Bringing clean travel to the masses

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BMW’s new hybrid sports car, the i8, was introduced last month. Combining an electric motor with an efficient petrol engine, this is a move that is seeking to make an impact on global emissions. Combine this with the company’s i3 model and it seems that there is now a real focus on cleaner travel. Will this be the first time electric vehicles move into the mainstream?

It has been the bane of the motor industry for many years – how do you make a vehicle that is kind to the environment, one which is suitable for a mass market place, one which can be used for normal day-to-day activities? There have been many attempts, some of which have been successful; take the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Roadster, the Mitsubishi I MiEV or the Chevrolet spark EV, all vehicles which have gained grounds in certain markets, and all vehicles that promote the use of electricity as a motoring power source. But why is this trend becoming so popular? What is it that encourages developers to manufacturer electric vehicles?

Perhaps it is the global focus on reducing carbon footprints – something to which traditional combustion engines contribute, perhaps it’s the continually rising oil prices which always worry motorists, or perhaps it’s the political situation in places like Russia, Iraq, Libya, where significant oil supplies are sourced. Whatever is causing the emphasis on electric vehicles to grow, it seems to be a good thing for both the automotive companies and the general public.

To date, the most popular highway-capable all-electric car (and we mean solely electric and not hybrid) is the Nissan Leaf. Up until June 2014, Nissan had sold around 120,000 units. In the electric sports car arena, Tesla has always been king but both of these vehicles have never really entered the mainstream and while sales have improved, these are generally still not viewed as a solution.

In 2011, one of the world’s most recognisable brands, and one of the leading in the automotive sphere, BMW, decided to launch a sub-division devoted to the development of plug-in electric vehicles.

Back in 2009, BMW unveiled concepts pf electric cars at the Frankfurt Motor Show and the automotive world was immediately hooked by the look of both the i3 all-electric and i8 plug-in hybrid models.

And in July 2014, the i8 was released in European markets and in November 2013 retail deliveries for the i3 began with a special ceremony in Munich.

BMW’s i series is the most notable move by a major European luxury brand to create an electric vehicle and it is widely thought that the i3 and i8 could become the most popular because of their innovative engineering and unique designs.

PROBLEM SOLVING

Moving away from your core, something which you have done for over 85 years, is never an easy thing to do but diversification is important for the growth of all businesses and the movement from traditional engines to electric is a big step for BMW.

The i8 uses a unique BMW designed hybrid power system combining an electric motor and a powerful petrol engine. The company says: “The BMW eDrive technology is the result of many years of BMW EfficientDynamics development work.

“An innovative cooling system keeps the high-voltage batteries at their optimum operating temperature, which increases performance and service life.

“The BMW TwinPower Turbo 1.5-litre 3-cylinder petrol engine, which was newly developed as part of the BMW EfficientDynamics strategy, unites all the advantages that one would expect from the power unit of a sports car. Its engine management guarantees optimum charge changing processes across the ignition point and ensures a rapid response from the turbocharger.”

As for the i3, BMW uses an all-electric power system specially developed for everyday usage. According to BMW, its lithium-ion high-voltage battery leaves drivers with no concerns over range.

The company says: “The electric motor of the BMW i3 was designed for use in city traffic and provides 125 kW/170 hp with a torque of 250 Nm. The full torque, which is typical for electric motors, is immediately available from a standstill and does not need to be built up first via the engine speed, as is the case with combustion engines. This gives the BMW i3 particularly high agility in every situation and impressive acceleration values: the BMW i3 accelerates from 0 to 60 km/h in under 4 seconds and to 100 km/h in only 7.2 seconds (7.9 seconds in the version with Range Extender).

“The energy supply for the drive, as well as all other vehicle functions, is provided by a specially developed lithium-ion high-voltage battery, which again sets new standards in terms of energy efficiency. The intelligent heating/cooling system of the high-voltage battery ensures that energy performance (and thus the vehicle’s range) is less affected by temperature fluctuations than it normally is with batteries of this type; thus, this makes a significant contribution to both the performance and service life of the cells.”

A VIABLE OPTION?

So what has feedback been like since the i3 and i8 hit the market? Well, simply put, good. For the most part, everyone has been blown away by the looks of the i8 and the i3’s innovative nature has had techies and drivers celebrating the fact that the electric car could have finally found a significant design that could act as a catalyst for more manufacturers to base ideas around, creating a new and more energy efficient automotive sector.

Size wise, the i3 is about the same as a Mini Cooper and is fairly easy to park. The car handles well and will probably travel around 80-100 miles without needing top up.

It’s quick, but stepping on the throttle doesn’t spark the same imagination as a petrol powered car because of the silence that meets the ears.

Turning on any interior device (seat heaters or air conditioning) and the range suffers but this is the same as any electric vehicle on the market right now. However, fast charge DC points that are going into various car parks and roadside stops will get the battery back up to full charge in just 30 minutes – faster than a Tesla charge station, but probably not free. Alternatively, you can buy a 220-volt charger from BMW and this will take you back to full charge in three and a half hours.

As for the i8? Well, it weighs just 1540kg with fluids on board, and that’s less than a Porsche 911 Turbo so this is most definitely designed with sports and performance in mind. Some industry commentators have called the handling and performance good but not great, but this is impressive considering the challenges of putting together such a complex system whilst always considering the point – saving energy.

For optimum sporting outlay, when you really put the pedal to the metal, the feeling is the same from most reviewers – performance is relying on the engine rather than the electric motor and this means a slightly reduced stats. But stats are not the reason you would buy a car like this. If you are ultimately looking for cutting edge design, lower emissions and lower running costs then this is certainly the option for you.

The remarkable element of both the i3 and the i8 is undeniably the innovative power source arrangement. And BMW thinks this is a market for the future, having opened the first BMW i Store in November 2012 at the London, Park Lane showroom.

Both the i3 and i8 benefit from BMW’s Life-Drive platform which makes use of light-weight materials. Both cars come with an aluminium chassis, and in the case of the i8, the windshield, top, doors and fenders are made from polycarbonate glass, with the body having a drag coefficient of 0.26. For the i3, BMW invested US$100 million to build a plant in Moses Lake, Washington to manufacture the carbon-fibre reinforced plastic used on the vehicles’ body panels. The plant is located in an area that has large access to hydroelectric power and the carbon fibre is then shipped to Germany, where it first gets fabricated and is then shipped to the automotive production plant in Leipzig.

So could i Series vehicles really be the future? Well, just last month BMW expanded its order for batteries, the most expensive part of the car, from Samsung and there is already talk of the X5 plug-in hybrid so clearly, the industry has momentum.

This is an interesting development, not just for the auto industry, but for the energy industry more widely. And with one of the world’s biggest companies now making tangible moves towards lowering global carbon emissions, perhaps we are seeing the start of a trend that will make a real difference.

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