero emissions powertrain, drives itself autonomously and even features a “virtual assistant” artificial intelligence system named Eleanor, supposedly after the woman who inspired the Spirit of Ecstasy that adorns the hood of most every Rolls-Royce motorcar. Rolls-Royce has referenced HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey when describing how our autonomous Rolls-Royces of the future would function. Hopefully they won’t take a page out of HAL’s book and try to kill us.
Other than an electric powertrain artificial intelligence, the car is as much about luxury and comfort as it is high-tech. It’s 5.9 meters long and 1.9 meters high, so it is roughly the size of a current Phantom, and where the internal combustion engine would normally be in a Rolls-Royce of today, there’s storage space for personalized luggage that is presented automatically when the compartment is opened. When passengers (since there will no longer be the distinction between “driver” and “passenger”) enter the car through a combination of both gullwing and suicide doors, they’ll find an ivory-colored cloth “throne” on which to sit, deep pile wool carpet on which to lay their feet, an HD television to watch and a glass canopy above in case they feel like looking at the night sky. All around them, meanwhile, is Macassar Ebony wood trim. Upon exiting and as those suicide/gullwing doors open up again, a step emerges from beneath the running board and a red light is projected, sort of like a red carpet to announce their arrival.
While the Vision Next 100 certainly is striking, it wouldn’t win any beauty contests. And with that familiar Rolls-Royce radiator shell juxtaposed with those floating headlights, sharp fully enclosed fenders over 28-inch wheels and space-age glass cockpit, this car looks more like something created to be in a sci-fi movie set the future rather than a realistic prediction of the future itself. Even so, the car’s combination of features with a unique look does seem like a reasonable prediction of the wants and needs of tomorrow’s Rolls-Royce owners given the wants and needs of their customers today.
Clearly, this car won’t actually be built and sold to the public and whatever automobile you’ll be able to order from Rolls-Royce in 50 years won’t share many if any bits of this concept car. This is a statement, one that Rolls-Royce has an eye towards our rapidly changing future and one with which they are exploring numerous concepts about that future.
Whether you love or hate the look of this Vision Next 100 concept, you have to give Rolls-Royce some credit. A future with autonomous cars ruling the road could very well mean that we’ll all be travel in dull-looking, pill-shaped pods with wheels sticking out the bottom, but Rolls-Royce still holds out the possibility that the car will have a sense of occasion about it, even if there is neither a steering wheel nor a great big gasoline V-12 engine. It points to a future where the car can still reflect the personality and be an extension of its owner as well as have some personality for itself, even if only for a discerning few.