Anyone who questions BMW's effort or sincerity on electrified vehicles should have a chat with Hildegard Wortmann, the German automaker's senior vice president over product management for automobiles and aftersales. I was fortunate to do just that at the Detroit North American International Auto Show earlier this year.
ABG: Where might BMW go with electrified vehicles beyond your i3 urban EV and i8 high-performance hybrid sports car?
HW: I think a big advantage is that we now have two bookends: BMW i [green] and BMW M [high performance]. We can use those bookends to foster the BMW brand in total. Are electrified vehicles the answer to CAFE and European regulations? Is that the future? We don't know, but that [regulatory] train has left the station. To achieve all of these regulations worldwide, there is no way to do it without electrification. That is why the activities of BMW i are not just to launch new products. They are our build-up in competence for learning and gaining experience in electrification. We will use those learnings for the total BMW brand. Technology-wise, we now have a really good understanding of what to do, what not to do, how to work with this and how to get a lot of learnings from the infrastructure and everything that goes with it. And depending on how quickly the market takes off, we can scale it and use it across the range. We will use the competence we will have in vehicle electrification for more than just BMW i. There will be other derivatives and electrification of other products.
"That [regulatory] train has left the station" - Hildegard Wortmann
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ABG: Do you see BMW offering pure EVs with larger batteries for greater range?
HW: That's a big feature of the Tesla. The question is to find the best balance [of range vs. battery size, weight and cost]. On the i3, we tried to have the right balance between how much range customers need for daily driving and how much battery we put in there. The market will show us. We have over a million kilometers driven by consumers in the Mini E and ActiveE and a fairly good understanding that those people are not driving that much. Putting a really big battery with all that weight into a car that is meant for urban mobility does not make sense.
ABG: What about extended-range EVs beyond the i3's optional small range extender engine?
HW: This whole EV movement is in its very early stages. I think what we need to learn when do we use which car? In Germany, if you drive every weekend between Munich and Hamburg, please don't go for an i3. It would be the complete wrong car for you. But I think customers have a very good understanding. When they say, "I'm mainly going to use the car in the city," the i3 is perfect. And we offer mobility concepts for i3 customers so they can borrow an X5 if they go for a skiing weekend. That's the sort of flexibility customers want. We are seeing a trend where people are less interested in owning cars than in using cars, and I think with that you become more flexible in combining different car concepts.
"This whole EV movement is in its very early stages."
ABG: Do you have an idea of early customer acceptance of the i3 in Europe?
HW: We had 11,000 orders as of early January.
ABG: What percentage are ordering the range extender engine?
HW: Less than we expected. We were thinking it would be really high, maybe over 80 percent, but it's significantly less. I can't tell you the exact number, but I would say maybe 50 percent.
ABG: With just 650 cc, how much does it limit performance when the battery is down and you're operating on the two-cylinder only?
HW: The operating system will not let you operate on the two-cylinder only because you will not run completely out of battery. We make sure that you always have both available. Think of it as insurance in terms of range. We put so much work into that engine, I can assure you, it's a proper BMW.
ABG: The system leaves some residual charge in the battery for acceleration?
HW: Yes. You will never have only the performance of the 650 cc. You will always have both. That's all about the operating system and how you combine the two. We put a lot of work into finding exactly the best combination, when to bring in the engine and when to run on EV only, and I think it's fairly cleverly done.
ABG: BMW gets high prices for its products but still has to minimize cost and investment, so is there a trade-off between optimizing EV range with a big battery or adding a range extender?
HW: It's less of a trade-off financially than in terms of sportiness of the car, driving character and weight. Those are the things we have to be concerned about. We have one basic belief: whatever we do, whether a complete EV or a plug-in hybrid, it has to be a real driving machine. That is what BMW stands for. We had 75 i3s at a test drive facility at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and had a couple thousand test drives, and they all had big smiles on their faces when they came out of the cars. They don't expect an EV to drive like a real driving machine. What surprises people the most is that it is a true BMW.
"Whether a complete EV or a plug-in hybrid, it has to be a real driving machine."
ABG: Did they have opportunity to experience the handling?
HW: Yes, and they went out in traffic, so there was a variety of driving opportunities. It was the same with the i8 when we had test drive opportunities at the Frankfurt Motor Show. People go in curious and a little skeptical and come out with big smiles and say, "Wow, I did not believe it could drive that fast!" That is what it is all about for us, the main focus of our activities - efficiency on one hand and real BMW driving dynamics on the other. The i3 is meant to be an urban, mega-city vehicle and its performance is designed for that.
ABG: Will we see BMW's electrified vehicles program expanding to other types of vehicles?
HW: Yes. Electrification is here to stay, so whether it's plug-ins or whatever form it takes, we definitely have to continue working with them. This journey has only just started.