MAY 2015 – Combining next-generation materials with ground-breaking design, the electric and hybrid vehicles of the new BMW i Series are a distillation of the motoring marque’s guiding principles, and an eye-catching vision of urban mobility.
The reinvention of urban mobility. An ambitious goal, no doubt, but that was the clear objective of BMW’s revolutionary Project I. When a team of skilled BMW engineers first sat around the drawing board in 2008 to plot the next-generation of planet-friendly motoring, the slate was clean; a sheet of white paper waiting patiently for the future.
Seven years later that future has arrived as the ground-breaking BMW i3 and i8 redefine the boundaries of sustainable urban mobility with a new generation of electric and hybrid vehicles that combine eye-catching luxury design and impressive performance with a sustainable ethos. Sound like an impossible combination? That was precisely the point.
“Designing the BMW i8 we were guided by the principle of delivering nothing less than the impossible,” explains Benoit Jacob, Head of Design for the BMW i project. “The goal was to create an icon.”
And an icon has most certainly been born; an icon of both next-generation urban mobility and sustainability, combining the cutting-edge aesthetics for which the BMW marque has long been famous with forward-thinking technology that blends both driving pleasure and energy efficiency.
It is a concept almost ahead of its time, for key to BMW’s ground-breaking i Series has been the notion of shifting the model of what it means to create an automobile.
“Global trends are seeking to change the personal mobility paradigm that has existed for the last century of the automobile,” explains Deena Govendar, Manager: BMW i in South Africa. “Urbanisation, climate change, dwindling reserves of fossil fuel and changing customer expectations will ensure that future automobiles will be increasingly electric, connected and shared,” he says.
“Automotive manufacturers need to adapt their business models to this changing paradigm, to ensure that they are sustainable into the future,” he adds. “Innovation drives change, and one way to predict the future is to invent it. BMW i is a revolutionary step towards sustainable personal mobility of the future.”
But this sea change in the way we move didn’t occur overnight. While the BMW i may have arrived on our roads like a bolt from the blue, it is in fact the well-thought-through end result of a strategic progression; a gradual refining of the demanding principles of high-end motoring that define this world-famous automobile marque.
“This idea grew in an evolutionary process,” says Jacob. “Evolving further, the BMW i8 concept took the spirit and shaping of the vision and refined it. With the final series production car the BMW i8 can be interpreted as the outcome of the evolution of a strong idea we began with and followed consistently.”
While the fully electric emission-free BMW i3 – the most efficient electric vehicle in its class, using just 12.9 kiloWatt hours per 100 kilometres – is making waves in European cities where distances are shorter and charging points more readily available, in South Africa it is the i8 that’s turning heads among discerning motorists. This luxury plug-in hybrid combines the best of both worlds, a seamless symbiosis of next-generation electro-mobility and innovative combustion engine technology.
Underpinning the switch between electric and hybrid drive are the array of driving modes that match the driving experience to the mode of energy production. eDrive allows for fully-electric motoring, even at speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour, while COMFORT, ECO PRO and SPORT settings offer intelligent combinations of electric and combustion energy for the most efficient journey without sacrificing the driving pleasure so key to the BMW brand.
The technological innovations don’t just extend to the engine though. The BMW i3 and i8 offer the unique ConnectedDrive functionality that includes accurate range prediction via the Range Spider. Then there’s the ground-breaking BMW i Remote, which allows remote smartphone access to the vehicle’s range and charge status. The innovative application also allows drivers to plot their route according to vehicle charge points.
While ensuring a luxurious and memorable driving experience was paramount, a key goal of the i project was to deliver more with less. More energy with lower consumption. Improved design with less weight. The ethos of sustainability runs throughout the project, and from design to manufacture the BMW i Series aims to reduce carbon emissions and minimise energy and scarce-resource utilisation.
“Every detail is built with a purpose, beginning with the vehicle’s life-drive architecture up to the clever use of materials like carbon fibre,” says Jacob. “We wanted to show that it is possible to get more with less: less weight or less use of energy throughout the whole lifecycle,” he explains.
“From concept to design, well-to-wheel and end-of-life recycling, the BMW i Series seeks to reduce carbon emissions and minimise energy and scarce resource utilisation,” adds Govendar.
A staggering 95 percent of the BMW i3 can be recycled at the end of its life, while the BMW i8 embodies BMW’s vision of an automobile with the unbeatable allure and performance of a sports car coupled with the fuel consumption of a small sub-compact.
The seamless melding of electric and combustion energy is a defining feature of the i8, and the success of the symbiosis is largely down to the ground-breaking BMW TwinPower Turbo 1.5-litre petrol engine that combines combustion energy for longer distances and high-speed cross-country journeys, as well as charging depleted batteries on the road.
