The all-seeing i

New Mobility sits down with head of the BMWi brand Dr Robert Irlinger at the Frankfurt Auto Show.

BMW is going through a huge transformation from its ‘petrol head’ heritage, now heavily investing into the e-mobility space. When the German automaker first introduced its BMWi range, it broke the conventional market for a premium manufacturer, showcasing the BMW i3 compact city car and the i8 hybrid sports car. Since then, the company has set the bar for electrification, creating two exclusive EVs whilst looking at creating electrified variations of existing models, such as the X3 SUV, showing that the company is not waiting around for its rivals to catch up. Dr Robert Irlinger says that the company is going into a period that he calls ‘BMW 2.0’. “At first, it was all about innovation and now we are going to bring e-mobility into the broader market. Therefore, we are aiming for more models and concepts for the BMWi brand,” he explains. “We are very proud of what we have achieved; if you look at the division, we are at least eye level or better than all of our competitors.” BMW has already sold 150,000 EVs over the last years and will look to add 50,000 more by the end of 2017, bringing the figure above 200,000 BMW EVs. “We are experiencing very good business with EVs and we will look to continue this in the future. You will see more electrified models and you will see new vehicles that can fulfil more customer needs,” adds Irlinger.

BMWi has introduced new models to the market with high ranges, which had been an issue that put off many buyers in the industry. The first model to come to the market with a really high range was the updated BMW i3 last year. Next, Irlinger tells me, we will see an electrified X3 in 2020, with more range than the i3 due to its larger battery capacity; looking even further into the future, BMW will release the iNEXT, which will symbolise the pinnacle of the EV brand. “It is not a matter of which car is first,” explains Irlinger. “We will continue to improve our architecture and battery systems so that all future BMW cars will be able to have competitive ranges. We know from our customers that if you really want to go into high volumes, our cars will need to have at least 400 km of range.”

Landscaping e-mobility

Irlinger believes that are three main challenges when it comes to EVs. “The first is helping the people who are home charging. We have our own wall boxes that can be bought from BMW to overcome this. The second issue for us is about customers who live in an urban area without the opportunity to have a wall box. Fast charging would help this, however you could also have street chargers that are built into street lamps so that you can charge your car over-night. The third issue is highway charging; we need to roll out high-powered charging as fast as possible to support long distance travel. For example, when travelling from Munich to Hamburg, you may only need one recharge which will only take 20 minutes. BMW is highly active in these three fields.” Roadside charging through the utilisation of street lamps is an innovative approach to EV charging, however these systems would struggle as EV batteries increase in size and need more powerful charging systems.

This means that wall charging systems would be the best alternative but, as Irlinger says, this is difficult in dense urban environments where many people do not have enough space. For long-distances, BMW is partnering for a network of high-powered electric charging stations across highway systems. Irlinger says that BMW together with the consortium has introduced test stations and will work on rolling out the network for high-powered charging in 2018. Now, for an automaker, this could be extremely difficult to do alone, which is why BMW has established an alliance with the largest automakers in Germany to work towards a cleaner and more efficient future. “Through a collaboration with Volkswagen and Daimler, BMW is looking to create 350 kw charging stations to accommodate modern EVs,” says Irlinger. Through this collaboration, we will see a significant increase in the rollout of EV charging infrastructure across Europe.

Unlike many other automakers, BMW has also focused on battery cell development through a cell research lab. Irlinger believes that it is important for automakers not just to stay in close contact with the battery cell suppliers, but to analyse the technology in order to find the best solution to issues such as range. “We see that there are a lot of battery cell suppliers which are very active in the competitive market. From our point of view, the best way for us is to use the competition between these cell suppliers to our benefit,” he says. “We look very closely at this and reassess the status every year. We see that we currently don't need to build our own cell factory, but we have our own cell development research in order for progression.” Costs will come down for automakers as battery cell suppliers strive to securing long-term contracts with the OEMs, however they are invited to follow BMW’s approach and invest in research and development.

Production and workforce

Throughout this shift over to future mobility, many have questioned what this will do to automaker’s workforces around the world, with robotics and artificial intelligence able to offer significantly quicker and cheaper labour than humans. However, Irlinger tells me that this will not be the case for BMW and stresses that we may in fact see an increased workforce. “There will be no decrease in our internal workforce for the foreseeable years. There is not only a transition from combustion engines to fully-electric production; we also have plug-in hybrids and several other powertrains that you need to manufacture, especially as the overall market for combustion and electric engines grows,” he stresses. BMW already manufactures a large amount of its powertrains in-house, builds its own electric engines and assembles the EV batteries to go in them. “We firstly assemble the modules and then build the battery, trying to keep everything in-house as much as possible. The important thing is that we are still growing very fast as a company; there will be further business as we see more electric mobility.”

EVs will start to take more of the market share from combustion engines, however this will not happen for some time. Due to this, Irlinger believes that there will still be demand for a workforce in all kinds of powertrain assembly, whether it is combustion, hybrid or fully-electric. “For the period where we have plug-in hybrids, we don't see that our overall workforce working on powertrain assembly will decrease. Looking towards 2025, we believe that there will be a percentage of approximately 15-25% of electrified vehicles, with approximately half of the models being pure electric and the others being plug-in hybrids, so we will still see around 75% of the market still being taken up by combustion engines,” he assures.

The core message

BMW is taking the necessary approach to achieving its ‘second stage’ in e-mobility, preparing the architecture surrounding EVs, whether it is fully-electric or plug-in, whilst also continuing to work on combustion models. This shows how agile the automaker has become in the new era of transportation, capitalising on its past, present and future. “We want to be fully-flexible when it comes to electrification and BMW i is prepared to bring this into all of our cars,” says Irlinger. “This is the future but we should not forget about what we have already achieved. BMW i has been in the market for almost four years and has become the market leader in electrified powertrains, which is a great basis to take the next step. We feel that many of the other brands are still in the period of announcing their first electrified models whilst we are already here.” Being ahead of the game, BMW i has turned its attention to cleaner energy, spending a lot of time analysing the best way to source the supply. Irlinger says that, “if electricity came from fossil resources only, e-mobility doesn't make sense. We must look at how to combine e-mobility with renewable energy.” BMW is the only manufacturer to cover all of these fields, looking beyond the car and towards the future of mobility. This shows that e-mobility can only be successful in terms of sustainability when all aspects surrounding it are assessed.

But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the customer. Customers want an EV that drives better than petrol and diesel-powered cars, otherwise they will not see any reason to move over. It is only a matter of time till this mindset changes, with new models boasting better range, better performance and an altogether better experience. Mobility will change the way we live and automakers like BMW are the ones capable of providing these innovations that will change the future of transportation.

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