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BMW Lifts Veil on Battery-Powered Car

BMW Lifts Veil on Battery-Powered Car
Published: July 1, 2010
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Close LinkedinDiggMixxMySpaceYahoo! BuzzPermalink MUNICH — Bayerische Motoren Werke lifted the veil this week on its planned battery-powered car, and even after discounting for hype, it is becoming clear that the German carmaker is serious about building a new class of vehicle and delivering substantial numbers to showrooms by 2013.

BMW created “project i” in late 2007 with the goal of building a car for urban areas where more than half the world’s people live. But, as with many corporate green projects, it was sometimes hard to tell whether the project was a sincere venture or just a way to generate sustainability credentials.

During two days of journalist briefings at a garagelike BMW facility outside Munich, it was obvious that the company had devoted major resources to proving that battery-powered cars were practical — and to refute doubts that traditional car makers were not innovative enough to make the leap from gasoline.

Battery technology has “reached the point where it really makes sense to drive electric,” said Ulrich Kranz, director of the project i team, who previously led the BMW team that revived the Mini brand in 2001.

BMW has crash-tested prototypes of the electric car’s chassis and frame, and this month it will break ground on a factory in Moses Lake, Washington, to produce carbon fiber for a lightweight passenger compartment.

“It’s not just a marketing project,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen who studies the auto industry. All the major car makers have realized that they need electric vehicles to succeed in China, a crucial market where the government is keen to promote emission-free transport, Mr. Dudenhöffer said.

BMW is taking a different path than competitors by designing the so-called megacity vehicle around its electric drive system from the start.

Daimler will beat BMW to showrooms with a mass-produced electric vehicle due in 2012. But Daimler’s e-car is a battery-powered version of the existing two-seat Smart car.

“I don’t know of any other manufacturer that has conceived of a car exclusively as an electric vehicle,” Mr. Dudenhöffer said. “The rest are based on conventional cars.”

BMW also plans to put its own name at risk, creating a sub-brand that will probably contain the initials “BMW.” Daimler has always kept a distance between its Smart line and the Mercedes brand.

BMW engineers, or at least the ones working on the electric car project, seem to feel that shifting to battery-power is a matter of long-term company survival. The company expects sales of gasoline and diesel-powered cars to begin declining in 2020.

“The departure from fossil fuels is an irreversible trend,” said Kai Petrick, a BMW marketing and product strategist.

BMW is not only breaking with the petroleum era but the age of steel as well. By building a substantial amount of the car from carbon fiber hardened with epoxy and molded into components, BMW aims to offset the additional weight that batteries add to the car and increase its range.

At the new vehicle’s core is a carbon-fiber passenger compartment that has already passed crash tests. The fiber, which in its raw state resembles horse hair, will come from the Moses Lake plant, which BMW and SGL Carbon are building specifically for the new vehicle.

“Carbon fiber construction is one of the enablers of electric mobility,” said Jochen Töpker, a BMW engineer who manages the company’s joint venture with SGL Carbon, which is based in Wiesbaden, Germany.



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