“Infrastructure, not battery size will end range anxiety”
When will EVs become cheaper than ICE cars? Is more range what is needed to convince more people? These and other questions Fleet Europe asked Dr. Robert Irlinger, Senior Vice President BMW i Model Line and Electromobility BMW Group, during a one-on-one at last week's NextGen conference in Munich.
BMW’s e-offensive started with the i3, which was received hesitantly by the market. Was it ahead of its time?
RI: “We saw the trend towards EV very early, namely in 2007, when we decided to do the i3. As to market acceptance, some say we were perhaps a bit too soon when the model was introduced in 2013, but personally I believe it’s never too early to do something like that. BMW has always been a trendsetter and the i3 is now performing very well in the EV segment, despite the increased competition.”
Why is the i3 now more popular than before?
RI: “I think the first reason is the fact that the product has gotten better over the years. The latest version has a range of 300 km under WLTP conditions, for instance. The second reason is that the charging infrastructure has grown a lot recently. Finally, there is the regulatory part. One the one hand, local tax incentives make EVs more accessible, on the other, cities welcome EVs by offering free parking and other advantages.”
BMW Group has a few new EVs in the pipeline: the Mini E this year, the iX3 next year, the iNext and i4 in 2021. Will you be able to build enough of them, given the current battery supply issues?
RI: “BMW works very closely with its suppliers, who together with us look further into the future than just next year or the year after. For the upcoming models, the battery supply contracts have already been signed a year or two ago. We are not relying on just one partner, incidentally.”
So far, BMW Group is not producing its own battery cells. Still, it is investing in Northvolt. What is your strategy?
RI: “We could eventually produce our own cells – we have a very deep inhouse understanding about cell development and production – but in today’s dynamic battery cell market, with eight or nine top players offering the quality we require, you have to remain flexible. We are keeping our options open. That is why we decided to become part of the Northvolt community. If the market changes in a few years, we could decide to build our own batteries.”
Is there a psychological barrier as far as electric range is concerned? If so, does more range mean more clients?
RI: “That may be the case today, but I am strongly convinced that will change. Today, infrastructure is not sufficient everywhere, making people worry about not being able to reach their destination. The day will come that finding a charging point is not an issue anymore and that people are confident in using an EV that has 300 to 400km of range. Still, our research shows that some customers demand a range of at least 600km to feel comfortable and make the switch. We have listened to that demand: the i4 and iNext will boast a WLTP figure of more than 600km.”
Is there also a demand for longer ranges in the case of plug-in hybrids?
RI: “Definitely. The plug-in hybrid is a great product as it offers the best of two worlds, but until recently, the battery size was too limited to offer much electric range. That is now changing, with for example the new X5, offering 80km [NEDC] of zero-emission driving – three times as much as its predecessor. This range will continue to go up.”
When do you see cost parity between battery-electric and internal combustion happening?
RI: “That’s a difficult question. It strongly depends on the range of the car. If you’re talking about 300km, cost parity will happen in a few years from now. A 600km EV will stay more expensive for a long time because of the high battery cost. Still, cells are becoming cheaper whereas combustion engines are ever more expensive due to emission regulations, so at one point the curves will intersect.”
Where does BMW stand today in terms of smart grid and bidirectional charging?
RI: “We are currently running a few pilot projects with unidirectional charging. When power production peaks, the batteries are charged; when the grid is in lack of power, the i3s are disconnected. We are further looking into this important aspect, but the grid itself must evolve as well – today, it is not ready. That being said, companies with a fleet of 200 EVs can establish their own smart grid and reduce electricity costs dramatically.”