Exclusive: BMW Exec Denies Unplugging Electric Car Plans

2 years ago by Tom Moloughney 13

On May 25th Automobile Magazine posted a story on their site that asked the question “Is BMW’s Project i about to be unplugged?” The story garnered a lot of attention and was reposted on dozens of automotive and green transportation websites. While there were no direct quotes from any BMW employee, the article insinuated that BMW was scaling back on future BMW i models, considering delaying the i3 launch and that the whole Project i was ‘skating on thin ice’.

BMW i3 Concept On Display

Many of you know I have been involved with BMW’s electric mobility program for over three years now, having leased a MINI-E from June 2009 until I handed it back in and drove away with my BMW ActiveE this past January.

During this time I have had many meetings, conversations, focus groups and other interactions with the electric vehicle program managers within BMW. I’ve spoken in person with both Ulrich Kranz, head of BMW project i, and Ian Robertson, head of sales and marketing of BMW Group and many other high level BMW managers, especially Rich Steinberg head of electric vehicle strategy and sales for North America. In all of my time within the program I have not seen anything that would make me think BMW was wavering on their support for Project i or their electric vehicle program. In fact, lately all I see is everybody getting excited and ramping up for the launch of the i3 next year.

So when I read the article on one hand I laughed at it, but I also had a little concern that there might be something there that I’m missing. I traded some emails with some people within BMW that would know if there was anything going on and was reassured that there was nothing to this and to just ignore it which I did. Then, as more and more news outlets picked it up and I started reading it everywhere I got in touch with Rich Steinberg and asked him if I could do a quick interview and ask him about his thoughts on the story. While I got the impression he thought it wasn’t even worth responding to, Rich agreed to answer my questions and put it to rest. Here’s how it went:

  • Recently, Automobile Magazine ran a story that claimed BMW is having second thoughts about the i brand and is working on contingency plans and an exit strategy in the event they decide to shuttle the brand, is there any truth to that?

Rich: Absolutely not. There is no truth to that.

  • The article goes on the say BMW might be considering delaying the launch of the i3 and i8 to concentrate on a plug-in hybrid or even making a gas-only model, is this a possibility?

Rich: No, that’s not correct, there is no delay. We will however continue to develop our hybrid and plug in hybrid technology not exclusive to the i brand.

  • The article also claimed that BMW is blaming their retreat on the fact that many of the external catalysts that BMW had hoped would help the deployment electric cars have failed to materialize. They sited the lack of public infrastructure and that promised government incentives have fallen victim to Europe’s new emphasis on austerity. Have these conditions caused BMW to second-guess whether electric vehicles will succeed?

Rich: No. While these outside catalysts will help the adoption of electric vehicles, they are not directly related to the i brand development. Our plans remain unchanged.

  • One of the things in the article that I found strange was that Automobile claimed BMW was backing off their sales expectations of 100,000 i3′s and 10,000 i8′s per year. Everything I have ever read from BMW about the i3 stated that BMW goal was to sell 30,000 i3′s worldwide per year, not 100,000 and I’ve never read any sales predictions for the i8. This alone made me wonder if the article really had any credible information. Did BMW ever have a sales prediction of 100,000 i3′s and 10,000 i8′s per year?

Rich: I really can’t discuss sales goals at this time, but to answer your question; no I have never seen it stated that BMW plans to sell 100,000 i3’s per year and I can’t say where they would have got that from.

  • Is the i3 still on schedule to launch in the second half of 2013 as we have been hearing all along?

Rich: Our global plans for the i brand have not changed.

  • BMW recently announced the BMW Born Electric World Tour. It opens in Rome in a couple weeks before visiting Düsseldorf, Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Shanghai. We’ve all seen the concept vehicles already, so I assume the tour will offer more than just the cars on display, what else can we expect?

Rich: Yes, there will definitely be more than just the cars on display. I think we’re putting together a nice schedule of events. You’re going have to come out and see when the tour visits New York in the fall.

 

2014 BMW i8

In addition to the BMW Born Electric Tour, just last week BMW announced the opening of the first BMW i store in London and announced the BMW 360 Electric which will be a comprehensive line of products and service offered to BMW i customers. Services will include allowing BMW i customers to rent a BMW if they need to drive further than their cars range will allow. For example you buy an i3 and you need to drive further than that cars range will allow, you can drive over to your BMW dealer and pick up a gas BMW and rent it for the trip at a very competitive rate. It will also include times you travel to a far off destination. Also, if you travel to some major cities abroad you will be able to rent an i3 while your there. This way you can drive a car you are familiar with as well as continue driving a zero emission vehicle while you are away.

My time speaking to Rich along with the recent BMW i announcements reaffirm my belief that the Automobile Magazine story was nothing to take seriously. However, ultimately actions speak louder than words. We’re still a little over a year from the i3’s speculated launch date of September 2013 and a lot can happen in fifteen months. However everything I see points to BMW coming out strong and making a big effort to be a major player in the plug-in vehicle market.

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13 responses to "Exclusive: BMW Exec Denies Unplugging Electric Car Plans"

  1. I think BMW really just wanted to ignore it but since the story kept popping up on site after site I wanted to clear the air a bit about it.

