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electric vehicles

2014 BMW i3 electric car

BMW last week fired the shot heard around the EV (electric vehicle) world.

Hello, General Motors and your Chevrolet Volt. Listening?

Look out, Nissan and your all-electric Leaf.

You paying attention, Mitsubishi and your i-MiEV battery car?

Toyota? The Prius really does look a little dated now.

Ford? Your hybrids are definitely a big step up from Toyota's, but the pure EV commitment seems tentative.

And Tesla? For Tesla, the free ride is over.

BMW, like all the German car companies, has a top-to-bottom EV plan, the money to back it, the marketing expertise to sell it and the global network necessary to reach into markets around the world – while overcoming a miasma of regulatory demands that change from country to country, region to region, continent to continent.

No one at this point can say if BMW's "i" brand of electric vehicles will be a sweeping, smashing success. But we can say this: no car company in the world is better equipped and more committed to making EVs viable. And I doubt any of BMW's rivals has even begun to put in the comprehensive planning effort that's been at work at BMW's Munich headquarters for years now.

BMW is not a whimsical car company. BMW does not do anything by the seat of its pants. There are no gamblers at BMW. BMW, jealously defensive of its independence, would not risk the entire company's future on an EV roll of the dice with only a gaming shark's hope of a fat payoff. BMW thinks it can make money on EVs, where no one has made money before. This is not a keno game for BMW; it's a business.

"The BMW group is charting new territory," Harald Krueger, the car maker's head of production, told Bloomberg. "We are confident we will earn money with every BMW i3 we sell from the launch on."

And how is that possible? Last week, in unveiling the production version of the i3 simultaneously in New York, London and Beijing, BMW said the Canadian version would start at a shockingly affordable $44,950. The company's first all-electric series production vehicle will be available next year some time before June and at a seriously competitive price.

Moreover, the i3 is not merely the first of a line of EVs planned to deliver "individual mobility" – that's what the "i" brand stands for.

No, it's expected to be a linchpin of BMW's product plan for buyers who live in ever-more crowded mega cities. After the i3, BMW will launch the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car some time next year and more in the i line are expected soon afterwards.

But unlike all BMW's rivals or potential rivals – including Tesla with its shopping mall approach to retailing EVs – the Bavarian premium car company is readying a cost-effective delivery program tailored to EV customers in individual markets. We haven't seen the details yet, but we do know that "customers will be able to personalize their entire purchasing process to suit their needs."

Some markets will have a mobile sales force, in others online purchasing will be in effect. No matter where or how you buy your i, BMW will have thought through:


BMW will offer its own home charging system or i3 owners can hook up to a public charging station. Like other EVs, the i3 can get an 80 per cent recharge in 20 minutes. Look for BMW to partner with other EV makers and governments to develop a serious charging infrastructure in Canada. The time has come and, without such, EVs will never become an everyday reality. To prove the viability of a charging network on its home turf, BMW plans to lay down a chain of quick-charging stations along the 590-kilometre route from Munich to Berlin.

Flexible mobility

Owners of the i3 need not worry about being "city-locked" by a debilitating case of range anxiety. The BMW answer: "DriveNow," a car-swap initiative. You'll be able to trade your EV for a long-distance ride with a gas or diesel engine. Of course, BMW will also offer all sorts of online and mobile phone customer assistance programs.

If all this smacks of a grand scheme to make EVs mainstream, believe it.

"The i brand will play a pioneering role that drives technology to be rolled out over coming life cycles and to the rest of the BMW brand," Herbert Diess, the car maker's head of development, told Bloomberg earlier this year.

Indeed, BMW is a German company and behind it is a German government solidly behind the steady and quick move to wholesale EV adoption.

Moreover, the German government has the resources and the will to make this happen, in sharp contrast to the haphazard, free-for-all approach to EVs we see in Canada and to a lesser extent the United States.

As reports, Germany is on track to have a million electric cars on its roads by 2020, according to a study by Horvath & Partners and the European Business School. The i3 may be the first mass-produced, zero carbon emission "electromobility" vehicle, but it won't be the last.

A key element is the commitment within Germany and throughout the European Union to build charging stations. The New York Times reports that the EU wants to build a half million charging stations by 2020.

The stations are needed in Europe and in North America, too, because despite sluggish EV sales, the i3 announcement last week signals a new wave of EVs coming to the marketplace. EVs have found their way into the centre of products plans in place among major auto makers from BMW to Ford, from Toyota to General Motors, Daimler, Audi and more. In three years' time, EVs should be almost commonplace, though no one expects the actual sales numbers to take your breath away. That's because EVs will remain a high-priced alternative to very fuel-efficient small cars that are also flooding dealer showrooms.

"There is still a large population out there who are very skeptical or hesitant of this new category," Cristi Landy, Chevrolet's marketing director for small cars, told Automotive News. "They have never driven a modern electric vehicle."

Marketers such as Landy say car companies will move away from talking up the "green" benefits of EVs.

That only works with early adopters and the "green" faithful who have already bought their EV or hybrid. Marketers will, instead, focus on EVs as very desirable high-tech cars with great driving characteristics and a library-like ride. This certainly is BMW's strategy with the i3.

As Jacob Harb, BMW of North America's manager of electric vehicle sales and strategy, told Automotive News, "If the product is good enough, the price isn't necessarily an issue." Especially when the i3 lists for about the same price as a Chevy Volt and a Nissan Leaf before government and factory discounts. Nissan officials, in fact, say the price of the Leaf is heading downwards thanks to a long list of reasons, including manufacturing in right-to-work Tennessee (not high-cost Japan), and cost savings realized in a relentless pursuit by Nissan's engineers.

"The goal has always been to make electric vehicles affordable for the mass population," Brendan Jones, Nissan North America director for electric vehicle marketing and infrastructure development, told the industry publication.

GM, of course, is expanding its EV offerings beyond the Volt. The Spark EV is coming to Canadian showrooms this year, for instance. The Spark EV is being marketed as a racy city runabout, not a green machine and that suits Landy perfectly.

Meantime, Audi is readying the launch of its A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid and this year Mercedes-Benz Canada will sell the Smart fortwo EV.

Chrysler's Fiat partner plans to sell the 500e EV, and Ford already sells plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max van and Fusion sedan, as well as the Focus EV compact.

Mitsubishi has an Outlander plug-in coming next year, the Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrid is on the way, and Honda has a Fit EV and Accord plug-in filling out its product plan.

Coming from Kia and its partner Hyundai are plug-in hybrid versions of the Optima and Sonata, respectively, a Golf EV and plug-in hybrid are being readied by Volkswagen and even Land Rover has plans for a Range Rover plug-in. Land Rover officials hint that we'll see the latter this September at the Frankfurt motor show.

Yes, BMW has fired a big EV blast and it's a loud one as EVs struggle to get traction in the market.

But BMW is hardly alone. EVs are real, even if they are not going to be sold in giant numbers for the foreseeable future.