The Top 11 Discoveries From the BMW i3 and i8 Unveils

By · August 02, 2011

BMW i3 and i8 concepts

As part of a small contingent of Americans who made it to Germany last week for the official unveiling of the BMW i3 and i8--the first cars set to be released under the new BMW i subbrand--I was given a tired and jetlagged glimpse into the incredibly complex world that is BMW i. In short, the subbrand represents a paradigm shift of everything from how cars are built, to what materials they use, to what kinds of impacts their construction has on the environment, to what kinds of tools they offer drivers.

While that may sound grandiose, after attending 7 hours of workshops and press conferences immediately after flying for 14 hours with no shower or rest to speak of for more than 28 hours, I can tell you with reasonably good clarity that it's true. If BMW pulls it all off, the launch of both the i3 and the i8 and all of the BMW i subbrand will represent something brand new in the automotive world.

Who knows how expensive these cars will be, but for many people--namely the young, affluent, urbanites, as BMW likes to point out--the cars will be worth it at any price.

There are many recent articles out there about the i3 and i8 unveils at this point, with PluginCars.com's Tom Moloughney and Laurent Masson offering up a couple of the better ones, but after taking some time to let all the information settle in my own mind, 11 discoveries rose to the surface.

1The i3's Battery Pack Will Be Between 20 and 25 kWh

BMW i3 powertrain

To this point it has been assumed that the i3 would sport a battery pack in the realm of 16-18 kWh. However, according to BMW electric car engineer Patrick Mueller (and corroborated independently from another BMW representative for whom I did not catch a name), the all-electric i3 will have a battery pack that has a capacity between 20 and 25 kWh. Mueller also said that the allowable utilization of the battery pack will be much higher than 80%, likely close to 95%.

Given that the i3 has an estimated range of about 95 miles on a full charge, that puts it in the realm of 4.75-3.8 miles per kWh for efficiency. While those numbers are very good to reasonable for an electric car, they are nowhere near the efficiency of 5-6 mpkWh that some had been expecting. This has the potential to be especially disappointing to those of us who take it as common knowledge that a car built with an incredibly lightweight carbon fiber frame should excel in efficiency.

2The BMW i Connected Mobility Package Is Truly Forward-Thinking and Innovative

BMW i connected mobility

One of the workshops BMW offered after the unveils of both the i3 and i8 showed off the connected mobility package that BMW will include with every vehicle from the i lineup. This package takes the idea of navigation systems and driver assistance and blows it out of the box.

Not only does the software have the ability to calculate several different routes and options for charging stations along the way, as well as detours for traffic, it will also tell you when the car isn't likely to be the fastest route and when public transportation is. Suggested routes from a given starting point can consist of all public transportation to mixture of driving and public transport with a parking spot for your car at a charging station while you're traveling by bus or train. That's right: it's a system from a car company that happily proclaims that cars aren't always the best way to get around.

On top of this out-of-the-box thinking, the system also includes parking assistance that will park the car for you (something that Ford has started offering recently), traffic jam assistance that combines active cruise control and steering assistance up to 25 mph to steer and move the vehicle by itself, automatic braking and pedestrian crash avoidance, and remote conditioning (heating, A/C, charge timer, and battery preconditioning).

BMW has also started an investment fund called BMW Ventures to help developers create smartphone applications that connect directly to the BMW i mobility system and provide extended functionality, such as restaurant searching and reservation assistance, movie times and ticket purchase, sharing of parking spaces and much, much more.

3The i3 Will Have Incredibly High Visibility, But Not Nearly as Much Glass as the Concept

BMW i3

The i3 concept is a study in how much glass can be fit onto a single vehicle. According to Adrian Van Hooydonk, BMW's SVP of Design, the goal was to create a vehicle that allowed for unprecedented visibility: it has a glass roof, mostly glass doors and a glass rear hatch.

However, as much as that amount of glass is ultra cool in that futuristic sci-fi sort of way, there isn't a chance in hell it will make it through to production. In fact, in another workshop BMW was showing off the carbon fiber roof panel they plan on putting on the i3. Van Hooydonk did admit that the production vehicle won't have nearly as much glass, but said that regardless, the goal was to create a vehicle with higher visibility than any on the market.

4The i3 and i8 Are the End Brackets to an Entire Lineup

During the unveil, several members of the media pointed out that the i3 and the i8 are great for their own niche markets, but asked if BMW was planning on releasing plug-ins that would meet the needs of an average family.

Although BMW was tight-lipped and pretty cagey on the subject, they did offer up that the i3 is technically a four-seater and could carry most families, but eventually admitted that the storage space in the i3 wouldn't likely be enough. However, Dr. Klaus Draeger, BMW's Board Member Responsible for development, did remark that, "In between 3 and 8 there is quite a lot of room for additional vehicles." Apparently BMW is planning some sort of family vehicle in the i lineup for the future.

