The BMW Vision iNext Concept sheds some light on BMW's future electric car ambitions.
Munich - Electric cars are coming thick and fast, with several new models destined to reach South African shores in the coming months and years. For the fortunate who can afford them, you can choose from opulent, pure-electric Jags to sporty Mercs and Audis in the very near future.

And, if you’re a BMW fan, you might be wondering when you’ll get a chance to buy something other than the ‘doomed-from-introduction’ i3.

At a glance, it seems BMW’s missed the electric car beat.

In a recent statement, though, according to the BMW Group’s vice president of electric powertrain development, Stefan Juraschek, the German carmaker actually played a pioneering role in garnering electric mobility interest with BMW i.

“Today we are the premium manufacturer offering the widest range of battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. We currently produce the following electrified models: the BMW i3 (third model evolution with 120 Ah capacity) , BMW i3s, BMW i8 Coupe, BMW i8 Roadster, BMW 740e, BMW 740Le, BMW 530e, BMW 225xe Active Tourer, MINI Cooper S E Countryman ALL4 and, in China, the BMW X1 xDrive25Le. 

"Plus, we have also announced new plug-in hybrid variants of the 3 Series Sedan and BMW X5 for 2019 following the arrival of these new model generations. This number is set to grow to at least 13 plug-in hybrid models by 2025. Adding these to the wide selection of all-electric cars - whose range is due to increase substantially next year incidentally - will bring the portfolio of electrified vehicles to at least 25,” he notes.

Global sales of electrified BMW vehicles topped the 100 000 mark last year and will have grown by around 50% this year. Juraschek says BMW is ready to deliver electric cars to customers that want electric cars.

“The BMW Group is already developing its fifth generation of electric drive systems, meaning that it has created an excellent foundation for the future. This latest generation will go into service as soon as 2020 in the BMW iX3.

Closer to the here and now: BMW iX3 Concept.

"A crucial advantage of this fifth-generation system is that the electric motor, transmission and power electronics now form a single, highly integrated electric drive component. This extremely compact unit takes up far less space than the three separate components used in preceding generations. Its modular construction means that it is scalable, too, allowing it to be modified to suit all sorts of different installation spaces and power requirements. 

"The BMW Group will start to fit the next generation of battery cells in the new, scalable and even more powerful vehicle batteries alongside the introduction of the new electric drive components. The modular “building block” concept will allow the new batteries to be incorporated flexibly into every vehicle architecture. Another highly integrated component will be added to the portfolio in the form of a DC/DC charger unit,” he explains.

So how will it all work?

Juraschek says that on the one hand, BMW will have flexible vehicle architectures and, on the other, the scalable and modular building blocks for the electric drive systems. “This will bring about a lasting increase in flexibility. In future, we will be able to swiftly decide which models we are going to equip with what mix of all-electric drive, plug-in hybrid drive or exceptionally efficient combustion engines. This will let us partially or fully electrify each model in accordance with market demand, creating the basis for the mass-market introduction of pure battery electric vehicles in the future,” he says.

Stefan Juraschek.

When probed on whether the BMW Group is at risk of not being able to obtain the necessary quantities of raw materials once battery electric vehicles start to be produced in big numbers he said: “We do not see any supply risks, even in the event of growing demand for battery cells. We have secured a reliable supply with long-term contracts. We have also built up in-house battery cell expertise over the course of joint projects with international partners throughout the value chain. 

This is used to ensure access to the technology and to safeguard supplies. At the same time, we are also endeavouring to gradually lower the proportion of critical raw materials that are used. For example, one of the key objectives of our research and development activities is to bring about a substantial reduction in the proportion of cobalt in battery cells. The electric motor in our fifth-generation electric powertrain is another illustration of this, as it is completely free of rare earths.”

While on the subject of battery cells, Juraschek shared why some well-known competitors of BMW’s are employing round cells or pouch cells, while they are using prismatic cells.

“The prismatic hard case arrangement makes the battery modules more suitable for industrialisation by increasing the level of automation during module assembly. Besides this, safety systems such as a safety valve for shutting down the cell in the event of a short circuit can be integrated more easily. It also allows us to achieve a higher packing density, meaning that optimum use can be made of the installation space in the vehicle,” he notes.

According to BMW, battery cell manufacturers in China, Japan and Korea have been investing enormous sums of money in cell development and future battery technologies for years now. So, will BMW play second fiddle to these companies?

Well, Juraschek says BMW does not consider any of its competitors to hold an advantage over the brand when it comes to the battery technology. “When all the characteristics are viewed together, our battery technology is on a par with or superior to the competition’s, depending on how you look at it. We have been dealing with the issue of battery cells since 2008 and are in a strong position today thanks, among other things, to an international network of collaborations. 

"For us, it is important to continue to expand our in-house expertise and keep advancing battery cell technology. What’s more, building battery cell prototypes and producing small batches enables us to fully analyse the production processes and acquire build-to-print capabilities. In this way, we can provide system suppliers with exact instructions based on BMW Group specifications, from material selection through to cell production.”

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