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Interview with BMW i’s Uli Kranz

21 Oct

I met with Uli Kranz, the head of BMW’s new sub-brand BMW i, at the Frankfurt motor show last month to discuss the unveiling on their first two cars, the i3 and i8. The i3 is an all-electric city car, whilst the i8, already mentioned in these hallowed pages, is a plug-in hybrid sports car which will be able to outperform an M3, whilst returning a claimed 104mpg. Both introduce some seriously futuristic design language into the BMW brand, or will do when they go on sale in 2013. Are hybrids and electric cars becoming sexy? Dear Lord…..Anyway, take it away, Herr Kranz!

Carficionado: As BMWs, the i cars are surely going to have to be pure drivers’ cars. Presumably you haven’t been been sending them around the Nordschleife, but will BMW i cars still be “pure driving machines”?

Uli Kranz: I can simply answer ‘yes’. These cars will keep the BMW sheer driving pleasure alive because this is key and this is why we introduced the sub-brand as BMW i. We did our homework on that, because if you see the BMW i3, this is a car with a powerful electric engine installed in the rear and we have rear-wheel drive which is perfectly fine for a BMW.

We have an architecture of the vehicle which puts the centre of gravity very low, because in the middle, there’s the battery which is really low above the floor. And we’ve put our focus on lightweight materials. We reduced dramatically the weight of the vehicle by using carbon fibre for the passenger cell and for the drive module we are using aluminium spaceframe. So we have a very light car and with the material choice, we could really offset the additional weight of the battery. So I can assure you that this car will have the BMW DNA and it will be a perfectly dynamic, fun-to-drive vehicle.

Carficionado: Surely one of the big problems you have to overcome with starting a sub-brand like this is that you have to entice people in who won’t be enticed solely because you are using electric power – you’ve got to sell it to them in a unique way. Has that been the main problem to overcome?

Uli Kranz: We had to make sure that [the i3] is a premium vehicle, that it is a BMW and for that reason we also decided very early to develop the complete powertrain, including the battery, gearbox, power electronics and the electric motor in-house and we do all the application in-house with our experts at BMW. And we know how to build cars that are really fun to drive. And the same applies to the i8. The i8 is a plug-in hybrid super sports car that will have performance comparable to an M3 but with a fuel consumption below 3 litres per 100km and we think this is a very good answer for our customers [so that] they see that the future BMW programmes will still be fun and that we will keep the sheer driving pleasure alive with both cars as well.

Carficionado: Why has it taken BMW, who have been seen as a leader in every other aspect in the automotive industry, so long to bring in hybrid systems or electric systems when the Toyota Prius is already 15 years old?

Uli Kranz: We always actually worked with different powertrains, and you will have seen in 1972 with the Olympic Games in Munich we introduced an electric 1602. So we have always worked on very efficient combustion engines and also electric engines, and we introduced also some concept cars like the E1 in the 90s. The reason why we decided now to go into serious production is, of course, the battery technology, because all the batteries we had in the past, they were not as good as we [needed] them to be and the thing with lithium ion technology is that we could overcome all the problems with memory effects and difficulties in charging. With lithium ion batteries we can offer our customers a reliable, good-working car with good performance. This is the reason why we started now with electric vehicles like the i3 and i8. But in parallel we always work on even more efficient diesels and combustion engines. And we’ve introduced the complete EfficientDynamics package with start-stop engines, brake-energy recuperation and on top of that, we focus on low-rolling resistance tyres and also on very efficient aerodynamics. And this all, in combination with the new lithium ion batteries, gives us a very good opportunity to introduce the next step towards the future.

Carficionado: So it was a question of you not wanting to inconvenience your customers by using sub-standard technology?

Uli Kranz: Absolutely. Our customers expect from a premium car manufacturer premium quality and premium products

(l to r) The i8 and i3. Better than a G-Wiz!

Carficionado: The i Division is obviously at the other end of the spectrum to the M Division. But do you feel that there’s any room for this modern technology creeping into motorsport, or are they mutually exclusive?

Uli Kranz: What we are doing with the BMW i sub-brand and with the M, which is a sub-brand also, is perfectly balancing the core of the BMW brand. The BMW brand benefits from the M division because they highlight even more performance and even faster, quicker and more dynamic [cars]. On the other side, the BMW i is supporting BMW in new technologies and new design language and both sub-brands benefit from the core brand of BMW. So in the future we will benefit from both, so that means that some of the ideas that we develop you will see in the M division or the BMW core brand. Just think about the lightweight materials; this is something that the core brand will see in the future and will use in the M division as well.

Carficionado: How much money has been put into the i Division?

Uli Kranz: I cannot give you a figure on how much money we have put in, but I can assure you that we have the task to make money.

Carficionado: But you’d like to see the technology from the i brand trickle down into other BMWs?

Uli Kranz: Of course. One of the tasks we got within Project i is to pave the way towards new technology but not only focussed on the vehicles, also on the production and the production process, introducing new materials and new processes, and this is what we are doing with the electric powertrain, as well as the carbon fibre lightweight materials.

Carficionado: Has there been any co-operation with the German government in terms of incentives for the company?

Uli Kranz: No.

Carficionado: Would you like to have had incentives?

Uli Kranz: Actually we are not asking for incentives because we do our developments in-house. On the other hand, what we expect from the government is that we have clear rules and standards. This is key because then we have reliable targets to work towards.

Standardisation is key for electric vehicles because at the moment there’s still different standards in Asia, the US and in Europe, but we would be happy if we had three clearly divided standards for where our customers could plug-in and charge the vehicles. Infrastructure is key.

Carficionado: Do you think the same customer who buys an M3 will buy an i8?

Uli Kranz: We will still have customers, I’m sure, who will opt for an M3, because an M3 is a very emotive car. But with the i8 we have the opportunity to bring new customers into the BMW brand and this was also the reason why we established BMW i, because one of the targets we got from the board at the very beginning is to bring new customers into the BMW brand. And this is what we think we can fulfil with the i8, because the i8 is a real sports car but at the same time has a very low fuel consumption and the complete vehicle architecture is very sustainable and the compete production process is very sustainable as well. So therefore I guess we are talking to a different audience with the i8, and this is the reason why we decided to establish a sub-brand. And the same goes for the i3, because we are absolutely convinced that it we will bring new customers to the BMW brand.

Carficionado: Do you envisage a future where there will be an i1, i2, i3, i4 and so on?

Uli Kranz: We are focussed now on the i3 and the i8, but there is enough room between these two figures, 3 and 8, for additional derivatives, even above and below. This is all I can say at the moment.

Carficionado: But you’ve got nice brackets?

Uli Kranz: Exactly!  

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