Robert Irlinger, head of BMWi: “On course to sell 140,000 electrified vehicles in 2018”
“If you want to be innovative, you have to be brave. Be ahead of the market, set the trend instead of following it”, says Dr. Robert Irlinger, head of BMWi, the German manufacturer's electric mobility brand in an interview to Fleet Europe at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show. Here's how BMW aims to stay ahead of the pack.
BMWi derives much of its prestige from the i3. Launched in 2013, the B-class hatchback was BMW's first mass-produced zero-emissions vehicle (also offered with a range-extending petrol engine), and one of the best-selling EVs so far. “Some of our competitors are only now entering the electric market. Was the i3 too early? I'd say it gave us an innovative edge. It was just on time”, says 'Dr. I'.
What lessons has the i3 taught you?
“Failures are lessons to do better next time. The message is: be bold, stay focused and take the story to the next level. And you have to be brave, go full-speed in a direction even if the market trends are not yet stable. For example: we have just decided that we'll fully invest in electrification. In the near future, you'll be able to buy an electric version of any BMW – either as a full-electric car, or as a hybrid”.
When is this going to be?
“From, let's say, 2020 or 2021 onward. By then, all our plants and our entire architecture will be electrified. Compare that to our competitors: they only offer electric versions of individual models, or single platforms”.
Just looking at other German brands, Mercedes-Benz is developing the EQA and VW have just announced a Golf-sized I.D. How will BMW compete in the 'electric' C-segment?
“The BMW Group will market an electrified Mini in 2019. In contrast, neither VW nor Mercedes will have an electric car out next year. They're talking about electrification, but not yet delivering”.
“We'll offer an electrified X3 in 2020, and – as already communicated – we will have 12 fully electrified vehicles by 2025. They will range throughout the entire portfolio, also the competitive C segment”.
How is BMW dealing with the challenges of battery technology?
"The battery is the key component of an electric car. That's why we just invested over €200 million in a Battery Research Centre, near our BMW Engineering Centre in Munich. We've done this because we are convinced that we need to fully understand battery technology, down to the chemistry".
"Meanwhile, we source the batteries - but only the cells themselves - from international suppliers, mainly in Southeast Asia - Korea, China. EV batteries are about much more than range or energy. It's about battery behaviour and durability. Some batteries may get weak after two, three years - but because of our high specification demands, you'll never get that with a BMW electric car".
"In our R&D, we're researching the next step beyond lithium-ion; yet that technology still has great potential. Most of the electrified cars up to 2025 will have lithium-ion batteries, with real-driving ranges of up to 500 km, and power of up to 500 kW".
Does your investment in the Battery Research Centre mean that you'll be making your own battery cells in the future?
"We will be able to do so, but the corporate view is that it's not the right choice at this time as there is a very good battery supplier market".
The BMW brand if firmly associated with driving pleasure. But for many drivers, pleasure equals combustion engines. As you move into an autonomous, electric future, how will you square that circle?
"My answer is very simple - just drive an i8. The combination of combustion and electric powertrains takes driving pleasure to a totally new level. Driving pleasure is about more than just power. It's also about handling, agility, cornering, etcetera. And that, you will have in every BMW".
"And when it comes to autonomous driving, it will always be up to the BMW customer to choose whether or not to drive autonomously. You will have the option to enjoy driving as you know and expect it. And then you have the option to switch a button, and the car will drive you. And that will be as much a joy as actively driving a BMW".
Talking about autonomous driving: when will BMWs with Level-3 autonomy and beyond come onto the market?
"We'll launch the iNext in 2021, a high-standard Level-3 car. The iNext will also have Level-4 and -5 autonomy in pilot fleets around the world. Working toward that point, we already have autonomous cars on the road, but we do not talk about that; we only talk about it when the car is ready for the customer".
What does BMW-i have up its sleeve to create an ecosystem for corporate clients and companies?
"Everything we offer on a 360° level to private customers, we offer to our fleet operators via Alphabet, the BMW Group's leasing subsidiary. That includes building up your charging infrastructure in your car park. They not only lease cars, but also charging equipment - all within the framework of AlphaElectric".
"Just a little ahead in the future, our customers - private and corporate - will be able to share their cars, using their smartphones as intelligent key systems. Sharing cars will become very easy, and that will be very interesting from a fleet management perspective".
Now that you mention sharing: do you expect a few years down the line that all cars in BMW's car-sharing programme DriveNow will be electric?
"Some local DriveNow fleets may be 100% electric – the one in Copenhagen already is. However, electric mobility is developing at different speeds all over the world. Internal-combustion cars will remain part of many if not most DriveNow fleets. But it's a fair question - car-sharing is an important catalyst for EV breakthrough. There is no easier way to experience an electric car than via a car-sharing scheme”.
Last year, BMW sold more than 100,000 electrified vehicles. What's your target for 2018?
"More than 140,000 - and we're on course to achieve it!"