Feb 21, 2011
Today sees the launch of perhaps one of the most important developments in the automotive sector in its 100 year-plus history. After much speculation, fuelled by a drip feed of information from BMW, the Munich-based company has pulled the wraps off BMW i.
Much more than a new car launch, i represents a new way of thinking, not just about personal transport but also urban mobility.
There had been clues all along that BMW wasn’t interested in simply producing a smaller car. The project codename -MegaCity- hinted that the company was well aware that there were some much bigger issues that it would have to deal with to stay relevant long into the future. To that end, BMW appears to have taken a properly human centred approach by designing and supporting both the vehicles and the system in which they operate, something that to my knowledge no manufacturer has publicly attempted before.
On the vehicle side, i kicks off with two models.
The i3 is a completely electric city car that, through carbon fibre-intensive construction has managed overcome one of the greatest range- limiting factors facing electric cars: the weight of the battery set.
Modularising the construction of the vehicle (a carbon-fibre reinforced passenger cell sits atop an aluminium skateboard chassis) means that crash repairs remain cost-effective as all the impact is born by the chassis and not the passenger cell. This modularised approach, which BMW is calling LifeDrive, also means that it is very easy to design different passenger cells to sit atop the skateboard. This is where the i8 comes in.
The i8 counters the worthiness of the i3 with the unadulterated sports-car sex that makes up so much of BMWs brand mystique. Stylistically, the i8 is based on the Vision Efficient Dynamics concept that caused such a stir at the Frankfurt motor show in 2009. Given that BMW is touting green-but-obscene performance for this thing, the i8 will be a totally unique proposition in the halo-making supercar segment.
The fact of the matter is, however, that the cars are the least interesting aspect of BMW i, even for a petrol head like me. What’s really exciting is the express desire on BMWs part to provide an integrated system of urban mobility.
To that end, the cars are being launched alongside MyCityWay, a mobile app that aggregates more than 40 city information sources into one feed. Although useful on its own, when integrated with the cars, it makes things like transitioning from personal to public mobility or finding charging points far easier. Interestingly, BMW have also set up i Ventures that -much like Apple’s $200 million iFund initiative- will provide early and mid-stage investment to developers working in the urban mobility space.
Finally, it’s rumoured that BMW will providing leaseholders of i vehicles (that’s right, you wont own them, another important distinction) with voyage-appropriate vehicles if where you need to go falls out of the remit (or range) of your i3 or i8. Because let’s face it, an electric city car with 100 Kms of range isn’t going to get you to Newcastle efficiently but a 70 Mpg 1 Series hatch will while staying relatively clean.
So from designed-for-purpose vehicles, funded infrastructure development and beyond to whole-of-life mobility provision, BMW is throwing down an epic gauntlet to all the other car makers. In many ways it feels like they’ve taken a long, hard look at Apple’s ecosystem model and are going to try it out in the automotive sector.
It’s a brave move and an epically exciting one too. But most of all, it’s the closest we’ve come to a revolutionary idea from a major manufacturer since Henry Ford started making cars like fridges. What will be really interesting is how other manufacturers respond. I’ve heard many say that 2011 is going to be the tipping point for the car industry. Today, I finally started to believe it.