BMW's Big Push on Electrics: Don't Believe the Doubters, the Company Says

By · September 21, 2012

BMW Active Tourer

Does the BMW Active Tourer Concept herald a bet-hedging push toward extended-range plug-in hybrids? (BMW photo)

BMW is, by most measures, making a major push into electrification. It has just introduced its Active Tourer Concept, a new plug-in hybrid, and confirmed it for production. And the all-electric “Megacity” vehicle, with a novel carbon fiber body structure, is being shown at the Paris Auto Show in a near-production version as it heads for a public debut late next year. Following soon after, the exotically styled $122,000 i8 plug-in hybrid, with zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds.

Is There Doubt?

All sounds good, right? Maybe BMW will eventually stand for Bavarian Motor Watts. But there are hints that the company isn’t pushing forward to the electric future on all its cylinders. Earlier in the year, Automobile magazine’s blog posted a dispatch from European correspondent Georg Kacher hinting that BMW’s top management, including i division leader Ulrich Kranz and chairman Norbert Reithofer were discussing “contingency plans” to pull the plug on the new division.

The blog post didn’t quote anybody, and it had the feel of one of those Obama Administration leaks that the top brass don’t want to leave their fingerprints on. Here’s what we’re thinking, but if you ask us about it we’ll deny it, in other words. The story said that other i division projects, including the i1 intra-city car and the i5 eco-van have been “put on ice.”

In that context, then the Active Tourer can be seen as the result of a canny reading of the tea leaves. If the Chevy Volt’s sales are pulling away from those of the Nissan LEAF, then we want to place a bigger bet on plug-in hybrids.

Dave Buchko, a BMW spokesman, denies this is happening. He says the i3 is nearing production readiness, and that it will be displayed in Paris with a new interior featuring bio-materials and natural wood.

Full Steam Ahead

“We are making a huge electric investment on a variety of fronts,” Buchko told me. “We’re continuing to develop the i3 and the i8. We also recently unveiled the i8 Spyder concept, and will be showing it at the Los Angeles show.” See what that’s all about in the video below:

Buchko also pointed out that BMW is making a big bet on lightweight carbon fiber, with the i3 and i8 as mobile test beds. With SGL, the BMW Group is investing $100 million at their joint facility in Moses Lake, Washington. Carbon fiber will travel in a long supply chain from Japan (where the raw material comes from) to Washington and then to Germany, where the ultra-light car bodies will be made.

“It makes perfect sense for us to do the lightweighting development work on these vehicles,” Buchko said. “The batteries in electric cars are not only expensive, they’re heavy. That’s a major reason why the ActiveE weighs 4,000 pounds—it’s heavy because of the batteries.”

Downsizing to Reduce Cost

BMW’s strategy with the i3 is to keep the 100-mile range that Buchko says appeared to work for drivers of the leased Mini E. In the i3, 100 miles of range in a very light platform means a relatively small 22-kilowatt-hour battery pack, which is both lighter and cheaper. Theoretically, that could mean a less-expensive i3, but BMW is still not putting a price on this car. (A German magazine has put the price at $45,000 to $50,000, which could make it out of reach for the megacity masses.)

So is BMW worried about the slow pace of EV sales? Buchko says no. “The electric car market is evolving,” he said. “We think there’s a lot of interest. How quickly that will translate into actual sales is a little hard to determine. But we’re not discouraged at how the market is developing.” Buchko said he recently put race drivers Bill Auberlen and Scott Pruett into the driver’s seat of ActiveEs, and they both loved them. So the image of BMWs as the ultimate driving machine appears safe.

Comments

· EVlvr (not verified) · 2 years ago

BMW seems to be following the non-committal 'dim sum' approach which Ford has been doing for the past several years. Unsure where the market is headed, and unwilling to put all their eggs in one basket, but positioned to jump in wherever the market goes.

GM pretty clearly has come up with the right formula. I predict extended-range EV drivetrains will dominate EV demand during the next 5-10 years, and expect most major automakers will have their own versions in showrooms within 3-5 years.

· · 2 years ago

@EVlvr,

I tend to agree with your conclusion. For the mass market, the Volt seems to have the right formula. Also, you're probably right that E-REVs will dominate in the near term. I can only hope that many more options will appear on the market in the next few years.

I am concerned a little about what has been mentioned in other threads, about the possibility of "de-electrifying" the electric car. It sure does seem that each new car is less and less electric. BMW seems to be following this trend as well. Also, if you look at the past 10 years, there has been a similar trend with hybrid cars. Honda, for example, was convinced for years that their mild hybrids were superior to Toyota's precisely because they were less electric. GM has played around with "micro-hybrids" which are hardly hybrids at all.

