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BMW i3: Automobility for a Crowded Planet

By Bill Moore

The folks at Bayerische MotorWerke have made a bold gamble to reinvent not just how a car is propelled but how it's made, with the goal of cutting lifecycle carbon emissions in half.

BMW's simulcast introduction of the i3 electric city car this week in New York, London and Beijing elicited both praise and distain. Praise from advocates of more efficient, less polluting personal mobility; distain from the gear head tribe who feel the Bavarian Motor Work's people have somehow betrayed their trust by introducing … ick … an electric car and suggesting this is the future.

Love it or leave it, the i3 represents more than just another electric car among the growing field currently dominated, in sheer global production volume to date, by the Renault Nissan Alliance (100,000 units on the road and climbing). It is a rolling testbed for the future of the automobile and the processes that create it.

Like Tesla, BMW, one of the world's leading prestige luxury performance carmakers, has taken a bold - and yes, risky - step to not only reinvent what propels a car, but how its made, operated and eventually disposed of. It is often pointed out by critics, such as 'Dirty At Any Speed' author Ozzie Zehner, that any advantage the electric car may have in terms of zero tailpipe emissions are nullified by the increased amount of energy and resources it takes to build an electric car. I have to admit it took a moment before I realized the subtle difference in the i3 as it turned slowly on its turntable. There's no dirty tailpipe sticking out its rear. That alone should be seen as a positive step forward.

However, BMW is clearly cognizant of this criticism, as will become apparent momentarily, but first let me take you along for a ride from JFK airport to the Standard Hotel along the banks of the Hudson River.

As Wayne 'Hypermiler' Gerdes and I rode in one of BMW's newest and shiniest sedans, you couldn't help but notice there are way too many cars here. The first half of the drive through Brooklyn towards Manhattan Bridge was interesting: numberless small businesses of every variety and language lined Atlantic Avenue. On the right, the driver pointed out, was the Hispanic community, on the left the Hasidic community; everywhere there were cars; and the closer you got to the island of Manhattan, the more there were. By the time we reached Canal Street around 5:30 in the evening, it was veritable gridlock and the light drizzle didn't help, nor did the swarms of pedestrians who either stood bewildered in the confusion or artfully dodged impatient motorists.

The anomaly in this miasma of machines and man were the Citibike bike share riders, presumably a fair number of them visiting tourists who nimbly seemed to thread the eye of the traffic needle and often were blocks ahead of our 5-Series by the time we caught them, our driver, a Brooklyn native, trying his damnedest to find the quickest way across Manhattan.

We eventually arrived at the hotel, and the young lady who vomited on the hotel's marble floor right in front of us not withstanding, the spectacle of all those cars and people and royal blue bikes left a lasting impression. Cars have their place in our lives, but not in this setting, not under these circumstances: suburbia for certain, it was built with the automobile in mind. But places like New York, London and Beijing, three of the world's megacities, not so much.

Still if you have to pile three people into an autonomous vehicle that is free to go pretty much where they want, when they want, comfortably out of the weather, then for the time being, the i3 is what you want to be shuttling around in.

In this respect, had BMW had sufficient numbers of i3's available for airport shuttle service from JFK to downtown, fast charging at the hotel, they couldn't have demonstrated their breakthrough product any more effectively, especially to the motor head Doubting Thomases in the invited media scrum that converged on its three launch cities.

Sadly, only a pair of static models were on display, one on the fifth floor where the unveiling was to take place, the second on the patio terrace on top of the building. BMW did make available five ActiveE 1-series conversions for short media drives, but my schedule got shifted several times and I never made it behind the wheel. And in reality, it's the i3 that is the star of the show here. The E-Mini and ActiveE programs were research projects: in software terms Alpha and Beta versions.

As for the i3, it is clearly a different kind of BMW, though it sports the distinctive 'double kidney' grill found on all the company's automotive products, but unlike those products where the holes are needed to provide cooling for the engine's radiator, they are purely symbolic on the i3.

There is a fundamental principle in physics that heat is a sign of inefficiency. The more heat a process tends to generate, the less efficient it is. Take the old incandescent light bulb. Something like 90 percent of the electrical energy put into is wasted as heat, 10 percent is converted to light. CFLs, by contrast are 65% efficient in producing light, while LEDs are even better at around 80% efficient in their use of electrical energy to make light and not heat.

The same principle applies to the i3. It does require some cooling air flow, but what it scoops up at ground level is enough to handle what it needs; it's electric drive system, mounted in the rear of the car under the cargo deck, is that efficient.

That being said, unlike Nissan's LEAF, which resorts to passive cooling and heating based on ambient air temperature, the i3 does utilize active climate control for keeping its 22 kWh lithium-ion battery pack happy in the ideal 60-80 degree Fahrenheit (15-26C) temperature range. Of course, that also means that every i3 owner is also going to have to make sure they keep the car plugged in most of the time, if only to keep a small trickle charge going. BMW's i3 brand chief, Ulrich Kranz agreed that this will be advisable, though having the car sit a few days off the grid, won't hurt it, he reassured me.

