In Electric BMW i3, Hopes for a Stylish Future of Green

In Electric BMW i3, Hopes for a Stylish Future of Green
October 02, 2013 | posted by The Institute

(Source: New York Times article by CHRISTOPHER F. SCHUETZE) 


When the BMW i3 finally rolls out this year in Europe and next year in North America, it will undoubtedly turn heads, but it is also very different in that it is designed to cash in on the space, handling and design that an electric drive train and ultra light carbon fiber body allow.

But the futuristic look and feel of the car will probably be the most important factors in convincing drivers that it is stylish to drive green.

“The kind of person who is environmentally conscious wants people to notice that their car is different,” said Mike Omotoso, an industry forecaster.

Unlike other mass-produced electric cars similar to or based on already existing gasoline-drinking cousins, the BMW i3, which will sell for about €35,000 in Europe and $46,000 in the United States, is designed from its wheels on up to be not only emissions-free in use and production, but also to convey the concept of a clean and green future.

The spacious and open passenger module features large windows and an optional sunroof. An uncluttered driver’s cockpit, the frontward opening rear doors and the relatively unobtrusive seat backs and rear bench help create an open space even in the relatively small space of the i3.

The separation of the so-called Life module (the carbon fiber-built passenger compartment) from the Drive module (the aluminum drive train and battery compartment that propel the car) makes it both a better car to drive and an easier car to produce using renewable energy and recycled materials.

Because the battery and drive train — by far the car’s heaviest components — are built low to the ground, the BMW i3 handles better than many of its electric cousins. The car’s seats are made from recycled PVC bottles, the door linings from kenaf, a hemplike plant, and the interior is trimmed with sustainably harvested bamboo.

Mr. Omotoso, of LMC Automotive, an American automobile market research company, says the novel design reminds him of the Toyota Prius, the decade-old hybrid car, in that its outward design says something about its green energy power train.

Still, LMC Automotive predicts that the BMW will sell only about 5,000 i3s in North America in the first year and 35,000 to 40,000 elsewhere, mostly in Germany and the United Kingdom.

This year the automakers will likely sell about 207,000 cars globally, 85,000 of them in the United States. These numbers include plug-in hybrids that hook up to an external electric power source and a combustion engine and strictly battery-powered cars.

Depending on whether an optional gasoline-powered range extender is included, the BMWi3 could fall into either category.

Forecasters say sales of other luxury electric cars are the best gauge of how the BMW is likely to perform. In the United States, the Model S, produced by Tesla Motors of California, is selling at the rate of a surprisingly high 20,000 units this year. While this does not guarantee higher sales for the BMW i3 — so far, the only other mass-produced luxury electric car — it does indicate a viable market.

Christian Buric, a spokesman for automotive testing at the ADAC, Germany’s largest automobile association, says the Tesla will show that luxury can fly in the electric sector.

Despite the well-rated new design and the prestigious manufacturer, the BMW i3 still faces the same issues as other electric cars, chiefly that its range is limited when compared with gasoline-powered vehicles.

“We have found that electric cars are typically second cars, and that’s why the market is limited, because not many people can afford to pay money for a second car,” Mr. Omotoso said.

The Bavarian carmaker is seeking to overcome the challenge of range not just by marketing the car as a vehicle for cities, where driving distances are shorter, but also by offering an optional range extender and a program to borrow a gasoline-powered BMW for the long-distance road trips.

BMW is also trying to convince potential buyers that the way the car is produced is a selling point.

Starting last month, its production lines have been using renewable energy and wasting less water while churning out cars made of ultra-light carbon fiber, aluminum and renewable materials. The result is a car that promises to pollute half as much as a conventional car over its lifetime.

“We’ve tried to look at everything in a different way,” said Hanne Dinkel, who is in charge of energy management at the Leipzig plant.

Among the green features at BMW’s factory in Leipzig are four wind turbines that produce enough energy to run the brand new €400 million, or $540 million, production facility that sprawls over 144,000 square meters, or 1.5 million square feet. The wind energy feeds directly into the factory, where it a powers the electric car production lines.

“Everything that we produce flows back into our production,” Ms. Dinkel said about the wind energy.

One key to making the car and its production both less polluting is the extensive use of carbon fiber reinforced plastic for the Life module. Not only does the light material allow the car to be driven farther and faster, it is also more easily assembled than conventional metal construction. The extensive use of carbon fiber also allows for the recycling rest material lost in production.

Because only relatively small surfaces of the two-tone car are painted, the new line does not need a massive paint shop, a feature in most auto factories. That change reduces water use by 70 percent, according to the company.

“It isn’t only all of the specific things that are beneficial, but a large shift in how the thinking changes not only about electrical cars but also about how electrical cars are made,” said Scot Horst, vice president at Green Building Council, which certifies buildings on the sustainability of their design under the LEED rating system.

The Leipzig site started mass production of the BMW i3 in September. BMW set up several other sites — in Landshut, Dingolfing and Wackersdorf, Germany, and Moses Lake, Washington — where the carbon fiber components, the aluminum frames and upholstery are produced and where the batteries are assembled from individual cells delivered by Samsung.

BMW is investing around €650 million in the production facilities, which will employ more than 1,100 workers. BMW also expects to build the BMW i8 — a more expensive plug-in hybrid sports car due out in 2014 — at the plant next year using many of the same construction steps.

BMW still makes most of its profits from gasoline-powered luxury cars. Because of their sheer size and power these cars emit more than smaller economy cars.

Because the European Union’s tightening emission standards for cars are based on fleet fuel efficiency and not the fuel efficiency of individual models, building and selling the i series cars will help the company’s conventional fleet meet these standards.

Jos Dings, who heads Transport and Environment, a European environmental lobby that focuses on transportation, agrees that the BMW i3 is a step forward, both in its production and in its use.

“The car represents a pretty interesting development, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be the last development,” he said.