Just how hard is it to change direction in a BMW? While driving one of the company's vehicles, you'll find little disagreement that it can be easy, even quite pleasurable. But if you're trying to change the direction of the company itself – making the idea of driving fun play nice with fuel efficiency and plug-ins – well, then it's a bit more difficult. You need to take your time, something like five years, and you need someone like Herbert Diess.
Diess is the New Board Member for Development for BMW, and he has overall responsibility for product development, including hybrids and diesels. Since last April, he has been in charge of developing the technological advances for Project i. We spoke to him recently about the upcoming launch of the plug-in i3, the first of the new range of vehicles that make up Project i. The city car will be followed by the i8 plug-in hybrid in early 2014. He knows what his priority is, for now, given the fact that a couple hundred i3 prototypes currently exist, that BMW is wrapping up winter testing and refining components and that the whole project is "well on the way to production," he told AutoblogGreen. "The big task this year is to launch Project i, the i3. We are confident we will launch the car on time in the fourth quarter."
"We come from a situation where we build a car and sell it to a customer and then don't bother him any more. We are revolutionizing this."
Launching the i3 is not the same as putting any other BMW on the market. As the company learned with the Mini E and ActiveE test programs and the DriveNow carsharing unit, some of today's drivers think differently. To change with them, car companies are becoming mobility companies, Diess said.
"We come from a situation where we build a car and sell it to a customer and then don't bother him any more," Diess said. "We are revolutionizing this. We think, ok, maybe he doesn't want to own a car but still drive a BMW. Maybe he wants to drive the car only from here to there and then he wants to swap to a different transport medium. We are focusing on all those activities in the launch of the sub-brand i."
On top of different ways to use a vehicle, BMW is planning new ways to promote the i3. "We think we have a very different approach, and you see it in the product. It's a very comprehensive approach that includes not only bringing the car to the market but also revolutionizing the way we are marketing the car. We will offer the car with additional services that are required so, for instance, you can get access to renewable energy, if you want, in several areas worldwide."
When the i3 is released, BMW will offer up a suite of smartphone apps and mobile ways to see the car's charging state, the temperature, where the car is, how far you can go on the current charge. While not unique in the era of connected vehicles, this is new for a mass-market BMW. "We will accompany the car with many internet-based services where you get much more information than you expect with your normal car," Diess said. "That is why we believe it will be a product that customers will love."
More revolutionary is the way BMW will have special dealers to educate potential buyers as well as offer lots of information online and, most interestingly, home-based test drives where "you can get people coming to your house bringing you the car, letting you test the car." These programs will be mainly focused in urban areas, so don't expect them to flatbed an i3 out to the Kenai Peninsula.
"You can get people coming to your house bringing you the car, letting you test the car."
Getting to test a plug-in vehicle at home is important to figuring out if battery-powered driving is for you. Thanks to the Mini E and ActiveE electric vehicle fleets over the last few years, "The first feedback from the Mini E confirmed our way of equipping the car with a commuting range," Diess said. "Most people would start with the car charged and, during the day, travel 40-50 kilometers [25-31 miles] and then, after a while they would stop charging it every day and only charge it every second day. We found that the overwhelming majority of our customers were very happy with the range, with some exceptions where it was not the right car for their circumstances. "
"After a while they would stop charging it every day and only charge it every second day."
BMW has tried to make the i3 the right car for most anyone who drives in the city. This means using the new LifeDrive carbon fiber cell (details here). Diess said, "I would say the most revolutionary is the car itself because if really breaks the rules of body, shell and drivetrain. We have a new architecture. Our goal, right from the start, was to come to market with a car which will be emotional and fun to drive and deliver on our core competence which is driving pleasure. Meaning, the vehicle should be fully electric and focused on cities, so it has to be an agile car. We don't want to overload the car with battery cells. We think the range should be for daily commuting. We never wanted to build a car that can compete for the long-distance traveler."
"We don't want to overload the car with battery cells. We never wanted to build a car that can compete for the long-distance traveler."
He continued, "The outcome really pleases us. We have been driving the car for a couple months and are relatively close to series production and it's just great fun. If I can drive one of the prototypes, it is my first choice for city driving. It has a relatively high seating position, it is smooth, the accelerator pedal is very proportional and spontaneous. It's 0-60 below eight seconds. It has very low turning radius, so you can move very fast. It's just fun. That is why we have a very good chance to make a success out of it because it's not only a sustainable product and very environmentally friendly, it's also an emotional product."
The i3 launches at the end of the year, so we will soon have a very good chance to find out.