Forward Thinking: BMW Goes Electric and Ponders the World's Urban Future

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 08, 2011

NEW YORK CITY—I am leaning on a post in the BMW Guggenheim Lab in lower Manhattan. That would be unremarkable, except for the fact that the smooth column with the matte black finish is made out of incredibly expensive carbon fiber, and next month it will be dismantled and sent on to Berlin, where this traveling idea lab goes next. A total of nine cities, including Mumbai, are on a six-year itinerary.
It’s a cold autumn day in New York, and the high-tech Guggenheim Lab is mostly open to the elements. It briefly occupies a space that until recently was a rat-infested tenement. The assembled thinkers, who are decidedly international and interdisciplinary, look a bit cold as they ponder new ways of realizing our urban future.

I don’t know what will come out of the BMW Guggenheim process, but megacities (with populations above 10 million) are certainly a worthy focus. Look at this Megacities Project chart and you can see how much these challenged population centers will grow, even as early as 2015. Half the world’s population is urban now, and that trend will intensify. By 2030, more than half of all Asians and Africans will live in cities, and Latin America and the Caribbean will be 84 percent urban.

The BMW i3 makes extensive use of carbon fiber and natural materials. (Wikimedia photo) Eventually, I sit down at one of the picnic tables myself, for an appointment with two German BMW executives. Ulrich “Uli” Kranz heads BMW i, which is the company’s megacity initiative. Since BMW is a car company, its vision is being realized with a new electric sub-brand. It kicks off with the tiny urban runabout i3 (also known as “the megacity vehicle”) and the much more exotic (dig the upswept butterfly doors) plug-in hybrid supercar i8. Both will go into production in 2013, and they’d be the perfect transportation for a meeting with the stylishly dressed thinkers at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, coming soon to a city near you.

The Germans are somewhat guarded about the cars, careful not to reveal anything that hasn’t been publicly disclosed. Here’s what we know about the four-passenger i3: BMW says it will have a range, on lithium-ion batteries, between 80 and 100 miles. It’s going to be the lightest EV on the market, 2,821 pounds in the concept form shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show. That’s in large part to the super-light carbon fiber-enhanced passenger compartment that sits on top of an aluminum frame. BMW will make its own carbon fiber at a plant in Moses Lake, Washington, then ship it across the Atlantic to the wind-powered i3 factory in Liepzig. The company claims that building the i3 will use 50 percent less energy and 70 percent less water than is common with BMW cars.

In New York, Kranz ran a few strands of black carbon fiber from the Washington plant through his fingers. He denied, as some have reported, that the production car will have reduced amounts of the very promising but super-expensive material, claiming that BMW is slashing costs as it develops its partnership with SGL Group. “The fiber is being made to our specifications, and as we move toward big volumes we’ll be able to bring the cost down dramatically,” Kranz said.

Sitting next to the carbon fiber was another box of brown wooly stuff. This turned out to be kenaf, which Christian Senger, the manager of product concepts at BMW I, said would be used extensively in the i3’s interior, including in the door panels. Kenaf is a really interesting material. The fast-growing plant in the hibiscus family, coming originally from Africa, has been heavily promoted as a way to make tree-free paper. The first novel was printed on it in 1997.

Senger handed me a swatch of leather, destined for the i3’s seats, that he said was tanned without chemicals. Remember the polluted Massachusetts river from A Civil Action (book and movie)? That was leather tanning chemicals.

Kranz denied published reports that the i3 will retail for $35,000, though he didn’t say what it would cost. BMW was more forthcoming about the i8, which is a super-fast plug-in hybrid along the lines of the Fisker Karma, though even more exotic. The price makes the car very exclusive, near $133,000. The i8 has been toned down a bit from the first concept version, but Kranz still promises “the performance of the M3 with the fuel consumption of a small passenger car.” The zero to 62 mph time is 4.6 seconds. Carbon dioxide emissions will be an extremely low 66 grams per kilometer.

After talking to Kranz and Senger, I hooked up with Rich Steinberg, who’s BMW’s U.S.-based EV chief, to talk about what comes before the i cars. At the curb was a BMW ActiveE, an electric version of the 1-Series coupe, but, alas, Steinberg wouldn’t give me the keys. He says he “loves it,” though. You can’t buy one, but some 700 of these cars will be leased for $499 a month (with a $2,250 down payment), offered initially in December to pioneers who drove the company’s electric Minis in a similar trial. Regular people will have a chance to score a two-year ActiveE lease in February or March next year. “We have a lot of handraisers now, and we’re feeling good about the process,” Steinberg told me. “It has a lot of luxury features, a back seat [which the MiniE did not have], a trunk, leather, navigation and satellite radio.” And a range of about 100 miles.

The ActiveE is cool, but it’s an electric conversion of an existing BMW. The i3 and i8 are from clean sheets of paper, designed to present not only a vision of BMW’s future, but also of a way forward for our increasingly urban world. Here's a closer look on video:

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