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Sustainable Automotive Design According to BMW: Respectful luxury

C2 Montreal (which is a nursery for new ideas that brings together more than 5,000 people to discuss the most eco-responsible way to rethink the world) took place this past week, and among the guest speakers was Daniela Bohlinger, Director of Sustainable Design at BMW. She was presenting a conference on sustainable mobility from an automotive design perspective. If we had to describe her mandate in a nutshell, it would be to develop a concept of respectful luxury to define what BMW could become in a few years.

From the tannery to the automobile
Daniela Bohlinger’s road to her present position is one of unusual twists and turns. Head of design in a fashion accessories company, she was invited by BMW to come and see how it could be possible to reduce the waste produced from parts of leather hides that go unused in producing upholstery. In the automotive world that amounts to a staggering 40%. There are often small imperfections on the hides, which are put aside and mostly simply disposed of.

Looking at the whole automotive production process more closely, Daniela Bohlinger realized that there is waste everywhere in the design process of a car, and she offered her services to help create a more-efficient and environmentally friendly design process. Though initially rebuffed, she came back at the heads of BMW’s design department three separate before finally winning her case and landing a job at BMW in 2002.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

Changing expectations and philosophies
Since her arrival, Daniela has become a vector of change within the company. In her view, automakers must transition from traditional design methods as they have remained largely unchanged for decades, to a system of eco-friendly design.

The i family models (i3 and i8) were laboratory models for her. "You have to look at the entire manufacturing process and rethink each step," she says. "Can this material be substituted by another that is renewable? Can we use recyclable materials to manufacture certain equipment?

She gives two examples, one of them hemp, used as a replacement fabric and which is very resistant, 100% natural and renewable.

BMW is also in discussions with a Portuguese supplier that recycles fishing nets that would be used to spin protective mats for BMW cars. At each step of the manufacturing process, it’s necessary to stop and think about the most responsible way to act.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

People have a preconceived idea of luxury. Is it possible to have beautiful leather seating in a car that will have an imperfection, without people considering the thing as a defect? Possessing an outsized passion for her job, Daniela Bohlinger now works up with designers at the beginning of the manufacturing process and is able to make decisions that will make the entire process more eco-friendly.

"My job is to understand materials by finding different and creative solutions. I then share the information on the impact that different materials can have and thus have a positive effect on the whole sector."

- Daniela Bohlinger

From niche products to large-scale production
Entrusted for the moment with the i family of products, Daniela Bohlinger is thinking big. "My ultimate goal is to work on a large scale with the BMW family". The Bavarian company produces just over two million vehicles a year. "If my ideas are good for the i division, they are also great for the rest of the models. I would also like to work on alliances with other automakers who all have similar needs."

She adds that “by having greater purchasing power, we create a proportional demand and in this way we will set up new departments and encourage them to use new materials and create a new economy ». Across the industry, the process for meeting each new need should always go through the same lenses: recycle, replace, reuse and renew.

Photo: BMW

According to Bohlinger, it is up to automakers to change the way they do business and lay the groundwork for a new approach to automotive design. People have demonstrated around the world that they are ready for change, for more eco-responsible behavior.

"I would like BMW to keep the same luxury image, but in a more environmentally friendly way."

- Daniela Bohlinger