The BMW brand arguably defines automobile performance, engineering and technology. Yet the company has been conspicuously absent in the development of hybrid and electric vehicles; as other automakers rolled out hybrid models, BMW was relatively silent until the release of the X6 ActiveHybrid in 2009, and little had been heard from the company as its competitors introduced electric and plug-in hybrid cars to the market.
But BMW is no longer on the sidelines. In fact, its new electric cars and mobility services, which the company has branded as BMW i, could very well redefine the very concept of what an automobile manufacturer is — and what a car company should become as society enters an era of increased urbanization and shared-car services. The BMW i concept is an example of how car companies will redefine themselves as the world’s largest cities become too crowded for cars and more consumers decide to forego them altogether.
Last week I spoke with Uwe Dreher, Global Head of Marketing for BMW i. He explained that this next generation of cars and services need to meet the realities of the changing marketplace. “The kids now are not interested in getting a driver's license,” Mr. Dreher said, “so we clearly realize that things are changing. So either we give up the business or we change the product assortments that we offer.”
BMW already has a sterling brand reputation, an aspirational one that emphasizes cutting-edge design and superb handling on the road. Obviously, BMW will not cease manufacturing cars; after all, in many American and even European cities, public transportation is still inadequate and for many potential customers in these large metropolitan areas, BMW still carries prestige and much appeal. But the rising cost of fuel is pushing consumers to consider more energy-efficient vehicles, and electric vehicles now garner more interest.
And that is where the mobility side of BMW i is most compelling — and risky. Younger consumers living in cities may not want the responsiblity of owning a car, but they could still want access a few times a week for errands or a night out on the town. So BMW i partners with MINI and SIXT in the electric car-sharing service DriveNow, which currently operates in four German cities and San Francisco.
But mobility is about more than allowing urban hipsters to share cars. Dreher explained that BMW i aims to be more of a personal logistics and mobility company that works with people to find their way from points A to B. Customers in the suburbs may still require a car, but once they drive into the city, they will need a coveted parking space. So one product BMW i could offer is a system matching commuters to parking spaces in urban neighborhoods.
Which leads to how an automotive company can stay relevant in the lives of consumers who do not have a car: Dreher envisions BMW i running systems that will assist commuters finding not only the fastest route to move within a city or between cities, but also the most sustainable way. The process will take some time; much of the data BMW i would need, such as traffic patterns, rests in municipal databases — and some cities are quicker to release that information than others.
At its core, BMW i is very much part of an automotive company, and Dreher made it clear that the company will aggressively leave its stamp on the electric vehicle market with its sustainably designed, urban-themed i3 and i8 sports car series. But BMW is rethinking the car in the process: The BMW i’s architecture, in fact, will be the first to build such a car from scratch. Today’s electric cars still incorporate the conventional automotive design that has long been a part of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars since the 1930s. “You cannot just retrofit because of the negative effect of the car’s weight,” Dreher said. “You have to invest in, and re-engineer, an all-new car. You must ‘purpose build’ it.”
The result is BMW i’s LifeDrive concept. The car's frame is made of two distinct units: First, the lower module, made of aluminum, integrates the drive train, suspension system and battery. Next, the upper module is composed of reinforced carbon fiber, 10 percent of which is recycled material. The lightweight material compensates for the weight of the battery, and the lower center of gravity also will make the BMW i cars more pleasurable to drive. No space-hogging tunnel dominates the vehicle, so the driver and passengers will have more room, providing a more comfortable and improved driving experience. And most importantly, the vehicles will be capable of farther range than electric vehicles currently on the market.
Dreher made it clear that BMW i is doing more than just test-marketing the cars to early adopters and the company’s most important and discerning customers. Electric vehicles must have mass appeal, so suburbanites are included in the testing and focus group process, too. “It is important to get people into the car,” said Dreher, “because once they test drive it, people love it.” With a full gas tank costing up to $100 in Europe, the cheap cost of charging the vehicle has a huge appeal, as well as the quiet ride and the rapid acceleration made possible by its impressive torque. “We’re thinking long-term,” said Mr. Dreher, “so you have to think ahead 15 to 20 years or you will miss trends. We want to make sure that we can look to the future and position our brand to stay sustainable and modern enough long into the future.”