Will BMW Produce the Ultimate (Electric) Driving Machine?

By · February 28, 2011

BMW i3 and i8 sketches

The first images of the BMW i-series vehicles provide a highly veiled glimpse of the company's future electric vehicles.

The jury of electric car enthusiasts is split over the significance of BMW’s unveiling last week of an entire brand dedicated to electric drive vehicles. Some received the announcement of a new “i” series of vehicles with enthusiasm, while others are taking a “wait and see” approach.

The brand dubbed “i” is intended to position BMW as “the most innovative and sustainable premium car company in the world today,” according to company executives. The i brand will serve as the umbrella identity for an entire line of electric vehicles, much the way that BMW’s “M” brand signifies performance cars. In case there was any doubt that sustainability equals EV, the i brand’s tag line is “Born Electric.”

BMW i is more than a line of vehicles. It's "a way of thinking about mobility," according to the company.

The project will encompass not only vehicles, but also a range of products and services related to urban mobility—from car sharing to mobile applications. In fact, BMW last week launched BMW i Ventures in New York City with an investment of about $100 million to expand its range of mobility services—while taking a stake in a start-up company called My City Way, which offers information on public transportation, parking availability, and local entertainment for over 40 cities in the US.

Where Does the Rubber Hit the Road?

Car sharing and other “mobility services” sound intriguing, but the EV community’s sniff test is receiving detailed information about real cars actually coming to the market. On that account, the BMW announcement has an aroma of greenwashing. At the company’s unveiling, an inordinate amount of time was spent on unveiling new logos—the BMW badge will be surrounded by a blue circle for i vehicles.

But if critics look past the showbiz of the auto biz, they’ll find a company that is putting serious resources—about three-quarters of a billion dollars—toward a ground-up electric car program. All of the BMW i models will be purpose-built and could serve as shining examples of best-in-class lightweight, aerodynamic electric vehicles.

The first two models—outgrowths of BMW’s Mini-E and ActiveE pilot projects—are the i3 all-electric small car (previously dubbed “Megacity”), and the i8 premium plug-in hybrid, based on the outrageous BMW Vision EfficienctDynamics sports car unveiled in 2009 at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Production Numbers and Timetables

Skeptics point to a launch date of 2013 for the i3 as a sign that real cars are perpetually two years away from reality—but the i3 timeline should be seen as an accelerated schedule compared to the usual six or seven year gestation period for a Bimmer. (Yes, BMW made the decision to make an electric car in 2008.) Furthermore, news from Reuters and others show that BMW aims to produce around 30,000 units per year, beginning in 2013.

The 30,000-figure is fairly ambitious considering that the U.S. will probably not be the primary market for the i3. First of all, it will be smaller than a 1-series BMW, a size that European and Asian customers accept more readily than Americans. On top of that, it will likely sell for more than $40,000.

The smaller size is a fit for the urban mobility concept—along with the use of ultra-lightweight materials, an efficient electric motor putting out more than 100 kW, and aggressive regenerative braking (mostly via a single accelerator pedal with both throttle and brake functions). This is all adds up to potentially the most efficient EV on the road, granting as much as 6 miles per kWh—meaning almost 100 miles of range on a relatively small 16 kWh battery pack. The significance of that goes beyond the number of i3 units that BMW sells.

BMW VisionDynamics concept />

The i8, expected in 2014 or later, is based on the BMW Vision EfficientDynamics concept supercar.

The second vehicle in the i series is more suspect. While it’s exciting that BMW will include plug-in hybrid technology in its development program, the i8 (based on the Vision EfficientDynamics concept vehicle) will probably make the Tesla Roadster or Fisker Karma seem like a bargain. Expect a price tag well north of $100,000, and a limited run of a few thousand.

On one hand: BMW believes in electric cars, is dedicating an entire division and brand to its production, and will have gas-free cars on the road in 2013. On the other hand: In the next few years, we'll only see a relatively expensive compact (or subcompact) EV, as well as a low-production very expensive electric supercar. There's a lot to be excited about, and skeptical about, at the same time.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.