    1. Herm says:

      There is a reason executives are paid so much, and part of their job is to convince you.

      Suppose he had offered a free trip to the factory so you could see the plant gearing up, testing going on, plans being drawn up etc. You are widely respected in this field and it would have been worth it to allay these rumors.

      1. Herm, BMW did fly me to Munich last year to visit HQ and I even had the opportunity to tour the Fiz, BMW’s highly secure research and development center that very few people get to visit. However if I speak of what I saw there you’ll never see me again! I have also been to the BMW’s US HQ in Woodcliff Lake, NJ and was given a tour of their new EV service center that they are currently building out. I also suspect to visit Munich sometime again once they get closer to production next year. I can tell you for certain they are investing an enormous amount of resources to their plug in i brand and I couldn’t imagine the effect if they were to try to back out now – they almost can’t even if they wanted to.

        1. Jay Cole says:

          Would love to see whats going on in the plant once we get closer to production.

          /nice piece today Tom

  2. Schmeltz says:

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to clear the mis-perceptions about BMW’s plug-in plans Tom. I agree that plans can always change on a dime, but it appears at least for now that BMW is indeed charging forward with plug-in cars just like they said they would.

  3. green-ie says:

    Very, very good news and good interview. We have a Volt in the garage and want a BEV to go with it, but neither of us wants to be seen in a Leaf – I know, some people “like” it’s “style”. I appreciate that Nissan made a giant leap, but the Leaf is not for us.

    Electric vehicles are the future and I’m glad to see BMW giving the Volt some competition.

    Did you ask if they would be including the new SAE DC L2 combo plug?

  4. Airton says:

    Yes thanks Tom, we needed this.

  5. Rick says:

    Very good news!!! BMW has the nicest looking of all the electric cars IMO.

    Would be nice if you could get your friends @BMW to isolate the i3 and i8 price a little more

  6. Jeff U says:

    Tom, Another way to do this, kill those stories, is to get more information about the progress of the development of BMWs first plugin car. Wind-tunnel testing, what’s the drag coefficient? Power to weight, motor and battery durability testing. Extended range engine type and testing. When will they have a proof-of-production car?
    (A proof of production car is the same as a production car, made with all the same production parts, but usually hand made to show how the factory cars go together. Then they are used to iron out any final production problems with lots of real-world driving before the factory line starts making them.)
    BMW should keep us up to date on the timeline and what’s going on. (GM’s Volt program made 80 hand-built proof of productions cars and tested them for a long time and made those stories about them, and all stories about the development of that car available to the public. That heightened the anticipation for that car.)

    They should have you field test one of the first proof cars so you can hype it!

    Jeff U

    1. Personally I think GM did a great job with the volt during the development stage. They made a lot of what is usually private information available to the public for people to see in the mo9nths leading up to the launch. I can’t remember anyone else doing it to that extent for any other car – Nissan surely didn’t for the LEAF. While I’d like to see a constant flow of information about the i cars during development, I don’t expect it from BMW (or anyone else for that matter) because that’s just not how the industry works. You rarely hear very much other than rumors until very shortly before he vehicle launch. I agree with you about building anticipation and that it would be a positive thing to do though. We’ll have to wait and see. If the i3 launches as rumored in September of next year that means we have about 15 months. Id like to start to see the things you are talking about no later than 6 months before the launch which would be in March.

      As for me field testing one, keep recommending it and maybe they’ll listen. I have already offered my services :)

    2. Bill Berndt says:

      Jeff,
      Trying to get the general public excited about electric cars by getting technical is totally opposite of the approach needed. If any of the manufacturers in this field want to sell more than 5,000 – 10,000 BEVs annually, they MUST change their marketing approach and focus. While I appreciate the “geekdom” of the electric car technology, it does not speak well to the general public. If the manufacturers can’t reach the general public, the game is over.

      This is a limited market right now. I have leased and operated four electric cars. I have a Tesla in production right now. I also have plans to lease an i3. So I have a bit of general expertise in this area. As bloggers and “sideline” analysts, we need to extol the features of the cars that will appeal to the public at large… fun to drive, no gas, no emissions, commuter car only!!! I get a kick out of reading how early adopters have tried to squeeze range out of each charge… blankets, gloves, scarves to drive to work in the cold so as to not use the heater and lose range. That’s a joke. Mr. John Q Public will NEVER accept that. Those are the stories that will kill us. Plus, the way all you techies write, anyone interested in the car as a “car” gets scared away. They don’t want to be branded with the geek label.

      We need to change that!

      1. Stuart22 says:

        Thoughtful post, Bill, and right on the money. The public is most interested in what the payoffs will be for them. Does it have sizzle, will it knock your socks off. Is it easy to live with. Is it stylish. Will it impress the neighbors; the boss. EVs will do all of these in their own special ways, communicating that to the average buyer is the key.

        I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chevy Volt sales started their consistent upward trend at around the same time as GM advertising stopped trying to explain the Volt in ads (more car than electric, etc.) and instead began airing the series of customer testimonial commercials on television.

  7. Thanks Tom. Doing my part to get charging stations out there! Glad BMW is sticking to its plans!