When BMWi revealed the i3 and i8 Concept cars last month in Frankfurt they introduced the world to the future of production automobiles. In a way paralleling a future that was proposed by American brands to come many decades sooner than now. During the 1950s and 1960s concept cars were used to drive interest to individual brands and pique the interest of consumers that were intrigued by all the advances in technology- space travel, and atomic energy rather than to tout a specific model. Flying cars, atomic cars, electric cars and lightweight cars made out of inexpensive aluminum with large glass domes were all the rage.
The promise of the Detroit brands was that by the 1980s Americans would be taking their seats in self propelled (coincidently the i3 will be able to drive itself in traffic!) or flying cars that were fast, luxurious, efficient and required little maintenance. The style of these concepts was straight out of the eras designer ‘s dreamed up future; one we should be living in now if progress was how these visionaries intended, the Jetson ‘s era should be upon us.
Obviously, that never happened and things have not changed all that much as far as mobility is concerned. This time around BMW is making a promise they intend to keep rather than just pulling some marketing exercise with concept cars. BMWi is rewriting what we know about cars and how they are built. Gone is the steel, classic styling and seemingly ancient technologies. In just two short years BMWi will bring to market the first mass produced electric car featuring a Carbon Fiber passenger cell (Life Module) while using an all aluminum substructure as a base (Drive Module).
Even a few short years ago, this would have been a pipe dream; as evidenced by Chevy ‘s Volt and Nissan ‘s Leaf- future propulsion technology using old school conventional car building techniques. Thanks to some creative engineering and advances made with the help of partners, the carbon fiber BMWi will use can now be mass produced reliably and more cost effectively and change the rules of car building.
When you first look at the style of these concepts they scream futuristic but really they harken back to the days of old where designers dreamed of cars that had increased visibility for passengers and materials were space age. Much of what BMW is doing with the i3 is not that extraordinary, they are just actually following through with their plans and learning from the past. The Life and Drive modules for example are not all that different than trucks that features a cab on frame design. Housing the batteries and drive systems under the flat floor allowing the battery and drive system to not interfere with the passenger space in the i3 is a concept that has been similarly been used by Mercedes Benz for about a decade in the A-Class/B Class electric and fuel cell models (They call it “sandwich “). BMWi is taking what has been successful and expanding upon it; making it better.
Where BMWi really stands on its own is in sustainability and overall cohesion amongst systems and production. Every part, every design element has been examined to be sure it can be made sustainably, that it is as light and as reliable as possible. All of that is to be completed within a cost matrix. The dashboard is made from recycled plastics that have been combined with natural hemp fibers to increase the strength, offer texture while being sustainable and light weight. The fabrics and leathers are died naturally and do not release any volatile compounds. Much of the aluminum structure is recycled from drink cans or is produced using renewable power. The thermoplastic body panels are once again made from recycled materials or sourced from renewable resources and unlike what we in the field noted about the former Saturn brand ‘s panels- these won ‘t expand in sunlight and create unsightly panel gap or sag. BMW is also exploring the option of building a wind farm at Leipzig to make production even more environmentally friendly. No stone is being unturned when it comes to building a brand based on sustainability.
Sustainability sounds like it adds a lot of cost and complications to production and it can in some ways but it also can yield more cost effective ways of creating a product. The use of carbon fiber in the BMWi vehicles is just one way sustainability can be advantageous environmentally while also costing less to produce. By producing the carbon fiber in Moses Lake, Washington BMW and partner SGL Carbon SE are able to use zero emissions hydro electric for this electric intense operation,thus reducing greenhouse emissions which would have been created using other forms of energy. The other benefit is that hydro power is one of the most cost effective methods of producing electricity- reducing the overall cost of creating the carbon fiber.
Flying precursor from Japan to Washington State, taking the finished spools of carbon thread and moving them by cargo plane to Germany sounds like it would create a lot of emissions. BMW ‘s internal studies indicate that the transportation emissions are minute and a small fraction of what the same emissions would have been if the carbon fiber thread was produced in Germany- Carbon fiber being light and compact means a lot of product can fit into a cargo hold. Further reduction in the transportation emissions will be possible when the cargo carrier completes its trials of bio-Jet Fuel and gets approval to use it in real world applications, which is anticipated to occur before BMWi production begins in earnest. The extensive use of carbon fiber also means that the life module doesn ‘t need to use welders (high energy consumers) to be assembled.
While the final production details of the i3 (and i8) are still being ironed out as the launch is years away, one thing is for sure- BMW is not following the classic recipe for building a car. Thinking outside the box has yielded a new way of thinking about mobility and we can only hope that consumers will approve of what BMWi has to offer. The big question is whether these cars will start a movement in the market place making manufacturers build lighter, more efficient vehicles by leaving the past behind and moving forward with innovation.