BMW’s Robertson Makes Big Promises for Electric Cars

By · June 12, 2013

Ian Robertson and BMW i3

BMW's Ian Robertson and the BMW i3 concept.

Nissan, General Motors and a handful of electric car start-ups spent the past few years setting inflated expectations for the electric car market. The bubbles popped a while ago—due to modest sales, slashed pricing and high-profile bankruptcies (although Tesla’s recent success continues to feed the blogosphere with frothy news). Now that BMW is entering the EV market—and probably wasn’t paying close attention to the U.S. electric car market—Ian Robertson, board member for sales and marketing, is whipping up a new set of overly optimistic expectations.

Don’t get me wrong. The electric car market is growing steadily, and will be enhanced by the introduction of the innovative and stylish all-electric BMW i3 later this year. I very much want the EV market to grow. But Robertson should chill out on comments like the ones he made at the Automotive News Europe Congress in Paris this week. He said BMW has about 100,000 reservations for the i3, and "significant numbers of deposits." Automotive News reported that, “Robertson believes the i3 will be a game-changer in the sector.”

Does anybody remember in 2010 when Nissan and G.M. were reporting vast numbers of reservations for the LEAF and Volt? (In September 2010, Nissan shut down its reservation system because the car was “sold out.”) Getting people to raise their hands is easy. Converting reservations into steady and sustained sales over months and years is another matter. "We are confident that with the i3 and i8 we will shift the [customer demand] needle because we will shape some of this technology," said Robertson.

I hope BMW can shift the needle, but that will be difficult when the company is setting false expectations about price. In Paris, Robertson reiterated that the BMW i3 sub-compact—which assuredly will be a remarkable car—will cost about the same as a 3-series Bimmer. Those vehicles run anywhere from the low $30,000s to around $50,000. My sources say it will be closer to $50,000—and nobody is saying if that’s before or after the $7,500 tax credit. Most observers experienced a jaw-drop in 2010 when Nissan announced a $32,000 sales price on the LEAF. Years later, it took a $199 a month lease to get the car to move off lots. I realize that a BMW is the ultimate driving machine, but I have my doubts that the entire EV segment will be reshaped by the i3.

Miracle Battery

But that’s mild stuff compared to Robertson misguided statement, as reported by The Detroit News (and certainly to be picked up by the blogosphere, without much analysis) that EV batteries will double their range in four to five years. “Batteries after that can be expected to achieve 10 times that performance, but we can’t put a date on that,” said Robertson.

Robertson’s claim echoes comments by General Motors Dan Akerson in March that his company is developing an electric car that goes 200 miles on a charge.

Even if these statements don’t cause consumers to sit on the sidelines for years—as they wait for better technology to materialize—they certainly make today’s electric cars including the i3, with less than 100 miles of real-world range, seem weak. Moreover, the lithium air battery technology that would enable BMW to double range is far from a commercial certainty. Why dangle an idealized future Shangri-La vision of electric cars before consumers? It would be a lot smarter (and ultimately better marketing) to stick with disciplined messages about the benefits of today’s electric cars, the compelling features of the i3, and how it can provide a premium electric car driving—consistent with BMW’s legacy—at a commensurate premium price.

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