There’s Carbon in BMW’s Future
German-car manufacturing giant BMW is thinking forward with the introduction of its new, carbon fiber i3. It hit consumer markets on Nov. 16 in Germany and will enter showrooms across the United States in the beginning of 2014.
If you walk into the BMW factory in Washington State today, there are thousands of fine, white threads laced around an almost mile-long course. These strands are stretched, toasted and then singed black to create carbon fiber. This hair-thin material is light yet tougher than steel, enhancing both safety and vehicle longevity.
Carbon fiber is slowly becoming popular in the automotive manufacturing industry. The technology used to build superjumbo jets and Formula 1 racers is now available on day-to-day vehicles. This is possibly the biggest breakthrough in automobile construction since the introduction of the aluminum frame in the 1980s, and BMW is leading the charge.
“BMW’s decision to go all-out and do carbon-bodied electric cars is brave,” said Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Max Warburton. “It’s a reminder that they’re (thinking) more long-term than the competition.”
How the Idea of a Carbon Fiber Body Came About
BMW started thinking “green” six years ago when executives met about an increase in environmental awareness. “Looking forward to 2020, we saw threats to our business model,” said Chief Financial Officer Friedrich Eichner, who ran financial planning at the time. “We had to find a way to bring models like the 6 series, 7 series and X5 into the future.”
BMW determined that the demand for an environmentally friendly vehicle was high. So, in order to meet that demand and to offset the emissions of its gasoline-powered automobiles, they decided electric was the way to go.
When the idea first emerged, electric cars were known for being slow due to the heavy battery needed to hold their charge from point a to point b. To solve this problem, BMW designed a slimmer body made out of the lightest and strongest material available: carbon fiber.
Because carbon fiber is so expensive, BMW decided to make it itself. “BMW’s approach recalls the days of the industrial revolution, when manufactures started with raw iron ore or located factories near power sources,” said Aravind Chander, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. “It’s an aggressive approach and still unproven.”
BMW’s i3 is One-of-a-Kind
The i3 weighs 20 percent less than one of the best-selling electric cars, Nissan Motor’s Leaf. According to company data, the difference in weight helps the i3 accelerate to 100 kilometers per hour in 7.2 seconds—that’s 4 seconds faster than the Leaf.
Even if the i3 is a market failure, executives say that the company’s fiber production will continue. There are plans to incorporate carbon components in the next 7 Series that will be ready in 2015.
“The investment in carbon fiber isn’t about a single vehicle,” said Eichiner, “but about future-proofing our entire portfolio and therefore our business.”