BMW’s vision for sustainable cars: Do more with less


BMW plans to build all its future cars on a single, electric-focused platform. The automaker showed its ideas for sustainable, premium transportation with its iVision Circular concept car. Development chief, Frank Weber, talked about these topics and more during a roundtable at the IAA Munich auto show that included Automotive News Europe Associate Publisher and Editor Luca Ciferri.

BMW unveiled the iVision Circular concept car at the IAA Munich auto show. What do you hope to demonstrate with the concept?

We want to do more with less, hence the small form. The concept shows the level of premium possible in a 4-meter package. We also want to show that sustainable, premium transportation in the future will not require sacrifice. Things become simpler, more digital, more reduced.

With the iVision there is an inherent sustainable aspect that almost speaks for itself. You take it for granted that our premium product is a highly digital product, and we believe this is fulfilling future premium needs of our customers.

Battery-electric vehicles will never be sustainable if we do not manage the entire value chain.  You cannot have 600 or 700 kilograms of battery cells and high voltage batteries and say this is sustainable.

The way you are going to recycle and get this material back into the value-chain circle is more important, and so we have to think about the design of components and vehicles upfront. By the way, 95 percent of our vehicles can be recycled already today.

Regarding materials, does it mean that you have to invest more in research and development?

What will happen is a trend back to more individual solutions, which means we have optimized our vehicle structures for mass. We have to be a bit heavier, but you can also have a steel body that complies with all safety regulation.

BMW is creating a new electric-focused architecture for its entire range called the Neue Klasse (New Class). How will that work?

Everything from 2 Series to the X7 will be based on a single architecture. The most important thing to keep components common is the building principle. The electric drivetrain is always in the same position, whether it’s a small vehicle or a large vehicle.

There will be longer batteries and shorter batteries and the vehicles will have different widths. But the width difference on vehicles today is just 120 mm between the smallest and the largest. There is a limit to what the absolute smallest vehicle can be. But it can be completely covered.

Does that mean any production line building a Neue Klasse vehicle can make any body style? Will you have total manufacturing flexibility? 

Yes. If you compare it with our production today, our production people love the idea of one way of assembling vehicles. It will make our production system even more flexible. There are more tricky things than this, such as digital and e-mobility.

With digital updates, we run them on a monthly or quarterly basis, but at one point you say, I don’t just want to do an update, I really want to do a significant enhancement. So how do you do that? We must define the end of a vehicle in the future as a digital device. What happens in 15 years in the cyber world? We are currently thinking about what defines the end of a vehicle, and can you digitally decouple it so that the vehicle still drives? But you have to take it offline.

When could BMW stop producing internal combustion engines?

For electric mobility, the question is not when the combustion engine is ending. The question is: When is the system ready to absorb all those battery-electric vehicles? It’s about charging infrastructure, renewable energy. Are people ready? Is the system ready? Is the charging infrastructure ready? All of that.

It has also to do with the fact that I have people working for me on combustion engines and I’m shifting them over time into electric. It makes no sense to make the transition overnight. I have to make sure that this transition works perfectly — for both social reasons and economic reasons. These are real big questions.

You still need to invest to ensure that internal combustion engines comply with the newest emissions regulations. Your predecessor said it was almost impossible to make a business case for the V12 or the V8 to survive. What is the business case now?

Regarding the Eurozone, Euro 7 is currently under discussion, and it is a discussion that is very difficult for us, not because of stringent emission values such as for NOX or CO2. This is not the critical point. We all have an interest that this Euro 7 regulation gets the best out of combustion engines.

The problem is with the proposal from the European Commission. The commission has said the emission requirements should be met under all circumstances. This means you can test compliance with a trailer, at minus 20 degrees centigrade going up the hill at 3,000 meters high. We as manufacturers have said this will not work. It would be like banning the combustion engine.

It’s very important also that we communicate clearly with the commission that we are fine with stringent regulations but in a way that allows us to sign off on the vehicle as an OEM. We hope to finish this dialogue by the end of the year. This is a concern because it’s the last big investment in combustion engines.

Then we will have an investment that takes us to the end of the decade, and nobody has to decide today whether they have an exit strategy for combustion engines for 2030. The last thing we want is that customers have to buy electric cars and there is no adequate charging infrastructure. That is in nobody’s interest.

What is your vision on hydrogen and fuel cells?
The X5 is the highest performing fuel cell stack that exists in the industry worldwide. It has a power output of 125 kilowatts, and we know hydrogen will be a part of the overall energy solution for heavy trucks and for industry purposes. The infrastructure will also have to be established, at least for trucks on highways. It is not clear yet to what degree hydrogen can play a role in the other segments.
It all depends how this green hydrogen is going to be distributed between the different sectors. I think hydrogen can play a role because what is clear is with battery electric vehicles you cannot solve range anxiety with ever-expanding range.

How will you solve the range anxiety problem?

We will have to rely on a well-functioning charging infrastructure, because you cannot say the next generation of electric cars will have 1,200 km of range. We are keeping an eye on how the charging infrastructure will develop, but we don’t know how yet exactly how it will play out. 

So how do you determine where to finish with the right range for an electric car? When you get a real range of 600 km, then you have a reasonable product. You have very few occasions in the year where you really need long distance.

The other thing is the market will split in two parts. There will be people who need long range, because it is the only vehicle in the household. It’s constantly used.  When they get then real 600 km – which means 800 km, 900 km in the homologation cycle – I think they will be happy, but there will definitely be a market of many people who don’t need that at all.

So for battery technologies, there is the focus on the range and then something that is totally cost focused, which would provide for a real range of maybe 400 km. This works perfectly for many people.

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