BMW Is Just Beginning Its Shift to Electric Cars

By · January 29, 2017

In the past five years, BMW has invested more than $2 billion in its electric vehicle program. That effort produced two visually striking and iconoclastic vehicles: the i3 electric car and i8 plug-in hybrid supercar. While recent statements from BMW executives have attempted to put an upbeat spin on the company’s plug-in efforts, the response from consumers has been mixed. For example, BMW sold 7,625 i3 cars in the US in 2016—down by 31 percent compared to 2015 sales. In Europe, 2016 sales of the i3 averaged about 1,000 units per month.

Yet, Ian Robertson, a member of BMW’s management board, said, “Momentum is building.” Speaking at the BMW’s display at this month’s Detroit auto show, Robertson told Bloomberg that cumulative combined sales of the i3 and i8 had recently crossed the 100,000-unit mark. BMW’s plug-in car sales started three years ago.

Notably, Robertson pointed to the BMW 530e plug-in hybrid as a prime example of the plug-in cars that BMW brought to Detroit. “It has a range of 50 kilometers (31 miles), and miles-per-gallon in the mid-60s,” he said. “This is going to be a really big seller.” The plug-in 5-Series is expected to go on sale in the United States in mid-2017—joining a BMW lineup that already includes plug-in hybrid versions for the 3-Series, 7-Series and X5 SUV.

In other words, bold and pricey BMW i cars—which use carbon fiber, skinny low-resistance tires and advanced aerodynamics—will likely be less important to the future of BMW vehicle electrification compared to plug-in hybrids across the company’s entire lineup.

The Very Beginning

No, BMW is not giving up on pure electric cars sold with the i brand. But getting consumers to make the switch to plugging in will take time. In an interview on Friday with Britain’s Standard, BMW’s Heinrich Schwackhöfer, product manager for the i3, said that increasing the driving range of the new i3 to 130 miles was “an important first step” toward greater consumer acceptance. (The new i3’s rating in the US is 114 miles.)

Schwackhöfer emphasized that the i3 was part of a broader sustainability program featuring a range of mobility services that went well beyond a single car. “With BMW i, we also offer intelligent services, for example, how to link individual mobility with public transportation, how to easily find free charging or parking lots, and how to reuse batteries after their life in a car.”

Schwackhöfer said that public charging infrastructure remained a barrier. He explained that BMW is at the forefront of a push for a 350kW EU-wide superfast charging network. Meanwhile in the US, BMW this week announced that it worked with Nissan and the EVgo network to install an additional 174 50kW DC Fast charging stations across 33 states. Fifty more will be added in 2017.

“We expect rather quick progress in every field, be it price, range or charging,” said Schwackhöfer. “Today, we are still at the very beginning of this huge change process.”

Frank Van Meel, who leads BMW’s M performance group, was also in Detroit this month, where he spoke with the UK’s AutoExpress. He revealed that electrification would eventually even be coming to the company’s high-performance vehicles, such as the M3, M4 and M5. “It will happen, but the question is when is that going to happen,” he said. “Currently we still have a power-to-weight issue with electrification which makes that difficult to fit into a motorsports philosophy.” Van Meel said that before the M vehicles went entirely electric, they would utilize hybrid powertrains to maximize performance—not specifying if those cars would be able to plug in.

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