Ten Things We Learned About the BMW i3 and i8

Frankfurt, Germany: BMW gave journalists from all over the world our first real look at the company’s electric and plug-in hybrid concepts, the i3 and i8. The cars are the result of Project i, a sub-brand within BMW that was conceived in 2007 to help tackle future transportation problems. In addition to learning about the cars themselves, BMW also divulged more about Project i. Here are ten things we learned about Project i and BMW electric cars.

1. The i3 and i8 make extensive use of lightweight carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) to help offset the weight of their batteries. BMW claims that an electric-drive system -- batteries, motors, electronics -- weighs about 440 pounds more than a comparable gasoline drivetrain. CFRP construction reportedly trimmed between 550 and 770 pounds from the i3 and i8, more than offsetting the weight of batteries.

2. The i3 hatchback and i8 sports coupe are only the beginning of BMW’s i-branded cars. Executives repeatedly pointed out that, “between 3 and 8, there’s a lot of space.” Translation: expect electric or hybrid cars badged i4, i5, i6, or i7 to debut at a later date.

3. BMW says the advanced CFRP shells used for the i3 and i8 won’t be expensive or difficult to repair. The main crash structures of each car are made from aluminum, which will absorb much of the damage in a front or rear impact and protect the CFRP passenger compartment. If the CFRP shell is damaged -- for instance in a side-impact collision -- the affected area can simply be cut out and a new section of CFRP glued into place. This reportedly does not compromise the shell’s strength, and is a relatively cheap and easy repair.

4. The i3 and i8 go on sale in late 2013. BMW won’t say in which markets the cars will debut, but the initial focus will be on large, densely populated cities. The company plans to explore “new channels” for selling the cars, which could include distributing the vehicles via car-sharing programs, Internet sales, or traditional dealer networks. BMW is launching a car-sharing network called DriveNow with a fleet of BMW 1-Series and Mini Coopers, so it seems possible that the i3 and i8 could join the DriveNow fleet at a later date.

5. In addition to reducing the use of gasoline and electricity, the i3 and i8 are designed to have a reduced dependence on non-renewable resources. In the i3, 25 percent of the plastic used for body panels and 80 percent of the aluminum used in the car comes from recycled materials.Many of the interior panels will be made from natural fibers. If the i3 is recharged solely on electricity from renewable resources, BMW claims the car’s lifetime carbon dioxide emissions will be 50 percent lower than that of today’s most fuel-efficient internal-combustion cars.

6. To further reduce the lifetime carbon footprint of the cars, BMW will use renewable energy at its factories. The plant in Moses Lake, Washington, that prepares carbon fiber for the i3 and i8 is powered exclusively by hydroelectric power. BMW also plans to install a windmill to generate electricity at the Leipzig, Germany plant where the two cars will be assembled.

7. The lithium-ion batteries in the i3 and i8 are not designed to be replaced. BMW told us the batteries will last the life of the vehicle -- although it’s unclear how long that life is expected to be. A cooling system keeps the batteries at the ideal temperature to maintain their life and performance, heating them in winter and chilling them in the summer.

8. Project i is dedicated to what BMW terms “mobility solutions,” or technologies to help people navigate increasingly large, congested cities. One of those is a new smartphone navigation application dubbed Intermodal Route Planning. The app can suggest a traditional driving route between two locations, but it can also suggest taking public transport or walking. We tried a demonstration version of the app, asking for a route from our location in Frankfurt to Munich. The app first offered a car-based route that simply followed the autobahn. It then suggested an intermodal route which had us drive for to nearby a train station, then take a train for the remainder of the trip. It’s unclear when this technology might debut.

9. In addition to saving weight, CFRP has a broad range of positive implications for vehicle construction. Unlike steel, CFRP will never rust. CFRP panels are glued and bolted together, rather than stamped and welded -- this makes it safer to work with and reduces the amount of noise on assembly lines.

10. BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer likens the arrival of electric cars to the arrival of internal-combustion cars in the early 20th century. Reithofer said that in 1920, the dominant mode of transport was horses, whereas by 1925, cars had taken over and horses were rarely used for transport. The implication is clear: in just a few years, Reithofer expects electric cars to replace gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles.

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