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Green Vehicles – German Edition

Mini E Leaves Conventional Cars in the Dust


Luxury carmaker BMW developed a hip electric car in less than a year. A replica of the British cult car Mini Cooper, with a battery made in Taiwan, the Mini E boasts an acceleration faster than most combustion-engine vehicles.



Mini E Leaves Conventional Cars in the Dust

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 424 )

Situated opposite the Olympic Park in Munich, the 22-story BMW Tower with its distinctive four-cylinder shape ranks among the city's most eye-catching landmarks. Inside an unassuming, flat, white factory building next door, workers are cautiously assembling cars worth more than NT$2 million a piece.

In one of the worst years for the global automobile industry, in which Toyota posted its first-ever losses in its 70-year company history and General Motors declared bankruptcy, BMW has launched its secret weapon for the future, the Mini E.

It's not the first time that BMW has experimented with electric vehicles.

In the early 1990s BMW massively invested in an electric car project. But back then global warming and rising energy prices were not yet a public concern.

"The consumer asked why he has to pay more for a less-functioned vehicle – we had nothing to say. But things have changed," says Andreas Goubeau, general manager of Total Vehicle Architecture and Concepts for BMW's electric drives department. As the world fights global warming and high oil prices, CO2-free mobility has become an unavoidable mission for automobile makers.

On top of that, BMW is eyeing the huge business opportunities presented by the high demand for mobility in megacities.

In talks with urban planners, the BMW Project i team, which conceptualized the Mini E, learned that traffic in Bangkok, a metropolis of seven million, moves at a snail's pace of 15 kilometers per hour during rush hour. Bangkok police are even trained to deliver babies, as more and more mothers give birth on the road because the streets are too congested to make it to hospital on time.

In Mexico City, population 10 million, 99 percent of carbon monoxide emissions stem from motor vehicle exhaust. In Los Angeles, which has the highest car density in the world, citizens spend an average of two hours a day commuting.

"Today, there are more than 280 million people who live in the megacity. How to help them to move from point A to point B faster and with less energy consumption, this is our goal," says corporate communication manager Ulrich Arendts. Looking down from Arendt's office on the 17th floor of the BMW Tower, one gets a panoramic view of the new bowl-shaped BMW Museum, which carries the BMW logo on its roof.

Mini Outside, Taiwan Inside

Arendts, who has been with the German carmaker for 12 years, points out that around 14 million BMW cars are in use worldwide. Should electric cars become the norm in big cities of the future, BMW cannot afford to lose out to competitors in this battle for electronic mobility.

When designing its electric car for people in crowded cities, BMW did not pick one of its traditional large sedans as an archetype, but the hip and nimble Mini Cooper.

The biggest difference between the original Mini and its electric sibling is the seating. While the Mini is a four-seater, the Mini E has only two front seats, since the heart of its propulsion, a 260-kilogram battery pack, takes up the space in the back seat. The lithium-ion battery is manufactured by E-One Moli Energy from Taiwan. It takes two and a half hours to fully charge the battery for an operational range of around 250 kilometers – the distance, for example, between Taipei in the north of Taiwan and Tainan in the south.

Within half a year the BMW factory in Oxford, England produced 500 Mini Es, making it the world's largest electric car manufacturer.

BMW's Project i chose an unconventional business model. Instead of selling the novel cars, they rent them to selected customers.

BMW picked Berlin, Los Angeles and New York for field studies and recruited volunteers online for participation in a large-scale test-driving project. From among the applicants, 500 drivers were selected. They rent the Mini E for US$850 per month for a one-year test-driving period.

When the year is over, BMW will take back all the electric cars.

In February this year the German government began to promote the project "e-mobility Berlin." It selected 100 Berlin citizens to take turns renting 50 BMW Mini Es. That's how BMW became the first carmaker to participate in "e-mobility Berlin."

Aside from that, BMW has teamed up with Swedish power group Vattenfall in a strategic partnership to establish a network of charging stations in Berlin to solve car owners' charging problems.

New Business Model – Rent Instead of Sell

Joachim Kolling, head of Design and Creative Process for Project i, reveals that BMW decided to rent its electric cars instead of selling them mainly to collect information on users' driving experiences, and to understand the habits of electric car drivers and the adjustments they go through. This feedback will be used to develop and produce the next generation of electric cars.

The most important objective during the testing process is to figure out which consumer problems electric cars can actually solve. Kolling calls this the Need-Offer-Fit approach, which means that all electric car products and services need to match the needs of future users.

Goubeau frankly admits that to date electric cars still have a number of limitations that are difficult to overcome. Fully charging the battery, for instance, takes two and half hours. That's still worlds apart from the three minutes it takes to gas up a conventional car.

In addition, he worries most that consumers will fret about the limited range of the Mini E and the lifespan of its battery. However, user feedback indicates that so far no one has been stranded due to running out of power, Goubeau asserts. The test drivers' biggest complaint is not that charging takes too long, but that the network of charging stations is not dense enough.

The Speed Rush – No Sacrifice

Aside from trying out a new business model, BMW is also seeking to set its Mini E apart from other electric cars by stressing the "joy of driving."

Alex Rose, department manager for Performance and CO2, says that BMW will definitely not sacrifice the joy of driving for the sake of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. After all, enjoyable driving has always been BMW's secret recipe for attracting customers.

Even when designing the Mini E, BMW never saw its task as creating an ordinary means of urban transport, but "a fun driving car."

Over the past six months, Goubeau has driven 15,000 km in his Mini E, and he still drives it to and from work every day. Smiling bashfully, the lean-faced BMW manager admits that he gets a real kick out of the car's swift acceleration. "The best is, I enjoy every traffic light. When the green light is on, every car is behind me."

BMW was also able to develop and manufacture an electric car within just one year because it had already started to work on an efficient dynamics project three years before that.

Rose explains that the European Union ten years ago decided that carmakers needed to cut CO2 emissions from cars by 20 percent within the coming decade. For BMW as a maker of large, high-horsepower sedans, this constituted a major challenge.

BMW's countermeasure was not to reposition the company as a maker of small cars, but rather restructure the car by thoroughly reviewing and changing the manufacturing process.

"The devil is in the detail," Rose says, highlighting his company's efforts to eliminate the many points in the production process where energy is wasted. "We have to identify them all."

Three years ago BMW came up with its efficient dynamics strategy. Some 20 to 30 manufacturing processes were thoroughly revised in order to realize high efficiency in all car brands in the BMW Group. As part of the efficient dynamics measures, the ambitious idea of a zero-emissions electric vehicle was born.

Since the introduction of efficient dynamics, carbon dioxide emissions from BMW cars have been reduced by 16 percent. The carmaker aims to reduce energy consumption, water consumption, and carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2012.

BMW encourages its manufacturing plants around the globe to compete with one another in terms of innovative ideas. Manufacturing process engineers at the BMW plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for instance, developed a novel adhesive that no longer requires heat drying at 120 degrees C. The new technology was subsequently applied on all production lines, which allowed the BMW Group to save 1.5 million euros in energy costs.

Although BMW posted the second highest sales in company history last year, the carmaker posted losses of around NT$6 billion in the first quarter of this year.

Of course, the Mini E will not be able to immediately pull the 93-year-old luxury carmaker out of the red. But with its Mini E, BMW has definitely established an important beachhead for Germany in the big race for electric vehicle dominance ahead of the other major carmaker nations the United States, Japan and China.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: BMW 不排碳一樣衝得快