In the end, I can only hope that BEVs still survive and thrive when in competition with E-REVs and "de-electrified" electrics. We need them all, but not if they're killing each other.

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 2 years ago

kinda fun but will interesting to see the MSRP and the 20 mile EV range is disappointing.

Better batteries where are you? hehe.

· · 2 years ago

Well if the the work of the good folks near me at BMW Mountain View tech office are any indication, I'd say they're full steam ahead.

Then again they're the engineers in the trenches and not the guys holding the purse strings....

· · 2 years ago

@Brian Schwerdt,
" . . . mild hybrids were superior to Toyota's precisely because they were less electric. "
We see where this got Honda and Toyota respectively. That kind of attitude probably plays well inside the company but, clearly, the public isn't fooled once they actually have a choice of vehicles to choose from.
Regarding BEVs -vs- PHEVs: Unfortunately, at least in CA, the charging infrastructure rollout has been such a disaster that its no surprise BEVs aren't catching on better.
I will be interested to see how Tesla's rollout of their Supercharger infrastructure (big announcement scheduled for next Monday evening!) affects the viability of the BEV. A Tesla Model S with the larger 2 battery options, would probably work for almost all of my needs if a few (5 or 6) superchargers were intelligently placed in a few key places. The couple driving across the US in a Model S just completed their trip (http://teslamodelsxc.wordpress.com/). It would only have taken about 9 Superchargers and the trip time would have been comparable to that of an ICE.
The wealthy may be independent from oil very soon. Hopefully, like most useful technologies, this independence will trickle down to the general populace eventually.

· · 2 years ago

Monday's live Supercharger webcast is "must see" if you are an EV enthusiast: http://www.teslamotors.com/supercharger

· EVlvr (not verified) · 2 years ago

Given the current problems with the Leaf battery, I'd be wary of the effect supercharging has on battery life. That said, bravo to Tesla for addressing the range and charging time issues which hamper mass market interest for EVs.

· · 2 years ago

@EVlvr,
Its a different story if you keep the batteries cool. I think that the Leaf in AZ issues have pretty well shown that to be a big issue, even though it has been known for decades. Remember that Tesla's Musk was the one who went publicly on the record early with concerns about the Leaf's lack of cooling.
I would hope that the Model S (and any EV) would slow down the charging speed if there was a reason that battery damage can happen.
I wonder if the Leaf problems are with storage, discharging, or charging at high temperatures, or perhaps a combination of the 3 modes.

· · 2 years ago

@ex-EV1 Driver,

"Unfortunately, at least in CA, the charging infrastructure rollout has been such a disaster that its no surprise BEVs aren't catching on better."

Where do people get the idea that "If there were only more chargers...blah, blah, blah"?

I don't care how many public chargers they put in, it will not help electric car sales. The public does not want to hunt out chargers or special parking spaces, and they especially don't want "charging emergencies" screwing their schedule and taking up time. They don't want to go out of their way to charge up a car. They want to get in, drive to wherever they are going, and drive back home. People don't want to babysit their cars.

· · 2 years ago

@Michael: " They want to get in, drive to wherever they are going, and drive back home. People don't want to babysit their cars."

I will go on record here as saying that you hit the nail on the head. This is exactly why I love my Leaf, and a great example of what it can do that no ICE could ever do. When I get in, the car is charged. Unless I'm leaving town, I know I will not come close to the range of the Leaf (maybe 40 miles max). I drive wherever I am going, and drive back home. I don't have to babysit my car while smelling the fumes of the toxic liquid fuel slowly filling the tank.

As for public chargers, I think you answered your own question:

"Where do people get the idea that "If there were only more chargers...blah, blah, blah"?"
...
"The public does not want to hunt out chargers"

· · 2 years ago

@Michael,
I'd like to ask you to think a bit before going anywhere and ask whether you could make it with a Leaf (assuming 50 mile range) without and with charging if they had it there and you were there long enough to charge. Then ask yourself how many places you really couldn't make it to if they didn't have charging infrastructure.
My suspicion is that there aren't too many places that you'd need a charger at and those places are likely to be places that depend on people coming from long distances. A place that wants to draw people from long distances could very easily put in public charging as a way to draw them in. The San Diego Zoo comes to mind as a good example of that, as does Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). I can assure you that I would fly out of Burbank a lot more if LAX didn't have EV charging, as would the 50 to 100 other EVs that are almost always parked there. Sure, the primo free parking is also a draw but without charging, that would be thousands fewer customers.
The main thing the Volt has over the Leaf is that there really is an infrastructure in place that it can use. The added range also helps, of course too but I suspect that the EV range could be increased by about 5X for the same vehicle price if the ICE were replaced by more battery.

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