BMW aims to lead electric car market
By Kim Tae-jong
Drivers who watched last year’s Hollywood blockbuster “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” probably dreamt of owning a BMW i8, with its sleek, futuristic appearance. Alternatively, an increasing number of people concerned about their budget want electric cars as gas prices continue to rise.
Soon, a combination of the two ideals will be available after the German automaker announced plans to mass produce the i8, currently just a concept car, along with a smaller electric version, the i3, available here from 2014, following a global launch for the two models scheduled for next year.
The firm held a showcase and seminar in Seoul last week called “BMW i — Innovation Days,” during which they showed off the two i-series models here for the first time and discussed issues surrounding electric vehicles with government officials, professors and journalists as well as members of the public.
During the event, Uwe Dreher, head of BMW’s i-brand management, emphasized there will be more electric vehicles to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, although it will take some time to see a visible change in the industry. He expects the market share of electric cars to account for 10 percent by 2020.
BMW has launched a program titled “Project i” that aims to make the next generation of cars more eco-friendly.
The i3 has zero emissions and can travel up to 160 kilometers when fully charged. The i8 is a hybrid concept car, which can travel up to 35 kilometers on electricity and has a twin-turbo engine with an average fuel consumption of 3.76 liters per 100 kilometers while carbon dioxide emissions stand at 99 grams per kilometer. Having proven their worth as concept models, the final stages for mass production under the new sub-brand BMW i, are being put into place.
Developers say the i-brand models will be developed in totally different ways, using new materials and technology such as carbon fiber, which is much lighter and stronger, to improve energy consumption.
Manuel Sattig, the communications manager for Project i, also said “clean” is a key word in the development of electric cars because even in the development stage recycled materials and clean energy were used.
Chief designer Daniel Starke said he felt as if he had worked on a completely “clean sheet of paper as a designer,” describing the design process as “reinventing the car with new materials.” He also said about 80 percent of the existing concept car’s designs will be kept when put into mass production.
With the launch of the i3 and i8, BMW is seeking to be among the first to mass produce electric cars, although money and resources have been poured into development at a time when market demand is still modest.
Consumers are nowhere near ready to give up their conventional cars because prices for electric models are usually at least 10 million won more than for petrol-engine vehicles.
When General Motors launched a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt last year, hopes ran high that the electric car’s time had finally come, but it has sold poorly, barely moving 8,000 in its first year.
Experts say there are still many obstacles for automakers to tackle for electric cars to be successful.
“There are many problems that the auto industry should solve in order to open a new era for electric cars,” professor Kim Pil-soo at Daelim College said. “For example, the technology for batteries is still unsatisfactory, but ironically, petrol-fuelled internal combustion engines are becoming more and more efficient and drivers still want stick with their old cars.”
Despite many challenges, many other top brands are also investing in the future of electric cars, a move they hope will produce benefits such as boosting the image of automakers by producing new technology and eventually healthy sales figures.
Local automakers have already joined the competition to take a lead in the electric car market.
Hyundai Motor plans to sell a compact electric car from 2014 while Kia Motors will launch an electric version of its popular box-car Ray in 2013. GM Korea will produce an electric version of compact car the Chevrolet Spark next year for export to the United States, although it has no plans to sell it on the domestic market. Renault Samsung Motors will supply its Fluence Z.E. electric car early next year to government organizations.
To support the commercial success of electric cars, the government also plans to build more battery charging stations. Last year, 500 stations were built across the country and there will be 2,500 more to be built this year with the aim of increasing the number to 150,000 by 2016.