Designed especially for the i8, the three-cylinder 170 kiloWatt (231 horsepower) engine is optimised for recharging the lithium-ion high-voltage battery banks, while delivering up to 320 Newton metres of torque to ensure a superb driving experience. That experience doesn’t come at the cost of eco-efficiency though. Despite the impressive performance, the i8 sips only 2.1 litres per 100 kilometres, with carbon emissions of just 49 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.
The i Series vehicles are also ground-breaking in their use of vehicle frame technology, and the mathematics here is simple: by reducing the weight of the vehicle less energy is required for class-beating performance.
With this guiding principle in mind, lightweight materials such as aluminium and magnesium were specifically selected for their weight savings, without compromising on performance. The BMW i8 is also the world’s first volume-produced vehicle fitted with chemically hardened thin glass; a revolutionary product that is half the weight of conventional laminated glass.
When it comes to weight savings though, the star of the i3 and i8 production process is without doubt carbon fibre. The lightest high-strength engineering material on offer in the world today – used everywhere from high-performance racing yachts to the next-generation Boeing 787 Dreamliner – carbon fibre offers exceptional rigidity and strength despite being half the weight of steel, and 30 percent lighter than aluminium. In essence, it was an ideal choice for BMW’s energy-efficient revolution in urban mobility.
“Engineers have always said ‘to add a touch of speed, add lightness’. This design philosophy extends to reducing the energy required for mobility and hence reducing carbon emissions,” explains Govendar. “The BMW Group has always been a pioneer in lightweight construction and the BMW i Series represents the latest radical development of that philosophy… the BMW i3 and i8 are the world’s first mass-produced large-series carbon-fibre-bodied vehicles.”
“To do this the BMW Group had to invent a new production process,” Govendar goes on to explain, “and in so doing has introduced the age of carbon fibre in industrialised automotive production.”
Aside from providing exceptional strength-to-weight ratios, carbon fibre has also allowed designers to radically rethink what’s possible in terms of design. Converting consumers from combustion engines to hybrid and electric technology can only happen if designers ensure that the aesthetics of the pioneering vehicle are as alluring as its eco-credentials.
“No new technology adoption happens without a degree of emotional appeal,” explains Govendar. “The use of carbon fibre in the body constructions allows the designer a new degree of freedom in the conceptualisation of the design.”
Dovetailing with the fluid lines and eye-catching design is a range of 11 luxury accessories for both the i3 and i8. From cable bags to climate covers, it’s an added dose of design and luxury to enhance the eco-friendly credentials of this ground-breaking new automobile series. The must-have accessory though? A collection of striking travel luggage that draws on the heritage of craftsmanship and innovation of designer Louis Vuitton.
For design is key, and the i8 is perhaps the zeitgeist of the guiding design principles of BMW; the perfect harmony of proportions and pioneering spirit; pushing boundaries in aesthetics and efficiency while appealing to the intense emotional experience of driving. In other words, a vision of the future, made tangible.
So are the BMW i3 and i8 the future? The answer is far from clear-cut, but Jacob believes these two ground-breaking offerings are the first step in an evolution that will – and must – happen.
“The dominance of combustion engines will not change from one day to another, but electric energy as the source of power for future vehicles will replace today’s technologies step by step,” says Jacobs emphatically. “My belief is that we will have a rapidly increasing number of electric vehicles in the world’s mega-cities, metropolitan areas and large cities.”
In South Africa, the demand is already apparent. Traditional and online marketing campaigns saw a surge in interest that culminated in a BMW i pop-up store that travelled countrywide allowing the public to discover the revolutionary offering behind the i3 and i8 through a series of interactive content engagements, as well as the opportunity to test-drive both vehicles.
In yet another innovation in luxury motoring, the i Series also marks the first time BMW will allow drivers to purchase and customise their vehicles online. You can configure your dream car online and then send all the relevant data directly to BMW i. If you prefer to talk to a sales person, then specially trained product experts are also at hand 24 hours a day to offer advice by telephone and, once you’re sold on the best car for you, you can conclude your purchasing agreement by telephone, too. It’s all part of redefining mobility – allowing you to order what you want wherever you are.
It surprised nobody then, that when the first vehicles rolled onto showroom floors across South Africa they didn’t remain there for long. In the first month of sales, one i Series vehicle left the showroom each and every day, and future demand is already high.
While arrival of the i3 and i8 will transform the advancement of electric mobility in South Africa, it is by no means the end of the road.
“Further work continues to be done to evaluate new vehicle concepts and mobility products and services that fit in with the strategy of sustainable personal mobility of the future,” says Govendar.
As you read this, no doubt Benoit Jacob and other great automotive minds at BMW are distilling and redefining the guiding principles of the i Series. Weight will be trimmed, efficiency will be enhanced and designs re-imagined. The pure pleasure of driving will be refined once again, and another icon of urban mobility will be making its way onto the road. For the engineers at BMW there is no destination, only a journey. For the future of sustainable personal mobility is both already here, and waiting to be discovered.