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The BMW i3’s lithium-ion battery technology is mature and not likely to advance further, according to experts of the EV. (BMW)
The BMW i3’s lithium-ion battery technology is mature and not likely to advance further, according to experts of the EV. (BMW)

Brand Strategy

Electric charge: BMW is betting on the EV market Add to ...

Ian Robertson is the public face of BMW AG, so when he says battery technology is at the “threshold” of the first big step in 100-plus years, that’s also the thinking inside the world’s largest premium auto maker.

Something big is about to happen in the battery world, says this trim, 55-year-old high-energy Englishman. who came to BMW in the 1990s from Land Rover. “Battery technology has developed faster in the last few years than in the last 100 years,” says Robertson, head of sales and marketing.

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Having invested at least $2.7-billion into its “i” sub-brand of electric vehicles, BMW has a financial stake in everything EV – including batteries and the lightweight carbon fibre technology used in upcoming cars. Robertson understands the nitty gritty of the car business, the products, the technology, the production and the distribution. And like his colleagues on BMW’s board, he believes in EVs.

I am not so sure. Sitting in an office in Germany, I am trying to infect Robertson with my skepticism. Research from Maritz and KPMG show consumer interest in pure EVs is waning, as reflected by weak sales numbers. Moreover, almost every EV expert I’ve interviewed in the past two years has said state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery technology used in the most advanced EV – including BMW’s upcoming i3 city car – is not likely to advance further.

“The incremental improvement [in lithium-ion battery technology] right now is literally like wringing out a rag that has been squeezed so tight,” Jeff Bocan, managing director of global investment firm Beringea, recently told USA Today. “There does need to be a substantial leapfrogging of the technology to get electric vehicles to be competitive from a performance and cost standpoint.”

I mention that to Robertson and point out that the chairman of the world’s largest auto maker, Toyota Motor, is committed to hybrid, gasoline-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to displace the use of gasoline. Toyota’s main EV activity is limited to a joint venture with Tesla, the boutique luxury EV brand.

Takeshi Uchiyamada ran Toyota’s product development for years and is often called the father of the Prius hybrid. He believes EVs will only be viable if there are “breakthroughs” in battery technology.

First, Robertson is expecting a breakthrough. Second, even with their weight penalty (hundreds of pounds in a typical EV today), range limitation (about 150 km between charges if conditions are perfect), long charging times (typically eight hours from a standard wall outlet, half that with a 220/240 volt outlet and shorter still using a rare and expensive fast-charging station), and high cost (up to $10,000 or so in a typical EV battery pack), today’s batteries have a long life – and they live far beyond their use in a vehicle, too.

“After it [a lithium-ion battery] is used in a car, the battery can be used for power storage for wind farms and solar. It’s also very usable for storing solar panel output at somebody’s house. … We view these as technological opportunities,” Robertson says.

Still, the i3 going on sale in Canada next year starting at $44,950 will be available with a range-extending gasoline motor, for about $4,000. Robertson expects 70 to 80 per cent of i3 buyers to go for the option – turning the i3 into a plug-in hybrid. That will sort out range-anxiety issues – the fear of being stranded in an EV with a dead battery. So the Ultimate Driving Machine company is morphing into the Ultimate EV Driving Machine company.

“We think many 3-Series buyers will buy an EV,” he says, though the i3 or upcoming $150,000 i8 sports car may not be the only BMW in the buyer’s garage.

BMW is treating its EV division like a business, not a boutique brand that can lose money endlessly to buff the company’s image, attract investors and appease regulators. A battery breakthrough would surely help, but BMW’s EV future isn’t waiting for one.

Indeed, Sascha Gommel, a Frankfurt-based analyst with Commerzbank, told Bloomberg, “BMW has already absorbed the research and development costs for the vehicle [i3] and the car is profitable. So every car sold contributes to profits.”

Advance orders, says Robertson, are strong and getting stronger. This bodes well for the upcoming i-models, too. Yes, more i-cars are coming. Aside from the i8 hybrid supercar, BMW has trademarked i1 through i9.

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