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LA show: BMW ‘i’ not a failure

i for an i: So far just two models fall under BMW’s ‘i’ banner, the i3 (left) and i8 (below), but the sub brand isn’t going anywhere, according to a opt BMW i executive.

Despite slow sales in some markets, BMW’s electrified ‘i’ range to keep growing

7 Dec 2017

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in Los Angeles

BMW has rejected speculation that its ‘i’ battery electric vehicle (BEV) line may be absorbed into the existing core ‘1’ through ‘8’ hierarchy of models rather than continue as standalone models as currently defined by the i3 urban hatch and i8 sportscar.

Speaking to GoAuto at the unveiling of the i8 Roadster at the Los Angeles motor show last week, BMW AG member of the board of management responsible for development, Klaus Froelich, outlined the role that the i division plays in nurturing developments in areas beyond the internal combustion engine, including autonomous driving and connectivity tech.

“Of course (BMW i cars will continue as separate models),” he remarked. “It’s very clear for all electrified BMWs. BMW ‘i’ cars are fully electric in the future or high performance if we have a 3 Series plug-in hybrid, for example.

“All fully electric BMWs are BMW ‘i’. But there might also be fully-electric Minis and Rolls-Royces – you never know… and (cars like the BMW i8) have such a wonderful carbon-fibre chassis that I would be very careful not to let it fade out too early.

“We have symmetrical distribution – with the core being BMW in the middle, then i Performance and M Performance, and then we have i and M.

“It is very clear that we have two sub-brands and we have the core. And of course, just as M makes the core cars sportier, the i cars will fuel whatever innovation on electrification onto the core models.”

In Australia, year-to-date sales for the i3 and i8 remain tiny at 113 and just 23 units respectively. Both are expected to receive boosts over the next 12 months with the arrival of the sportier i3S and i8 Roadster, although neither will come close to matching the volumes of core BMWs such as the best-selling X5 SUV (currently at 3396 registrations to the end of November).

Mr Froehlich explained that the experience and learnings gained since the i program started last decade has given the BMW Group the lead in BEV development that no rival can match.

“We needed the BMW i vehicles because to make an electric car is very easy but to have a sustainable business model with electric cars is the most difficult thing,” he said. “So we had to learn from how getting the raw materials from the mines through to second-life we learned this with BMW i. We had to sync into the eco system. And it’s given us the possibility to optimise cost, function and quality over five generations of e powertrains. Nobody has done that.

“We work every two or three years to update the battery technologies. We have built up competences. Without BMW i, we would be in the same position like others – they are now trying to learn on a steep learning curve.

“BMW i is a big asset for us. For example, I am doing IT – it’s my think tank.

They have to question our approaches. That’s the reason why I put our autonomous mission in it. Because, for example, we have to write so much software and otherwise we would need new processes, so for me BMW remains a technical think-tank. But only for electric. Or it’s not just for autonomous driving.”

Moving towards the end of the next decade, Mr Froehlich revealed that the hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles (FCV) program that BMW has been working on with Toyota will come to prominence, dovetailing seamlessly with the i-car and BEV program technologies to create yet another stream of mobility for consumers.

“Hydrogen is beyond 2025-relevant for the markets,” he said. “We do it together with Toyota and we have to develop commonly two generations of fuel-cells before the quality and some-such are good enough. And honestly the future car is a BEV – the only difference is I take the full battery pack out, put a half battery pack in, and then I have a charging station with a fuel-cell and hydrogen tank to charge the smaller battery all the time. So the synergies between our BEVs and our hydrogen vehicles is very big.”

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