December 5, 2023

BMW shows off a colour-changing iX Flow SUV featuring E Ink in a virtual presentation at the Consumer Electronic Show on Wednesday, January 5.Handout

Rejoice, all of you getaway drivers, indecisive people, secret agents, couples who can’t agree on anything, and those always flaunting new outfits, because BMW has made a car that changes colour at the push of a button.

BMW showed off a dark grey SUV called the iX Flow, which, in the blink of eye, suddenly became bright white. Then, as if it were a chameleon, the dark grey colour flickered and swept back across the surface of the vehicle. The concept was demonstrated by the German auto maker in a virtual presentation ahead of the annual Consumer Electronics Show trade fair.

The colour-changing paint, called E Ink, is still a prototype with some kinks yet to be worked out.

“When are we going to launch it? At this stage, I think we’d like to see your reaction. Would you want to buy it?” asked Christoph Grote, senior vice president for digital car at BMW Group.

The technology is part of a larger effort by BMW – as well as nearly every other auto maker – to generate new revenue by offering more paid customization and personalization options to customers on an ongoing basis. (See also: in-car fragrance dispensers, and fake engine-sounds for electric vehicles.)

The E Ink technology behind BMW’s chameleon car is similar to what you’d find inside any e-reader, such as a Kobo or Amazon Kindle. The car is wrapped in E Ink sheets, which contain millions of tiny paint capsules. The white pigments are negatively charged, while the grey is positively charged. So, when the driver pushes a button, an electrical signal causes either the white or grey paint to rise to the surface. According to the company, the system is energy efficient, only using electricity when changing colour.

“We’ve tested this in harsh environments, humidity, snow, [different] temperatures; it seems very tractable – that’s not an obstacle,” Grote said. The prototype can only change between grey and white, but different colours are possible too, he added.

To get the E Ink wrap to fit the iX SUV, BMW’s team had to laser cut multiple sheets and fit them all together creating what is, effectively, a giant three-dimensional curved screen over the car’s surface. It seems like a high-tech jigsaw puzzle.

If, heaven forbid, this digital wrap got scratched, you can imagine it might be difficult to repair, and surely more expensive than a dab of touch-up paint.

While a colour-changing car is certainly a neat party trick, BMW has some practical uses in mind. For example, if you lose your car in a parking lot, it could flash different colours. Or, imagine an electric vehicle that could change colour once the battery is fully charged; you’d know its status at a glance. Or, if it’s especially hot and sunny outside, perhaps the car could switch colours to reflect more heat.

The outer surface of the car could also become like a canvas, Grote suggested. In the future, if a customer wants a new look for an old E Ink car, he or she might be able to purchase a fresh pattern or artwork as a remote upgrade, he explained. “All those square metres of the car, they can be used to display, to show, to dress, and that’s what gets me really excited about E Ink,” he said.

In addition to the colour-changing SUV prototype, BMW touted other new high-tech add-ons for customers to spend money on. A Digital Art Mode rolling out later this year for select BMW models will allow drivers to display digital artwork on in-car screens. And, Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning Hollywood composer who recently did the score for film Dune, collaborated with BMW on unique soundscapes for the iX and i4 electric vehicles. Customers can download the new IconicSounds Electric package to their cars via remote software upgrade later this year.

Sadly, there’s no date set for when exactly BMW might put a colour-changing SUVs with E Ink bodywork in showrooms. So, getaway drivers and secret agents will just have to make do with what they’ve got, for now.

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