BMW shows off a colour-changing car in Las Vegas

Electric iX gets experimental paintwork, as well as a high-power 619hp M60 version

You may well be one of those who thinks that the BMW iX electric SUV is just too ugly for words. Well, that's as maybe, but perhaps it's not too ugly for ink.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, BMW has revealed a prototype iX covered in a colour-swapping e-ink "paint" that can change the car from black (well, more of a dark grey really) to white and back again at the touch of a button.

Perhaps, given the controversy over the iX’s looks, BMW is simply doubling-down and presenting the iX as the ultimate in getaway cars. Knock off the local post office while the colour is set to white, speed around the corner, push a button, and then blend into traffic in a suspicion-free black SUV? Perhaps not. The BMW iX Flow, which is a one-off for the moment, doesn’t really use paint, but instead a body wrap that has electrophoretic technology built into it. That may sound wildly high-tech, but it’s actually closely related to the e-ink used by e-readers such as the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle.

The iX’s body is covered by a surface containing millions of microcapsules, with a diameter equivalent to the thickness of a human hair. Each of these microcapsules contains negatively charged white pigments and positively charged black pigments. Depending on the chosen setting, stimulation by means of an electrical field causes either the white or the black pigments to collect at the surface of the microcapsule, giving the car body the desired shade.


You can have all-black, all-white, or pretty much any combination of the two. Racing stripes? Sure. Imitate Dalmatian skin? Why not? For now, the only colours choices are monochrome, but presumably the tech can be expanded eventually to include brighter pigments.


"This gives the driver the freedom to express different facets of their personality or even their enjoyment of change outwardly, and to redefine this each time they sit into their car," said Stella Clarke, head of project for the BMW iX Flow. "Similar to fashion or the status ads on social media channels, the vehicle then becomes an expression of different moods and circumstances in daily life."

"Digital experiences won't just be limited to displays in the future. There will be more and more melding of the real and virtual. With the BMW iX Flow, we are bringing the car body to life," said Frank Weber, BMW's head of development, while Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW's chief of design, said: "The BMW iX Flow is an advanced research and design project and a great example of the forward thinking that BMW is known for."

Presumably, one could also tweak the exterior wrap to its original purpose and use it to display words, at which point BMW might just have put the entire van sign-writing industry out of business.

The Munich company reckons that there’s more to the idea of the e-ink Flow wrap than mere fickle decoration, though. “A variable exterior colour can also contribute to wellness in the interior and to the efficiency of the vehicle. This is done by taking account of the different abilities of light and dark colours when it comes to reflecting sunlight and the associated absorption of thermal energy.

“A white surface reflects a lot more sunlight than a black one. By implication, heating of the vehicle and passenger compartment as a result of strong sunlight and high outside temperatures can be reduced by changing the exterior to a light colour.

“In cooler weather, a dark outer skin will help the vehicle to absorb noticeably more warmth from the sun,” said a BMW spokesperson at CES. “In both cases, selective colour changes can help to cut the amount of cooling and heating required from the vehicle’s air conditioning.

Reduces energy

“This reduces the amount of energy the vehicle electrical system needs and with it also the vehicle’s fuel or electricity consumption. In an all-electric car, changing the colour in line with the weather can therefore also help to increase the range. In the interior, the technology could, for example, prevent the dashboard from heating up too much.”

The tech is also very efficient – once you’ve changed the colour, it stays that way with no further drain on the battery, as the electric current is only needed to make the swap not to sustain the effect. As anyone who’s compared the battery life of a Kindle to a smartphone will know, it’s a very low-impact technology and that could have implications for in-car displays in the future.

Aside from this one-off (for now) chameleon iX, BMW was also using the occasion of the CES to show off a new high-performance version of the car, which you will be able to buy. One of the pleasing benefits of electric motoring is that if you want to maximise the potential of an EV’s brake energy recovery, you end up with really powerful, high-torque electric motors as a direct consequence. The BMW iX M60 will have some serious power and some serious torque – 619hp and a colossal 1,015Nm of torque, split across its two motors, which provide four-wheel drive.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring