BMW’s colour changing car is stunning tech, but you better not crash

Until now, colour-changing cars have been science fiction, special effects we have seen in movies, but BMW is changing all that. In what may end up being one of the best announcements at CES 2022, the company showed off a new technology that allows a car to change its exterior colours.

Sure, interior RGB lighting schemes are neat, but being able to change the paint colour of your car is something pretty special.

The BMW iX Flow is being shown off, featuring this new e-ink technology called Electrophoretic colouring. Those familiar with e-ink will know it from the use in Amazon Kindle devices.

This technology works by using tiny microcapsules suspended in a liquid that is encased within a film layer. The microcapsules (about the width of a human hair), contain positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles.

By applying an electric signal, either a positive or negative electrical field can be passed to each panel and even the rims of the car. These negative electrical fields cause the white particles to rise to the surface, while a positive electrical field causes the black particles to rise to the surface. 

Not only has BMW worked out how to change the colour from white to black, but they have managed to animate the changing to create some truly wild effects.

So this raises the question, why would you want a colour-changing car?

BMW believes there’s a number of answers. The first is really personal preference and style. You may like to customise the colour of your car to suit your mood, or to complement your outfit, but there’s actually a much more practical reason for it.

For those in warmer climates, you’ll appreciate that having black cars capture the heat more than white cars, so on the hottest days, you could have your car be white to reflect more of the heat.

BMW also suggested the tech could be used for other, potentially configurable uses as well. Imagine you have the car change to a lighter shade every time the battery level reduces by 20%. When you notice it’s white, it’s time to charge.

So if by now you’re completely in love with it and want it on your next car, it is important to consider the potential downsides of adding this tech.

Firstly, there’s the cost. While BMW hasn’t identified how much this optional extra would cost, but it’s certainly a significant premium on even pearlescent multi-coat paint finishes. If you’re buying a luxury BMW, then cost may not be a real concern, so let’s think through some other considerations.

The colour-changing effect on a vehicle body involves the application of many precisely fitted ePaper segments. These segments are all laser cut to guarantee the high precision required in generating each segment. After the segments are applied and the power supply for stimulating the electrical field is connected, the entire body is warmed and sealed to guarantee optimum and uniform colour reproduction during every colour change.

Given BMW showed off the technology on an EV, that does make me think about the battery requirements for this. In the case of e-readers, they were really light on sipping the battery, only using power when they changed the page. I expect the same is true when you change the colours on the iX Flow, but how much is the question. Would you still be in love if you lost 1% of range every time you switched?

What I see is the major challenge with this technology is accidents. Imagine you bump a pole, or someone backs into your front quarter panel. How expensive is that going to be fixed now? When windscreens went from basic glass to self-healing and semi-autonomous cameras mounted on them, the cost of replacement climbed considerably. I expect a damaged panel would be a nightmare to replace.

I also wonder what authorities think of the colour-changing tech, given the colour of a vehicle can often be used as part of a description to find it. While all cars could be re-sprayed, there has never been a car that can change its colour at the touch of a button.

Hopefully, this technology is developed and advanced to move to coloured e-ink, so we can see more colours than white, grey and black demonstrated here, but BMW you certainly stole the show this year with this one.

As an extra trick, BMW should leverage onboard cameras to identify its surroundings, then change colours like a chameleon to blend in.

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Jason Cartwright
Jason Cartwright
Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis. Disclaimer: Tesla Shareholder from 20/01/2021

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