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I just experienced BMW's idea of a relaxing commute, and it was weird

BMW i3 Urban Space concept car at CES 2020 exterior
(Image credit: Future)

LAS VEGAS — CES 2020 marks my second year attending the world’s biggest tech show. If there’s one thing I've learned in my relatively short experience, it’s that you have to pace yourself here. It's a marathon — not a sprint.

Oh, sure, it’s a blast, and you see some truly groundbreaking stuff. But CES spans the whole of the Strip, from the convention center to suites and ballrooms inside many of the resorts lining the boulevard. CES doesn’t really happen in Las Vegas; Las Vegas happens in CES, and you cover quite a distance trying to see it all.

By the end of the festivities on Tuesday — the first real day of the conference but my fourth in town covering events — I was pretty beat. Normally, I’d request a Lyft back to my hotel, and wait about 20 minutes for one to arrive at the ride share pickup area, which is inconveniently located on the fringe of the convention center grounds.

At some point, the driver would inevitably call me to say they wouldn't be able to reach the pickup spot in a timely manner because of the endless procession of other ride shares jammed bumper-to-bumper on the narrow one-lane road leading to the only parking lot they’re legally allowed to service. I’d be stuck in limbo, probably for almost an hour, before I’d mercifully get in a car, only to then have to wade through infamous Las Vegas CES traffic.

That’s how a journey that really should take 15 minutes ends up taking 90.

BMW i3 Urban Space concept car at CES 2020 interior

(Image credit: Future)

However, this time I had the opportunity to do something a little different. BMW brought a fleet of 20 i3 electric city cars with them to CES this year, to ferry lucky passengers to and from their myriad destinations. But these weren’t ordinary i3s; rather, both passenger-side seats were removed for one long, laid-back, lounge-style seat, with a power-adjustable foot rest. Next to that throne, a little desk with a wood surface adorned with a lamp, as well as a cupholder with an Amazon Fire TV remote inside, linked to a fold-down screen on the ceiling with access to any streaming service your heart could desire. 

This is the BMW i3 Urban Suite — a concept built to demonstrate the kind of relaxing or working we might do in the autonomous future, when cars become nothing more than another room in your house that just happens to have wheels. I summoned the i3 to BMW’s CES lot from a special app on my smartphone — not unlike Uber or Lyft — and I was even able to request a coffee, tea, bottle of water or cappuccino to be ready and waiting for me inside upon its arrival.

BMW i3 Urban Space concept car at CES 2020 interior

(Image credit: Future)

While the Urban Suite might one day drive itself, this one did not. Rather, my friendly chauffeur walked me through all the controls and capabilities available to me in this special i3 before we set off for my hotel. I connected my Pixel 4 to the car’s built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, which I was told was utilizing a 5G connection. (BMW didn’t specify the network in question, but by process of elimination, my money is on T-Mobile.) I’ll take their word for it — the Instagram video I captured of the Urban Suite's crazy interior uploaded to my story almost instantaneously.

Inside the Urban Suite, I supposedly had the ability to control the fan speed and temperature of the climate control system, as well as the windows and my cute little desk lamp. I say “supposedly” because the temperature was only adjustable by the driver, who merely copied the request I made in the app by rotating the dial on the dash. Furthermore, some sort of connection error prevented me from controlling the windows and desk lamp. The only facet that actually worked was the fan speed, which wasn’t particularly critical on this pleasant, 60-degree Las Vegas evening. And just in case you were wondering, my coffee wasn’t brewed in the car — it was retrieved from BMW’s booth before I got in.

BMW i3 Urban Space concept car at CES 2020 interior

(Image credit: Future)

Little moments like those sort of feel like being asked to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Truthfully, though, they don't bother me too much. Making it so passengers can fidget with the air conditioning on their phone isn't a tough problem to solve; pulling off autonomous driving safely and reliably, on the other hand, is a serious challenge. And even though the Urban Suite concept is really just a humble i3 at heart, I think it’s important for BMW and other carmakers to illustrate — or at least, simulate — what life will be like when we can get into our cars and become different kinds of passengers.

Silly though it may sound, as nice as it was to stretch and lie half-reclined in the Urban Suite, being in that position in a moving vehicle — while having everything around me catered to my whim — felt really strange. The most luxurious cars on the road today don’t feel this accommodating. And the funny thing is, the seat itself wasn’t even that supple. Just before I checked out the Urban Suite, I went for a brief ride in a decked-out X7 SUV featuring the new ZeroG Lounger seat BMW is planning to bring to the market in the near future, and that felt much softer, dynamic and more compliant than the cerulean cocoons fitted to these prototype i3s.

BMW i3 Urban Space concept car at CES 2020 interior

(Image credit: Future)

Although it’s legal for BMW to ferry 20 of these Urban Suites around Las Vegas, the automaker tells us these are still very much concept vehicles and not ready or intended for mass production. Special exemptions are granted to prototypes like these that allow them to be driven on public roads, so long as they satisfy some constraints. For example, these i3s are forbidden from exceeding certain speeds, depending on the driving scenario.

Yet, in spite of that, the experience of riding in one of these Urban Suites is very real. I wish everyone could feel it — not because it's a fanciful vision of the future luxury, but because it’s a preview of how we’re going to start thinking about the time we spend in our cars much differently over the next decade. For one, waiting for a traffic jam to subside might not feel quite as painful as it does today.

Be sure to check out our CES 2020 hub for the latest news and hands-on impressions out of Las Vegas.