5The BMW/SGL Carbon Fiber Plant Is Quickly Scalable to Meet Whatever Demand Exists

Although BMW representatives couldn't be tempted to provide volume predictions, they did say that no matter how many i3s and i8s are demanded by customers they will be able to scale to meet that demand as required. According to Bernhard Dressler, Director of Body Development for the i3, the carbon fiber plant being jointly run by BMW and SGL Carbon in Moses Lake, WA, is very flexible.

"Although we cannot predict demand for electric cars in general, we have designed the carbon fiber manufacturing process to be very flexible on purpose," said Dressler. "So we could easily double the volume of carbon fiber output in just a couple of months."

6The i3 Consists of Two Distinct Modules Surrounded in Thermoplastic Skin

BMW i3 modules

Given the novel materials and design being used in the i3, BMW had to develop manufacturing techniques that previously haven't existed on the same build line or in the automotive industry at all. The base of the i3 is its all aluminum welded "Drive Module." This drive module also includes aluminum front and rear crumple zones.

BMW i3 thermoplastic body panels

A completely carbon fiber composite frame, called the "Life Module," sits on top of the drive module base and is attached to it by copious amounts of glue and a scant four screws. BMW says they have extensively crash tested this configuration to ensure it will remain intact in even the worst accidents. The carbon fiber frame itself consists of many different pieces of individually molded components that are glue-welded together and, in the case of a crack from an accident, can be cut out and replaced with the same glue welding process.

On top of this joined "LifeDrive" chassis, BMW hangs advanced thermoplastic body panels and glass.

7The i3 and i8 Will Have Parts Made From Hemp (and Other Renewable Resources)

Although the bulk of the i3 and i8 will be constructed of aluminum and carbon fiber composites, BMW has made a gigantic push to ensure that many of the vehicle's other components are made from renewable material using renewable energy wherever possible.

Eighty percent of the i3's aluminum is either recycled or produced with renewable energy and 25% of the weight of plastics used is replaced by recycled or renewable raw materials. Some of these raw materials include hemp (yep, the kind that's related to marijuana) sourced from Bangladesh.

In addition to the materials, BMW chose to site its carbon fiber plant in Moses Lake, Wash., in large part because the energy there is almost 100% hydroelectric and making carbon fiber uses a lot of electricity. That area of the US also happens to have some of the cheapest electricity on the planet at less than 4 cents per kWh.

8The i3 and i8 Are Better for the People Who Build Them

In addition to, and as a result of, the novel construction techniques, the workers who will be assembling BMW's i cars will be exposed much quieter work environments. There is no stamping of sheet metal and very little welding of metal at all. In fact, except for the aluminum drive module, the rest of the car has almost no metal in it.

Pushing this low impact work environment to the limit, BMW says the factories that will make the components for the i cars will have "optimized" workplace conditions with 50% less noise than a tradition assembly line and be infused with natural lighting.

9The i3 Will Be Able to Be Ordered as Either a LEAF or a Volt

It has been rumored for some time that BMW was planning on selling the i3 with a small range extending combustion engine as an option. Now that has been made officially official, and it's called 'REx.' REx will be a tiny, low displacement engine.

If ordered as an option, the range extender and fuel tank will be mounted in the rear of the vehicle next to and underneath the electric motor. It will not be connected to anything but a generator which will supply electricity to the battery and allow the car to be driven beyond the 95 miles of range between charges.

BMW wasn't able to address if the addition of the range extender would result in a decrease in size of the battery pack or whether or not the range extender option would be available in all markets, but nonetheless the addition of this feature as an option is something that sets the i3 apart from any competition. BMW representatives also couldn't tell me if the range extender would be available at launch, or if it would be coming later.

10With Carbon Fiber, BMW is The First Automaker to Become a Major Textile Manufacturer

Carbon fiber must be woven into textiles before being encased in plastic to make the composite material. BMW has constructed a gigantic textile factory in Wackersdorf, Germany, that exist for the sole purpose of making all the different types of carbon fiber textiles that BMW needs to build the panels for the i3 and i8.

BMW's Dressler, said that there are two different types of fabrics in four different thicknesses that the factory has to make depending on strength and weight requirements. The two fabrics have either crisscrossing patterns or unidirectional orientation of carbon fibers depending on what type of directional strength each structural piece needs.

In order to meet the legal requirements of Germany, BMW has now become a major member of the Bavarian Textile Manufacturing Association as well. What other car manufacturer can claim that?

11The BMW i8 Has Become a Bit Tamer

BMW i8

As Laurent Masson pointed out in a recent article, the i8 concept is less of a performance monster than it used to be.

BMW has removed one of the two electric motors from the vehicle and downgraded the combustion engine from an efficient diesel to a heavily turbocharged 1.5 liter, 3 cylinder engine putting out 220 horsepower. That combustion engine is hooked up exclusively to the rear wheels. The remaining electric motor is the same 129 hp motor found in the i3 and exclusively powers the front wheels.

Even with the reduction in power, together both powerplants can pump enough power to all four wheels to get the vehicle to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds.

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