From the NYT; July 1, 2010 by Jack Ewing
The company devoted major resources to proving that battery-powered cars were practical.
Battery technology has “reached the point where it really makes sense to drive electric,” said Ulrich Kranz, director of the project’s team, who previously led the BMW team that revived the Mini brand in 2001. |
BMW has crash-tested prototypes of the chassis and frame of the electric car, and this month it will break ground on a factory in Moses Lake, Wash., to produce carbon fiber for a lightweight passenger compartment.
Auto industry specialists said they were encouraged by the developments.
“It’s not just a marketing project,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen who studies the auto industry. All the major carmakers have realized that they need electric vehicles to succeed in China, a crucial market where the government is keen to promote emission-free transport, Mr. Dudenhöffer said.
BMW is taking a different path than competitors by designing the so-called megacity vehicle around its electric drive system from the start.
Daimler will beat BMW to showrooms with a mass-produced electric vehicle, due in 2012. But Daimler’s e-car is a battery-powered version of its two-seat Smart car.
“I don’t know of any other manufacturer that has conceived of a car exclusively as an electric vehicle,” Mr. Dudenhöffer said. “The rest are based on conventional cars.”
BMW says it also plans to put its own name at risk, creating a subbrand that will probably contain the initials BMW. Daimler has always kept a distance between its Smart line and the Mercedes brand.
BMW engineers, or at least the ones working on the electric car project, seem to believe that shifting to battery power is a matter of long-term company survival. The company says it expects sales of gasoline and diesel-powered cars to begin declining in 2020.
“The departure from fossil fuels is an irreversible trend,” said Kai Petrick, a BMW marketing and product strategist.
BMW is not only breaking with the petroleum era but the age of steel as well. By building a substantial amount of the car from carbon fiber hardened with epoxy and molded into components, BMW aims to offset the additional weight that batteries add to the car and increase its range.
At the new vehicle’s core is a carbon-fiber passenger compartment that has already passed crash tests. The fiber, which in its raw state resembles horse hair, will come from the Moses Lake plant, where BMW and the SGL Group, the carbon company, are building components specifically for the new vehicle.
“Carbon fiber construction is one of the enablers of electric mobility,” said Jochen Töpker, a BMW engineer who manages the company’s joint venture with SGL, which is based in Wiesbaden, Germany.
The megacity vehicle takes advantage of the fact that an electric motor is much more compact than a gasoline engine and does not need a transmission, exhaust or muffler. The electric motor will go in the back of the vehicle. The batteries, the heaviest and bulkiest part of the drive train, will go under the floor in the aluminum chassis.
Despite some analyst predictions that all electric motors will be alike, BMW plans to build its own, betting it can imbue the power plants with BMW-like performance and feel. BMW engineers say they have acquired substantial understanding of how to make the motor work best with the battery array, which would be a competitive advantage. BMW is also keeping close control over the manufacture of carbon components, which it says are central to giving the car an upscale image.
BMW is still being quiet about how the car will look. But it showed journalists an impressionistic sketch of a four-passenger vehicle that looked a bit like a streamlined, low-slung Mini. BMW’s design chief, Adrian van Hooydonk, said that his team was still tinkering with the look of the car but emphasized that it would be a sporty, stylish vehicle worthy of the BMW name.
Speaking to reporters at BMW’s in-house museum in Munich on Tuesday, Mr. van Hooydonk described the design as “premium sustainability,” implying that it would not be a boxy-looking Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf.
BMW engineers insist that the limited range of electric-powered vehicles is not a big issue. The company leased a fleet of Minis converted to electric drive to customers in the New York and Los Angeles areas. Surveys showed that the Mini E’s range of 250 kilometers, or 150 miles, between charges was plenty for urban driving, BMW said.
BMW engineers are fond of saying that electric vehicles do not need to represent “a rolling vow of poverty.” The company has not named a price for the new car, but it will be aimed at affluent drivers in urban areas who want to appear environmentally conscious. The car probably will cost more than a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle, though owners will recoup some of the extra investment in lower fuel and maintenance costs. Electric cars never need an oil change.
As a test drive of a Mini E in the Bavarian countryside confirmed, electric cars have a number of selling points beyond the environmental argument. Electric motors have inherently fast acceleration. The only running noise is a faint whine. There is no smell of exhaust or fuel. One gear suffices, so shifting is unnecessary.
Even braking is rarely necessary. The car slows when the driver takes pressure off the accelerator, as a recuperation system kicks in and regenerates power from the momentum of the car.
“Electric cars are fun to drive,” said Mr. Kranz, the project director.