How BMW’s color-changing cars work

In 2022, BMW revealed an SUV with color-changing “paint” as a concept, and it created a lot of buzz. The German automaker took its knowledge of electronic ink and ramped it up a notch last month with the i5 Flow Nostokana, an art car wrapped in multicolored, electronically controlled panels.

Distinguished South African artist Esther Mahlangu inspired the i5 Flow Nostokana with her Ndbele designs, typically found in South African provinces Limpopo and Mpumalanga. More than three decades ago, Mahlangu painted her art directly on an all-white 525i, and BMW engineer Stella Clarke never forgot how it looked. It inspired Clarke to put together color-changing panels with Mahlangu’s art for one unforgettable vehicle. 

The BMW 2024 art car with e-ink next to its hand-painted muse from 1991. Image: BMW

Cars that change color

Electronic ink offers more than just the whiz-bang of rippling color changes on a car. Sure, the possibility exists for drivers to choose the color of the car’s exterior. However, it can also be used to display information on the exterior of the car (think tire pressure or battery levels, for example) or even as a location aid. Imagine, for instance, you can’t find your car in a crowded parking lot. With an app, you could signal the car to flash so you can find it, a better option than flashing the headlamps alone, especially if you’re not within range.

BMW’s Stella Clarke played a critical role in bringing e-ink technology to the automaker, leading the application of e-ink panels to an all-electric iX crossover. About a year ago, Clarke attached some e-ink panels to the outside of a car to showcase the technology internally, and BMW executives were “seriously excited,” she says. There were challenges to overcome, including making the inflexible e-ink-carrying polyethylene terephthalate (PET, as in plastic bottles) sheets wrap around complex curves.

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