After years of strategic twists and turns, BMW has found its way again with the electric car. Maybe just in time.
“Uncompromisingly electric, digital and circular” should become in the next few years, said company boss Oliver Zipse. Electric cars? Digitalization? Circular, so recyclable? That doesn’t sound new. Pretty much all car manufacturers use these slogans to proclaim their metamorphosis into beautiful butterflies of mobility. But what matters – we’re talking about cars – is what comes out of the back. In the case of at least that is a real panning strategy. And last but not least, in the right direction.
The strangulation of the Munich in terms of electromobility was recently only difficult to bear, for observers as well as for many of the 120,000 employees. That was also because BMW was once a real champion in the field of electric cars. Around ten years ago, the board of directors allowed a team – like no other development group in the industry. The result was the BMW i3 in 2013, an e-car that continues to set technical standards in some areas and, despite its advanced age, is still selling well. BMW was at the forefront back then, admired across the industry.
But because the i3 with its unusual shape, its avant-garde design and its expensive carbon body was a bit too innovative and many customers were not yet ready for a plug-in car, the planned sales success did not materialize. BMW lost heart and the group fell into an electrical depression from which it has not recovered to this day.
The Munich team let the i3 continue,. BMW developed vehicle platforms that should be equally suitable for all types of drive – combustion, hybrid, electric, hydrogen. The concept was marketed as the ultimate free choice for the customer: The Munich-based company spoke of “flexible platforms” and a “technology-open” approach. The 2019 annual report was entitled: “Power of Choice”. In doing so, the company suppressed the simple truth that an egg-laying-wool-milk-pig vehicle architecture can only ever be a compromise. BMW inevitably left the construction of uncompromising e-cars with the best range, the best driving characteristics and the best environmental balance to the competition. For the former head of development, Klaus Fröhlich – internally known as “Kolben-Klaus” – that was apparently no problem.
Others, on the other hand, wondered what would be left of BMW if the most advanced, dynamic and greenest cars were built by someone else. For example, BMW works council chairman Manfred Schoch, who first raised the alarm on the supervisory board and then publicly: “Only with our own e-architecture can we fully exploit the advantages of an electric vehicle,” he warned last summer. Otherwise, competitors BMW would be drained of the water. The timing was well chosen. At that time, “Kolben-Klaus” was just clearing his office for his successor Frank Weber.
Since then, BMW has stumbled in the direction of the inevitable: The switch to vehicle architectures that are exclusively and therefore optimally designed for e-cars. In November Zipse spoke of vehicle platforms for electric cars, but did not want them to be understood as pure e-architectures – it was only about a focus on electric, he explained vaguely and spoke again a lot about technology openness. Competitor had decided on a special e-car platform five years earlier. While, sent into the race, and Porsche pushed the technical, the fuss continued in Munich.
That is now, it seems, over. Because BMW is planning a restart from 2025 that the company has seldom experienced before. “We are breaking away from today’s architecture,” promises Zipse. Instead of flexible platforms for all drives, there should be an “uncompromising overall vehicle architecture optimized for electric drives” for e-cars, with “completely redefined IT and software architecture”, a newly developed drive and battery generation and “a radically new level of Sustainability over the entire life cycle ”. In short: According to Zipse, BMW will be “the boldest company” in the industry. And: “The greenest electric car comes from BMW”.
Big words. But: If the Munich-based company has so far planned with fewer than five million pure electric cars sold in the current decade, thanks to the new strategy it should now be around ten million. And if BMW has only expected around 30 percent purely e-cars in total sales by 2030, it should now be 50 percent.
The starting point for a quick ramp-up with the new generation of electric cars is not bad at all for BMW: the i3 gives the Munich-based company expertise in battery development. For battery production in, they have found a strong partner in the Chinese market leader CATL. BMW knows its way around electric motors, is ahead of digitization and software and is considered a leader in the industry when it comes to sustainability issues.
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Almost ten years ago, BMW made the decision to build the i3. The people of Munich still benefit from it today and will continue to benefit from it. The only bitter thing is that it took the company five years to find its way back to the aspiration of the i3 developers: to build the best electric car. Without this odyssey, BMW would not be trapped today in a component system that can only be adapted to new electrical architectures after years of work.
Without this odyssey, 2025 would be today.
The ID.3 from VW is one of the most important cars in German economic history. It could herald the conversion of the auto industry to electric drive.