BMW’s unveiling of its near-production i3 and i8 carbonfibre-bodied, electrically-driven, concepts was an unexpectedly triumphal affair.
The German transport minister, Peter Ramsauer, gave a barnstorming speech at the event in Frankfurt, which drew a picture of a remarkably insecure nation, one that felt other countries had already stolen a march on the electrification of the vehicle.
Nissan’s Leaf, Renault’s upcoming fleet of electric vehicles and the Chevrolet Volt had, apparently, resulted in the German car industry feeling it had made a rare mistake and missed out on a global trend.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Nearly two decades ago, BMW, Mercedes and Audi all bet on a trend for technically innovative and brave new concepts for a ‘greener’ world, which led to then falling flat on their faces.
Mercedes’ A-class, with its incredibly clever sandwich platform, was designed to morph into a battery-powered or hydrogen-powered machine, as the trend for non-fossil fuel mushroomed at the turn of the century. Of course, it didn’t. The Smart car predicted that city centres would become no-go zones for conventional cars and that drivers would merrily downsize into tiny commuter cars. That didn’t happen, either. Both projects cost Mercedes billions.
Audi’s super-light and super-slippy A2 was also a commercial failure and demand for the 90mpg VW Lupo was minimal.
BMW bet that drivers would want to keep their premium cars, so worked long and hard on hydrogen fuel technology. It all but abandoned that work last year. Arguably, the German car industry was just too far ahead of the global curve. Predicting social trends and shifting global governmental policy is a near-impossible task. Ironically, the original A-class, the A2 and the 90mpg Lupo would, today, be lauded as right for the time.
As a consequence, BMW’s approach to electrification is cautious, but carefully considered. These vehicles will be premium priced, made from premium materials and aimed at the most affluent who live in the world’s rich and getting-richer mega cities. The ‘Born Electric’ catchline is part of BMW’s marketing message, which wants to stress that these cars are bespoke designs and not ‘ordinary’ cars adapted for battery propulsion.
Although we are more than two years from these cars arriving in the showrooms, the biggest markets are likely to be the Far East, New York, Frankfurt and London. Surprising as it may seem, many of the world’s richest see conspicuously ‘green’ products as a must-have. Most of us might aspire to the upcoming 99g/km 3-series. The super-affluent will want a BMW i3 to complement their Range Rover.
Reading between the lines, these two cars will be part of a much bigger line-up. The i8 is probably the flagship model, the vision of a supercar with a conscience. If I was going to guess, I’d say that the i1 might be the upcoming BMW electric scooter, with shorter and longer versions of the i3, fitting in as the i2 city car and i4 compact seven-seater.
At the unveiling, the BMW bosses resolutely refused to give details about the amount of money invested in the i-car line-up or the likely profitability. Whether it pays off for BMW in the long-run is hard to say, but from a corporate social responsibility point of view, the i-car project is a no-brainer.