Kranz, who might have been an elfin toymaker in an earlier age, explained in a video interview we'll post later, that they hope i3 owners will charge their cars using renewable energy and toward that end, BMW is offering a range of green energy options from installing solar carports to green energy offsets, starting in Germany, of course. He estimates that if owners -- and lessees -- use renewable wind, solar, and hydropower to charge the car, the lifecycle carbon footprint will be half that of BMW's i-Series 118d diesel, already rated at a low 118 g/km of CO2 in terms of its tailpipe emissions. In the case of the i3, less than 60 g/km CO2 applies to the ENTIRE lifecycle of the vehicle, from bauxite dust to shredded carbon fiber.

Not only is the carbon material that goes into the Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) Life Module that surrounds the passengers produced using Columbia River hydropower in Moses Lake, Washington, which explains why the state's governor, Jay Inslee was on hand for the premier in New York City, but if the aluminum that makes up the Drive Module comes from Iceland, that too is produced by a combination of hydropower and geothermal energy.

Of course there's always a long trail back up the supplier chain where carbon dioxide -- and other emissions, good and bad -- are being generated, but Kranz reassures me that the company is also encouraging its suppliers to green up their processes.

The factory in Leipzig, one of the windiest cities in Germany, he told me, has its own 2.5MW wind turbines to provide electric power. 25 percent of the interior of the car is manufactured from recycled or sustainably harvested materials. The roof is formed from carbon fiber scraps left over from the panel forming process. Given where we're at technologically, its likely as close to a sustainable automobile as feasible.

As for how the car handles, only an elite number of journalist have actually driven the car and I happen to sit down with one of them, Peter Gorrie, formerly with the Toronto Star newspaper in Canada and now freelancing. Over tankards of Deutsche bier and soft salt pretzels in the hotel beer garden, he explained to me that the day Toronto was deluged with 70 cm of rain in a hour, causing widespread flooding, he was on his way to the airport for a flight to Munich to drive the i3 around an abandoned airfield. His flight departed three hours late. His personal opinion of the i3?

"It handles better than the Tesla Model S."

Of course, he admits, the Model S weighs more than two tons; the compact i3 comes in at 2,700 pounds (1,224 kg), courtesy of all that aluminum and carbon fiber. It should be more nimble and according to Gorrie, it is; handling the slalom course laid out across the runway with characteristically-BMW alacrity.

It's 125 kW (170 hp) electric motor accelerates the car from 0-to-100 km/h (62 mph) in under eight seconds, which might not be all that useful in mid-town Manhattan on a rainy summer afternoon, but it still sounds good and is on a par with the Chevy Volt.

The 507 lbs (230 kg) lithium-ion battery pack, made up of cells supplied by Sanyo, is mounted under the passenger cabin, giving the car a nice, stable, low center of gravity, nearly ideal 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, and a range BMW executives say will be between 80-100 miles (130-160km) per charge. The placement of the pack also lifts the passenger cabin off the pavement just enough to actually make it easier to get into and out of, a process simplified for the back seat passengers by the inclusion of a pair of rear-swinging 'suicide doors.'

BMW i3 with open doors allow easy egress and entrance for front and rear seat passengers.

I tried both the front and back seats and there is ample room for four adults, pretty much comparable to the space Wayne and I had in the 5-Series that ferried us from JFK into Manhattan. BMW points out that the absence of a transmission tunnel also enables the driver to slide across to the passenger side to exit the car on the sidewalk side of a busy street. Of course, the real challenge for the i3, or any EV for that matter, is where to park; and once parked, where and how to plug it in. And speaking of plugging in, where GM and Ford and Toyota opted to locate the charge port on the driver front quarter panel, BMW chose the right rear. Why? I asked Kranz.

"To get it as close to the battery pack as possible," essentially was his reply. It's all about efficiency, he explained. The longer the cable, the less efficient. Of course, it's also about weight and cost reduction. Less cable, less weight, less cost.

On the cost front, BMW surprised the hell out of everyone by coming in competitively at just over $41,000 before applicable incentives: $7,500 in tax credits from the U.S. federal government and various state incentives. There are even local community incentives, in a few case. And, again according to Herr Kranz, leases will also be available, but the terms and conditions have yet to be worked out. Anyway, they've got another good 8-10 months to get the car EPA-rated, dealers trained, and finance terms completed before the car debuts in the United States and Canada the second quarter of 2014. Europe will get the car first, starting in November of this year.

Media mavens that weren't part of the original elite will get their chance to test drive the car after the Frankfurt Auto Show this Fall. North American news hounds and social media bloggers will get their chance sometime around the launch in 2014. It's at that point that we can start to "pundicate" on the success or failure of BMW's efforts to reinvent the automobile for a more crowded and resource-constrained planet.

Based on the spectrum of views espoused from Slate (negative) to Time (positive), the jury is still out, but in my book, in the i3, BMW has recognized the problem of mega city automobility and set out to boldly confront it head on.

More Information on BMW i3 Electric City Car

Want more particulars on the car? Check out BMW's web site here.

Times Article Viewed: 10418
Originally published: 31 Jul 2013

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