BMW Calls Its “Game Changing” i3 the iPod of Cars

Blair Pfander

bmw13thumb BMW Calls Its Game Changing i3 the iPod of CarsElectric cars have always had a faintly dorky connotation. But BMW has its sights on changing that reputation in 2013 with its new i3, which was unveiled last week at the LA Auto Show.
The first mass-produced car to be made with a lightweight carbon fiber frame (made in a Washington state factory fueled by hydro-electric power), the i3 solves the clunky weight of an electric car battery problem—a common complaint of other electric models.
Here, brand manager Jacob Harb (who heads BMW’s electric vehicle strategy) details the new technology and innovation that went into the i3 and why he thinks it will prove to be an iPod-level “game change” for the auto industry.
The Vivant: What is “Project i”?
Jacob Harb: BMW i, for us, stands for innovation, but for me it’s the culmination of everything we do at BMW. So joy is the core of our brand, but efficient dynamics is the next layer, so with that you get performance and efficiency so there’s no trade off at BMW. Another key tenant of ours is sustainability, which gets lost on a lot of people, and maybe we need to do a better job as a company of touting that. We’ve been named the most sustainable car manufacturer eight years in a row now. So “i” is the culmination of all of that, from an innovation standpoint, from an efficiency standpoint and a sustainability standpoint—it brings all of it together and delivers on a product and also a suite of services around those products.
How long did it take to develop the i3?
JH: Years, really. We usually have five year development cycles, and I think “i” is even a little longer than that. It definitely evolved, but I’d say to not give you a complete dissertation, around five years.
Matthew Russell [Product & Technology Communications Manager at BMW of North America]: Just to add to that, some of the foundations we’re using to build the “i” brand architecture have really been in development by BMW for many years—we’re talking decades. Things like our exotic materials research, like our carbon fiber and aluminum materials research, our studies into procurement and supply chain management for some of these exotic materials…In a way, when you look at the fact that we have bought into and helped build a carbon fiber factory in Washington state, which runs on hydro electric power, you can see that we have taken a true, start-to-finish examination of the supply chain for these materials. We’re not just reinventing the wheel here, well then again we kind of are…we’re reconceptualizing the wheel.
JH: Not to overstate this, but we’re always trying to change the world, and that’s why the cars are incredible as products and then everything we’re doing around them, all those ancillary components, are pretty incredible, too.
Tell us about some of the new technology or special features that were developed for the i3.
JH: The marketing tagline is ‘born electric,’ and it’s incredibly fitting and simple yet profound at the same time. We’re building the first purpose-built electric cars, so with that, we have what we call a ‘life drive architecture.’ One of the holy grails of the auto industry is body-and-frame technology, and with ours, the body—the entire passenger compartment of the i3—is made of carbon fiber.
That construction will be the first volume carbon-fiber vehicle in production. Carbon fiber is half the weight of steel and around the same rigidity, so we’ve overcome one of the big drawbacks of electric cars, which is the weight of the battery. Additionally, the purpose-built aspect goes to the fact that the battery and the entire powertrain is laid flat in the chassis, which creates a shallow center of gravity and allows for incredible performance. So it’s still BMW, it’s still the ultimate driving machine, it still delivers things like 50/50 weight distribution, so with that you have the future, basically, of car manufacturing by the end of next year…The analogy I always use is, there were a lot of MP3 players before the iPod and a lot of electric cars before the i3, and because of the purpose-built nature of it, I think this is the one that becomes the game change.
There’s a real visual feeling of lightness with the i3—what kinds of practical or aeshetic considerations went into the design?
JH: Efficient dynamics are a philosophy for us, so that affects all the design elements of the i3 and the i8. A lot of it is functional as well, so that aerodynamic, light look that you see actually delivers less drag even down to the tires on the i3. If you see the photos of them, they’re incredibly narrow, and that has benefits from a wind resistance standpoint, but given the architecture of the car and the low center of gravity, that thin pass allows us to deliver all the dynamic and handling characteristics you expect from BMW, but with a really narrow tire. That one, for me, just highlights how much thought really went into these cars.