BMW’s i3: A New Kind Of Electric Vehicle – Forbes
The evolution of the electric vehicle is well underway. New models are continually being introduced, and they just keep getting better. And while Tesla – with its charismatic and visionary CEO and stock price at nosebleed levels – has garnered much of the attention, that may be about to change. BMW is rolling out its i3 EV in the second quarter of 2014. The company was at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, offering 10,000 test rides and the buzz is growing.
The U.S share of electric vehicles on the road is small, but growing as well, so that they are becoming less of a novelty. The absolute number of EVs is still small relative to the total number of passenger vehicles sold (15.6 million cars and light trucks in 2013). However, the trend is growing quickly; the 2013 EV sales number is five times what it was in 2011 and almost twice that of 2012. In fact, there are now over 165,000 plug-ins on U.S. highways according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. In December of 2013 alone, just under 10,000 models were driven off the lot.
At present there are only 16 different models, dominated by four players. The Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, and Prius PHV make up more than 75% of annual sales. And though BMW may have taken its time entering the U.S., it now plans to jump into the market with vigor with its new i3 model, priced at $41,350 (before any federal and state incentives). The vehicle has an electric range of about 80 to 100 miles, with the option of an additional gasoline powered extender to give the driver an additional 85 miles. The car can be recharged at a DC fast-charging station in under 30 minutes.
I recently had a chance to talk with Jacob Harb, head of EV Operations and Strategy for BMW North America to find out more about this car, and its genesis, and why BMW waited a couple years to enter the market. Harb started by explaining why BMW decided to enter the arena in the first place.
For us BMW i started as a project a decade ago, looking at how to ‘future-proof’ our business, with a blank slate. If you were to build a car without 100 years of predisposition, what would you start with? We ran around the world looking for ideas before we even started. We balanced feedback, and came up with the i3. It sounds cliché, but we really started with a blank slate, we reexamined the design process from the ground up. Sustainability and innovation are embodied in the i3 and the i8
He also noted that BMW Group BMW Group is not exactly new to the game, with the i3 being the company’s third EV in the marketplace, and BMW drivers already racking up 9.6 million miles of experience in the US.
Harb commented that BMW’s endgame was not simply to design an electric vehicle, but rather to design a whole new car built around an electric drivetrain, embodying a more comprehensive approach to sustainability.
The goal was to change the way we do business and operate. We have executed the design with disassembly in mind. The carbon fiber we use is half the weight of steel, sourced from a factory in Moses Lake, Washington which runs on hydropower. Production is done incredibly efficiently, with half the water and 70% of the energy (normally used) and we used electricity from wind turbines to power the production process. The carbon fiber allows us new efficiencies (author’s note – it’s 50% lighter than steel, so you don’t have to push as much mass around on the road. This allows you to downsize other components of the car). We use one-third of the components that we do for the standard BMW 3 series. We recycle during the production process. Carbon fiber is essentially a fabric, and we cut the panels we need for the panels for the car and recycle the remaining panel materials during the production process. We use recycled plastic bottles for the fabric and the dye is made from recycled olive leaf extract. The black surrounds are made of Kenaf. And any wood used is eucalyptus.”
In addition, one can buy charging stations – installed through a white glove service -and even solar panels as part of the “360 degree Electric Experience.”
Finally, when the car’s lifecycle is complete, BMW has designed it to be 95% recyclable. Some of the parts are melted down for re-use. In other cases, they are re-purposed. Harb noted “We already have some second life applications in place. For example, when the car is done, we use the battery for a second life application. We already have one in Mountain View, CA CA.” In that particular instance, BMW’s Technology Office utilizes a 100 kilowatt lithium ion system to interact with the power grid to provide demand response capabilities to cut its maximum peak demand (peak shaving), shift consumption to other time periods (load shifting), or to firm up the intermittency of renewable power sources.
To address the issue of range anxiety, BMW also teamed up with ChargePoint, the nation’s largest network of EV charging locations. The i3 dashboard indicates where the charging stations are, how to get to them, and whether they are occupied. Harb indicated that BMW dealers are involved in addressing the charging issue as well.
Every participating dealer has a public-facing ChargePoint station. It’s been fun for us to see the response. Dealers have been pressuring us to develop charging points. Dealers are running almost faster than we are – its fun to see. As part of Electric 360, we have tried to address all concerns customers may have with the experience. We looked at public charging (ChargeNow) and include a ChargeNow card at every purchase.
BMW also has a solution for long trips. “The consumer can go to the BWM dealer, drop off the i3 and take a normal BMW for the occasional trip.”
To further address the range issue, BMW created an app for iphones and Droids so one can see the state of the battery charge (you can also lock your doors or warm up the car with your mobile device). The company also created a ‘spider map’ showing the car’s range “so you can see how far you can go at given time. The car will know the power needed for the trip and if you can make it. Different drive modes will give you different efficiencies. You know what you need to get there and how to get there.”
Initial i3 online reviews are quite positive. Of course, the real proof will be to see where the EV buyers vote with their dollars in the years to come. As the EV charging infrastructure continues to improve and the public acceptance continues to grow, don’t be surprised to see the BMW i series emerge as a dominant player in the EV arena.