BMW plans to introduce an eight-speed automatic transmission in time for the next-generation 7 series.

Consultancy CSM Worldwide and an industry source told Automotive News Europe (ANE) that ZF Friedrichshafen is developing the transmission for the German automaker.

“ZF has made quite a few modifications to its six-speed transmission to improve fuel economy and reduce manufacturing costs,” London-based CSM powertrain analyst Chris Guile told ANE.

The transmission specialist built the world’s first six-speed automatic, which was introduced in the 7 series in 2001. Last month, Lexus was the first to market with an eight-speed gearbox in its redesigned LS460 sedan.

ZF is reportedly developing the transmission for market launch by 2009 or 2010, according to CSM Worldwide. That is about the time BMW is due to debut a new generation of its upper-premium 7 series [spy shots of disguised development mules have recently appeared in consumer and trade media].

“We are already working on the next generation of automatic transmissions, and when it comes to the number of speeds, we will not be left behind the competition,” BMW spokesman Wieland Bruch told Automotive News Europe. Industry consultants said eight-speed transmissions can help car makers achieve even better fuel economy.