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BMW i: “The future is green”

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BMW has been applying some strategic thought to the subject of electric cars, and the BMW i sub-brand and the forthcoming i3 and i8 electric cars are the first results of this work.

BMW believes that in the future, if people think premium, they will also think sustainable. Steve Chater, Corporate Operations Manager, BMW Group UK, says that “the future is green” – but people will not want any compromises if they go green.

Due to the trend of more people living in cities – over 60% of us are expected to live in mega-cities by 2030 – the company sees that electric vehicles will be inevitable in the future, to help address problems of air pollution and due to the shortage of natural fuels and resources.

The UK has a CO2 reduction target of 80% by 2050, based on 1990 levels, and fossil fuels are becoming more costly to extract, leading to higher fuel prices. However the move from fossil fuels is likely to be influenced by one of the most important political priorities – the desire for energy independence. Added to all of this, BMW sees that customer preferences are changing, with awareness about sustainability rising higher up the agenda.

The company forecasts that by 2020, 5-15% of new vehicles will be electric. As part of its plan to ensure that BMW is part of this new electric market, it has already conducted trials with the all-electric MINI E; these were in fact the world’s biggest electric vehicle trials.

So what were the key lessons learnt from the MINI E trials? Before the trials, range was perceived to be the biggest limiting factor. Data loggers were put into the MINI E and other conventional cars to see how they compared in terms of range, and they were almost identical. The average trip distance for the MINI E was 13.9 miles, and the average total distance driven each day was 35 miles. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average distance driven in the UK per day is 22.8 miles. Based on all these figures, the MINI E, with its real world range of 100 miles, should be sufficient for the majority of normal journeys.

Interestingly, 87.5% of people on the trial said it was essential to have a public charging infrastructure, but 75% said they could survive without it. Important feedback was that car makers should offer renewable energy tariffs in conjunction with the vehicle, in order to ensure that the car is genuinely zero emission in its use.

Perhaps the key outcome was that 92% of the people on the trial, having lived with the MINI E, said they will buy an EV.

Feedback showed that the main area for improvement with the MINI E was packaging. This was perhaps a predictable outcome, as the MINI E prototype is only a two-seater and the batteries take up the majority of the space where the rear seats should be.

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So can the people who took part in the MINI E trial buy an electric BMW? No, not yet – but soon. The next thing that will happen is a new trial, of the all-electric 1 Series prototype, the BMW ActiveE, which starts this year. This will be a rear-wheel drive EV, and it will have a much smaller space taken up by the battery pack than the MINI E. Then we will have the first electric BMW production cars, the i3 and i8. These BMW i cars will be launched and on UK streets in 2013. BMW i will be a sub-brand of BMW, similar to the way that M is a sub-brand.

Why has it taken so long to get to this stage with electric cars? Recent legislation about CO2 emissions, in particular the European 95 g/km CO2 average fleet target for cars in 2020, has been a real driver. Customers also now have a clearly stated preference for cars to be more sustainable (as long as there is no compromise).

So now that BMW understands consumer behaviour around electric cars more fully following its trials, the company is gearing up to produce its own EVs. Unlike many electric cars now, they will not be based on existing cars, but will instead have a completely new platform.

BMW is adamant that a normal car chassis is not the best solution for an EV, due to packaging and weight issues. So the i models will have an aluminium base and a very lightweight carbon-fibre structure – which will be half the weight of a normal car body. Although carbon-fibre is expensive, there is no cost for conversion of a conventional vehicle.

The battery pack sits in the centre of the car and the electric motors will be at the back, so the car will therefore be rear-wheel drive. Most crashes impact primarily on the front or rear of the car; with the battery in the centre, under the occupants’ feet, it is best protected. This also means a low centre of gravity and good weight distribution.

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The i3 will be a four-seater, with useable boot space, a lithium-ion battery with active cooling, and rear motors giving rear-wheel drive.

The i8 will be a small 2+2 supercar. Rather than being pure-electric, it will be a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. It promises to be true to BMW brand values, and take EfficientDynamics to the next level, with excellent performance and excellent efficiency.

However, it’s not just the cars themselves that will be low emission. The new i models will be constructed at a purpose-built production facility in Leipzig in Germany. BMW says that it will consume much less water and energy than a conventional car plant, and the energy it does use will be generated from renewables.

BMW is also looking at people’s future mobility needs beyond the car. This may involve an electric bike being part of the car; you could park outside the city in the car and ride in on the bike.

There’s one other important element that BMW sees as essential in cars of the future – connectivity. In other words, all vehicles, and their passengers, will need to be connected with the outside world – hence BMW ConnectedDrive. Smart phones will be the enabler for this, with information being transferred to the car via your phone (and vice versa). There will be a whole range of things that this will help people to do, such as finding an ‘eco-route’, and showing the resultant fuel savings, to finding car parking spaces and buying tickets for attractions while en route to them. To further develop such features, BMW is even investing in new ideas from other businesses that may help with people’s future mobility.

So BMW i promises a future that is low carbon, innovative – and that improves our quality of life in tomorrow’s mega-cities. In terms of the cars themselves, it will be interesting to see if BMW’s electric cars will still be the ultimate driving machines.