BMW Has Fallen Behind in the Electric Vehicle Race. Can It Catch Up?

MUNICH — Eight years ago, BMW was one of the first major automakers to sell a battery-powered car: The i3 broke ground with its lightweight carbon-fiber body and aluminum chassis.

But lately, the German company, known for its sporty luxury cars and “ultimate driving machines,” has fallen behind in the global race to develop the next generation of electric vehicles.

Unlike General Motors or Volvo, BMW has not set a date to bury the internal combustion engine. Unlike Volkswagen, it has not begun selling a full line of vehicles designed from the ground up to run on batteries. As other auto executives wax optimistic about an electric future, Oliver Zipse, the BMW chief executive, has criticized plans by the European Union to ban gasoline and diesel engines by 2035.

“I’m a little concerned about BMW,” said Peter Wells, director of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School in Wales. When it comes to committing to a full lineup of electric vehicles, he said, “they have been quite ambivalent.”

The perception that BMW is an electric vehicle laggard helps explain why investors have begun to sour on the company’s shares, which fell even after the company reported a healthy quarterly net profit this month of 4.8 billion euros, or $5.7 billion. BMW shares have tumbled 18 percent since early June.

At BMW headquarters in Munich, company executives say they will prove the critics wrong in coming months. In the fall, BMW will begin selling a battery-powered sport utility vehicle, the iX, in Europe; it will arrive in the United States early next year. The iX will be the first BMW since the i3 designed around battery power, rather than being a conversion of a gasoline or diesel car.

“Maybe you didn’t see that much, but we’ve been working hard,” Adrian van Hooydonk, design director at BMW, said during an interview at BMW World, the company’s showcase in Munich.

BMW executives say the iX manifests a commitment to electric propulsion that falls short of rivals only on the level of braggadocio. They cite the dedicated research center in Munich where BMW is developing its own battery technology. They point out that BMW is engineering a collection of specialized components that will underpin a family of electric vehicles beginning in 2025, which in their view is when the market will take off.

BMW exemplifies the difficult calculations that established carmakers must make as the industry shifts to electric power. It takes four or five years to design a new car, to equip a factory to build it and to organize a network of suppliers. Auto company executives have to make billion-dollar bets based on their best estimates of what car buyers will want half a decade from now, and of what kind of technology will be available.

The Transition to Electric Cars

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    No one really knows what sort of electric vehicles will prove popular as the market expands beyond early adopters, who tend to be affluent and environmentally conscious. Will they want car designs that signal a break with the past? Or will they want electric cars that look and perform like the gasoline models they’re used to?

    It’s too early to tell. Sales of electrified vehicles are growing fast, but remain less than 4 percent of the total market in the United States. The market is dominated by Tesla, which is building a factory in Berlin. Tesla’s Model 3 is the best-selling electric car in western Europe, where plug-in vehicles accounted for 17 percent of new car sales in the first half of the year, or one million vehicles, according to Schmidt Automotive Research in Berlin.

    The i3, which BMW began producing in 2013, was a lesson in the perils of coming to market too early. The carbon-fiber body mounted atop an aluminum chassis won design awards and was an engineering feat, but it was expensive to produce. Not many people were willing to pay more than $40,000 for what was essentially a hatchback that could travel only about 80 miles on a charge. Later models have improved batteries and can go more than 150 miles between charges.

    BMW continues to produce the i3 and has sold about 210,000 since 2013, but ended sales in the United States in July. BMW executives reject the idea that the i3 was a mistake, saying they learned valuable lessons about electric vehicle technology, such as how to make more efficient motors. “This wouldn’t exist without the i3,” Frank Weber, the BMW board member responsible for development, said as he steered a maroon iX on the streets around company headquarters in Munich.

    BMW waited eight years to offer a follow-up to the i3 because executives realized they needed a car able to go more than 600 kilometers, or 370 miles, on a charge, Mr. van Hooydonk said. “With the iX, we have that now,” he said.

    Unlike Volkswagen and Daimler, which are building their own battery factories with partners, BMW is buying batteries from suppliers like Northvolt of Sweden and CATL of China. BMW, like its rivals, is also developing its own technology. At a research center in Munich, the automaker is looking for chemical recipes that will be safer, lighter and store more energy per kilogram. Suppliers will build batteries according to BMW specifications.

    The center’s labs are equipped with electron microscopes that allow BMW scientists to observe what happens to the molecules inside battery cells as they are repeatedly charged and discharged. There is a fireproof room where BMW can work on ways to prevent batteries from overheating.

    BMW is even giving its suppliers advice on how to manufacture more efficiently. On a table at the research center lay three objects that looked like precision, machined egg beaters. They were part of a test to see which most effectively mixed the graphite slurry that will later be painted on a thin layer of copper and dried to form electrodes — critical parts of a battery.

    “We’re challenging the suppliers,” Martin Schuster, a vice president at BMW responsible for battery development, said during a tour of the research center. “Otherwise, we get what they have on the shelf.”

    Soon after the iX arrives at European dealers in the fall, BMW will begin selling the i4, a high-performance battery-powered sedan. As a short test ride in Munich demonstrated, the i4 has the kind of head-banging acceleration that electric power can deliver. But the i4 shares components with BMW models with gasoline engines, a feature that has attracted critics.

    Until 2025, BMW’s strategy will be to sell battery power as an option available on all its main models. Initially, most electric BMWs will be adaptations of their internal combustion cousins.

    Analysts are skeptical that such conversions will be able to compete with cars that are designed from scratch to be electric and can fully exploit the advantages of battery power. Electric cars have smaller motors and transmissions than conventional vehicles, potentially freeing up space for passengers and cargo.

    “BMW is taking a conventional car and turning it into an electric vehicle,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, founder of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany. “There will always be compromises.”

    In 2025, BMW plans to begin building vehicles on a platform — a collection of components that can be shared by numerous different models — that is optimized for battery power. That is the year when many analysts believe that electric vehicles will become less expensive to buy than gasoline models, and sales will take off.

    If so, BMW’s timing could prove to be perfect.

    So far, though, the market has moved more quickly than predictions. In Europe, sales of electric vehicles have boomed during the pandemic. In the United States, the Biden administration gave electric vehicles a push this month when it unveiled a plan to raise sales of electric vehicles to 50 percent of new cars by 2030.

    Even BMW’s critics aren’t counting it out. “They’re fantastic engineers,” Mr. Wells of Cardiff Business School said. “They can do it if they want.”

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