Lessons from ActiveE Used by BMW for i3 Electric Car

By · October 03, 2013

BMW ActiveE electric car

BMW ActiveE. (Photo: Brad Berman)

When BMW leased 700 of its ActiveE pure electric vehicles to drivers in the United States, the company aimed to study not just how the car was used—but what mattered to the people who leased it. The results of that study are in. BMW applied them to the design and manufacturing of its new i3 electric vehicle. The result may prove a template for future production of many brands of electric vehicles.

Dr. Simon Ellgas, senior advanced technology engineer at BMW’s technology office in Silicon Valley, talked with PluginCars.com about the lessons learned from the ActiveE and how they were applied to the i3.

Production of the i3 started in September in Germany. It will hit showrooms in the U.S. in early 2014 with a starting price of $41,350.

Here’s a big lesson: “It is not just a spare car for rich guys,” said Ellgas. “It was really used heavily by customers. The average mileage was even a little higher than on the other cars, mainly because it was used for a daily commute.”
BMW supplied 700 ActiveEs in the U.S. for two-year leases to “Electronauts,” as the company refers to the drivers. The first leases will expire at the end of this year, and the rest by mid-2014. The ActiveE is based on a BMW 1-series, but is equipped with an electric drivetrain. It has about 90 miles driving range.

Range Matters

Of the 700 drivers, 113 responded to an online survey. According to Ellgas, there were three areas that ActiveE drivers identified as needing improvement: Range, Space, and Charging. Range was a top concern. “Even if you use the car for a daily commute, it may not be the perfect car for a weekend trip,” said Ellgas. How did BMW respond? For three weeks annually, BMW will offer i3 owners access to any other BMW car at “an extremely interesting price,” he said.

Another solution is the range extender, he said. It is an add-on feature that a customer can order. “Not every i3 comes with it, but the customers who think they need more range can request it,” said Ellgas.

BMW i3 electric car

BMW i3

As for space, because the ActiveE is based on an internal combustion engine model platform, the battery took up a lot of the truck space. In contrast, the battery in the i3 is floor-mounted and the EV has a full truck and space for four passengers.

Then there is charging, which Ellgas called “a big part of the story.” Even though the range of 90 miles was enough for 90 percent of the trips drivers taken in the ActiveE, drivers still worried about range, he said. The i3 has a range of 80-100 miles, and there is the option of adding a range extender. But, the i3 is also equipped to accept fast charging, which will allow a charge of the battery up to about 80 percent of its capacity in 30 minutes, said Ellgas.

Less Energy

Among ActiveE drivers who responded to the survey, 85 percent either agreed, strongly agreed, or extremely agreed that renewable energy was important. “We used this message to encourage our engagement in renewable energy,” said Ellgas. The manufacturing process for the i3 uses 50 percent less energy than BMW’s usual process, and the remaining 50 percent comes from renewable energy, said Ellgas. The vehicle is assembled in Leipzig, Germany, but components are sourced from other cities in Germany and worldwide.

For example, the carbon fiber body is manufactured in Moses Lake, Wash., where there is abundant locally-generated hydropower. BMW also cut water consumption in the production process by 70 percent. “The car set a new benchmark in reducing energy consumption for production,” he said.

BMW also cut 1,300 pounds from the ActiveE drivetrain for the i3. That was mainly done by using a carbon fiber body, said Ellgas—all without losing BMW’s famous driving dynamics. “It is still a BMW,” he said. “Having less weight is fun,” he said.

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