TRAVERSE CITY, MICH.- Engineers at the BMW AG research and development center in Munich, Germany, are working on advanced ``submarine'' projects so secret that even supervisors aren't informed of the nature of the work. But don't expect to see the German automaker introduce an underwater vehicle anytime soon. Submarine is the name for a program under way at BMW Technik GmbH, its development think tank, in which engineers are allowed to spend up to $5,000 to pursue their own ideas. BMW encourages engineers, designers and technicians at Technik to develop ideas outside of the component and vehicle design work they ordinarily pursue.
Individually or collectively, Technik staff may generate a submarine project until the $5,000 budget is depleted or a decision is made to cancel the work. The nature of the work may remain private to the researcher. If more funds are required, then the submariner ``surfaces'' and discusses the work with management, said Technik Director Mario Theissen.
Technik's mission is to come up with new ideas, work on advanced technology and spot trends. In contrast to much current thinking, BMW doesn't give primary importance to following customer whims with sophisticated market research. Theissen described that as the ``rearview mirror'' approach.
We try to come up with new ideas which no customer is aware of yet,'' Theissen said.
Technik, founded in 1985 and now with a staff of about 100, is free of the administrative machinery of a big firm and is under no obligation to commercialize every idea, he said. The center operates under two conditions: Its budget must be spent by year end and ``innovative and extraordinary solutions'' must be produced.
Theissen discussed a number of concept or development vehicles produced at Technik including the Z1, started in 1985, and the Intercity-Business-Express Z13, first shown in 1993.
Both vehicles were designed with a metal spaceframe and plastic outerbody. That does not necessarily mean BMW will introduce a plastic-bodied car one day. However, Theissen said the company keeps an open mind on new materials, including plastics.