Why a BMW i3 electric car

My electric i3 is now a year older in my hands, 3 years old in total. 32,000km from Donegal to Sneem and everywhere in between over the last 12 months has proven it a boringly reliable and capable car.

Why an i3? As the BMW was the third largest selling EV worldwide in 2016, it was cheaper and easier to get second-hand [1].  But the BMW i3 also tells a story of the future of the motor car; it has been described as the Model T of the 21st century.

Medium term, I believe shared ownership, shared taxis and public transport will provide our personal mobility, but with 4.6M people employed directly by the motor industry in Europe, we and they have to find a sustainable way to manufacture cars.

With the i3, BMW set-out to develop, manufacture and deliver a new kind of car, manufactured from recyclable and recycled materials powered by green energy. They did this in the first decade of the 21st century, making the i3 available for delivery in 2013. 

I’ve been a fan of light-weighting cars since reading Lotus’ Colin Chapman’s quote: “Adding power makes you fast on the straights.  Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere. “

But how do you lighten an electric car?

To preserve BMW’s sporty driving experience, they needed to reduce the unladen weight of the electric car – its kerb weight.  At 1,276kg including battery the i3 is lighter than most B class internal combustion engine vehicles e.g. the ubiquitous Golf.

BMW chose a whole new way of mass producing cars – carbon fibre reinforced plastic – CFRP.  The i3 is the world’s first mass produced CFRP vehicle, its “life cell” sits on top of an aluminium chassis (or skateboard) with its own unique features such as welded cast and fabricated structures.

Making the i3 circular?

Unless you are walking or cycling, there’s no such thing as sustainable transport, the laws of gravity and physics are immutable. Whilst energy performance management and ecodriving can help us reduce our cars impact, this is what BMW did to improve its life cycle impacts:

  • BMW use a global supply chain stretching from Japan for raw fibre, to Moses Lake for hydroelectricity, to make their carbon fibre as sustainable as possible; even the offcuts are used in the non-load bearing roof.
  • Any interior wood is made of sustainable eucalyptus wood from European forests (FSC).
  • The seat leather is tanned with olive leave waste
  • Interior panels’ reinforcing fibre is Kanuf (never heard of it either, but its carbon fixing).
  • By weight 25% of the plastics used are from recycled sources.

All of these materials are recyclable; you can see videos galore of the manufacturing process online.  The two I recommend are tear down videos: https://youtu.be/uDr4L6BzpP8 (long) and https://youtu.be/rqiBWfsDTAA (short).

Life cycle foot print

What about the battery and manufacturing footprint you may ask. Don’t they outweigh the savings at the roadside?

Over their lifetimes all electric vehicles avoid more than enough emissions to comfortably reduce their carbon footprint vs internal combustion engine cars, even in coal intensive grids such as Poland’s this remains the case.  Oh and the i3 is the only mainstream EV to be specifically designed for battery upgrades during its (hopefully) long life.

A last quote from Mr Chapman “ Simplify, then add lightness”  – could have been written for the electric car industry with just 15,000 parts per car vs an internal combustion engine car with 30,000 parts (source BNEF), its clear which way the industry is going.

Is the BMW i3 the future

Maybe. As Sandy Munro says in his videos(above), this mass-produced car can be manufactured for under US$20,000 making it profitable for BMW from day one.

Given the insight it has given us and the many billions expended on its R&D in Europe, I don’t begrudge the Quandt family (owners of BMW) one cent of their profit.

BMW have just announced they will not be building a successor to the i3, but will continue to build it for some years yet, so they must be making some money from it.

The i3 exhibition runs at BMW Welt Munich until July 2020, well worth a visit, 5 floors dedicated to the sustainability story behind the i3 (and selling cars of course)

[1] Why not a #1 seller Nissan Leaf – no thermal management of the battery for motorway driving i.e. working long distances, nor #2 the Renault Zoe which has slower charging speeds.