Just a few years ago, BMW AG was busily touting the future of hydrogen as a fuel in combustion engines. By 2007, BMW had become a world leader in using hard-to-handle liquid hydrogen as a fuel for passenger cars. The fuel must be cooled to minus-253 degrees Celsius, just 20 degrees above absolute zero, to become a fluid.
In 2007, BMW put 100 of its 7-Series sedans into a test program. BMW quickly learned that one of the many problems with the fuel is that despite bulky hydrogen tanks packed with insulation equivalent to 17 metres of Styrofoam, the fuel simply boiled away. Hydrogen as a fuel for internal combustion engines has slowly faded out of focus at BMW.
The new, sharper image is of a profitable Megacity electric car. It will run on batteries and use costly materials like carbon fibre and lightweight aluminum. BMW has set up a $120-million factory near Seattle in conjunction with SGL Group to make the carbon fibre for the car's passenger safety cell.
Carbon fibre really is key. It is 50 per cent lighter than steel, which makes it ideal for a lightweight Megacity car with room for four people. Weight reduction on a grand scale allows BMW to reduce the size and cost of the battery pack. BMW insists it can mass-market the carbon fibre components and successfully glue them together to form the safety cell.
On the electric drive side, BMW has already put a test fleet of battery-powered Mini Es on the road and in the hands of real-world owners. Next for road testing is the ActiveE, a converted 1-Series coupe with lithium-ion battery packs developed by BMW and its partners Samsung SDI and Robert Bosch.
Also part of the big BMW vision is greater expansion into small cars for both the BMW brand and the Mini line. All told, BMW expects its strategy to improve sales to two million vehicles annually by 2020, an increase of some 55 per cent over 2009.
BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer has said publicly that he would have chosen to do the Megacity whether the car proves to be profitable or not. "As a leader, you can either be an entrepreneur or an administrator. I see myself as an entrepreneur."