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Head of MINI Design Oliver Heilmer Talks About the Sustainable Future of Mobility

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Like many in the automotive industry, Oliver Heilmer’s story with cars began long before his career in automotive design. “For as long as I can remember, I have been totally fascinated by cars,” says Heilmer. “I’ve always drawn cars – and at the same time always had a big smile on my face. It started when I was a little kid scribbling extra spoilers on photos of cars in magazines. “

These formative years would lay the foundation from which Heilmer would jump as a creative child prodigy, initially with the BMW Group’s Advanced Design Team in 2000 before being promoted to Head of Interior Design at BMW in 2013. Soon after, he assumed the role of President of Designworks, a subsidiary of the BMW Group, where he was responsible for overseeing all three design studios in North America, Europe and Asia. In 2017, Heilmer will move to MINI as Head of Design for the brand. His talent was used to identify both points of the present and to connect them with the goal of creating the future.

Nowhere are Heilmer’s efforts to reinterpret the MINI legacy for future generations as evident as in the brand’s electrically powered MINI Vision Urbanaut, an experimental mobility solution that dares to redefine automobiles that are not tied to many of the standards, that are connected to cars on the road today.

The MINI Vision Urbanaut is characterized by its aerodynamic legume silhouette and its space / womb-like interior and sees mobility as an extension of lifestyle activities that are equipped with physical and technological amenities that have been largely adopted from the home.

We spoke to Oliver Heilmer to discuss some of the specific details and principles of the MINI Vision Urbanaut.

The Vision Urbanaut looks strikingly different from other previous MINI concept designs. Is MINI developing electrification / autonomous technology an opportunity to restart the brand for a new generation without being connected to MINI’s past?

I believe that the relationship to their origins must always remain in terms of visual identity and branding. However, reinterpretation is also the nature of this connection and time. For me as a designer, there is no either-or. It’s an “and”. But it is also true that many younger generations only know the BMW MINI, the 2001; that also appeals to being cute and desirable. So I don’t see any difference in the way the original MINI is perceived. The link to the heritage remains, but at the same time the brand is growing.

Much has been said about the development towards electric drives and “skateboard” platforms. The MINI Vision Urbanaut clearly shows the maximization of usable space – a “living room on wheels” experience? How far do you think we are from making this a reality?

We started developing the MINI Vision Urbanaut at the end of 2018, returned to the origins of MINI and challenged the status quo. Our central questions were: How could mobility possibly change and how will MINI grow as an urban brand alongside our core products and how will it participate in this change? If you take a closer look at Generation Z, you will notice their different views on cars themselves. They tend to repair their beloved vehicles themselves or have them professionally adjusted, which creates small personal dreams – everything that is represented in the MINI Vision Urbanaut.

Therefore, the Urbanaut is an answer to how to occupy and use space in an urban environment. From now on the concept is more of a rough projection of the year 2030. It is conceivable that in 10 years demand will grow and the market will be ready – of course we cannot predict that.

Okay how about aesthetically? Do you see the possibility of newer and even “stranger” production vehicles if the designers are freed from the conventions and safety requirements of the internal combustion engine?

First there is the engine, a factor that affects the proportions and how we develop the vehicles in terms of aesthetics. However, the significant leverage would come, and I consciously say “would”, when cars are no longer involved in accidents due to fully automated safety functions. So when the “crash” problem is resolved, we offer another level of design that is less bulky than it is today and required by regulations and requirements.

Today, such a vehicle has no chance in a car accident. Designing differently than today is possible once this aspect has been resolved – we assume that it is. Indeed, we would see a wider variety of cars, like in the 1970s when many different shapes coexisted, all very distinctive and compelling.

A large part of the vision of the MINI Vision Urbanaut revolves around the preprogrammed atmospheres of chill, vibe and wanderlust, which are activated with a physical token. Was there any specific research / study that supported the ideas specific to these environmental modes?

Generation Z would ideally like to be on the road with their own vehicle. In Japan, for example, an internal study that analyzes the user behavior of our DriveNow fleet shows that people book vehicles but do not move them. As a result, we found that users use DriveNow differently. You book a personal area for a special moment, e.g. B. to eat privately, to read or to make phone calls. This conclusion clearly differs from culture to culture and from individual needs. But in Japan, a country with smaller homes and a lack of personal space, we have noticed this phenomenon.

I like the tactile and physical nature of the token, but I also wonder if a physical token would be preferable to using an app or wearable to activate these scenarios. Why not using tactile buttons and switches, but inserting a token?

For us, the haptic experience is and will remain decisive for the development of the next MINI generation. The MINI Vision Urbanaut and its token are a major step forward in this regard. For this reason, we wanted to create a hand tag that would carry your personal virtual ID, but not be proof of the brand. It was our aim to think outside the box on the subject of “car keys”. We also looked for a way to create a key that wasn’t just a key and less related to technology.

So at the moment it’s this shape, but it could be a bracelet or amulet that you wear around your neck. Something that you are emotionally attached to and take with you. This is what distinguishes a token from a key – it’s an entirely different way of manifesting your personality. But first and foremost, it is intended to replace the key. In addition to this token, there will of course be topics for mobile devices and apps. All of this coexists.

And yes, the token initially seems to be analog. However, the intelligence behind it is hidden, very sophisticated. It represents a new level of interaction that is much easier and without technological overkill.

Tell us about the combination of swivel seat and day bed in addition to the floor treatment that is reminiscent of a carpet.

We have already built the swivel seat several times; The mechanics are fully documented in detail – to be honest – we could implement them directly if we were to develop the Urbanaut in 3D. The floor includes two zones – one area towards a cozy corner where we use carpet.

The cozy corner shows the idea that we understand the MINI Vision Urbanaut as an external living space, including sitting or lounging on the carpet, as we do at home. Of course, the color tones and the character of the carpet also reflect this idea. It should invite you to make this space your own. There is no leg room in the car. The other zone is the front where the driver sits; We used cork. A functional choice, and we wanted to create a proportion of surfaces that naturally improve the interior climate. Cork has this quality; it absorbs excess moisture and gradually releases it later – a non-tech air conditioning system.

For you as a designer, what is a MINI Vision Urbanaut detail that you most hope will find its way into future MINI vehicles?

From the point of view of the symbol, the round center is of course displayed. But I’m also amazed at the bikes. It’s a completely different aesthetic in which we dedicate ourselves to the topic of skateboarding. Skateboarding is more than just a sport. It’s a way of life. This part is a symbol of lightness so I would like to see us achieve that at some point.

Back to today’s realities: how does MINI envision this concept study that predicts the habits / activities of the public in a post-COVID world?

The pandemic has changed the value of the MINI Vision Urbanaut. Today we perceive a car as a protected space in which we can move from A to B and do not have to wear a mask. That has a completely different value today than it did before the pandemic. For example, in the summer I noticed that everyone on my team was cycling. Many had stopped using public transport. Individual mobility is becoming more and more important because people feel safe. It’s a matter of personal circumstances; B. where they live and whether they can afford it. But we see that people who can afford it and have to commute because of their work are more willing to use a private car.

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Robert Dunfee