BMW Hires Lead Electric-Car Engineer From Chevy Volt Team

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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Not so long ago, the notion of luxury German brand BMW hiring an engineer from General Motors might have been a stretch. The company prefers to promote engineers from within its Munich engineering headquarters.

But reports that Frank Weber, the lead engineer of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt team, has been hired by BMW demonstrate how radically times have changed.

BMW was arguably the automaker of scale least knowledgeable about electric cars as recently as five years ago. Its first attempt at gathering real-world data, several hundred Mini E electric conversions, was not particularly pleasant as electric cars go.

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

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It will soon release several hundred BMW ActiveE electric conversions of the 1-Series sedan. Then in 2014, it will launch both the carbon-fiber BMW i3 (nee BMW MegaCity Vehicle) urban electric car and the i8 plug-in hybrid performance car.

What better way to ensure that the introduction of your first electric-drive products come off smoothly than to hire the man who made the Volt the car it is today?

The Volt has, thus far, been a success for General Motors. It's the first electric vehicle built by the company since the late, lamented EV1 two-seat electric car, and the Volt has garnered both massive publicity and intense public interest.

Moreover, as a range-extended electric car (or 'series hybrid'), the Volt offers many lessons for BMW into how to use a combustion engine to generate electricity on which to power a vehicle whose wheels are turned solely by one or more electric motors.

BMW prototype based on Vision EfficientDynamics concept

BMW prototype based on Vision EfficientDynamics concept

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The i8 fits this mold. Its prototype--the Vision EfficientDynamics concept unveiled at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show--used a 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbodiesel engine to power a generator once its 10.8-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack was depleted.

Sound familiar, Volt fans?

Weber ("VAY-ber") himself is both an automotive engineer and a trained classical concert pianist. He had left the Volt team late in 2009 and returned to his native Germany to run all of product development for GM's European brand Opel.

He will report directly to BMW's chief of research and development, Klaus Draeger, giving Weber effective management of all BMW activities in electric drive. The appointment will likely be announced officially this week.

[Automotive News (subscription required)]


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Comments (6)
  1. It will be a huge challenge for BMW to make a better Volt at a decent price point. GM ruled out carbon-fiber for cost reasons. 2014 is way late to the plugin party as GM will probably be on Generation 3 Volts with many other GM models. But the plugin car competition is heating up for good. There's no turning back now.

  2. "BMW was arguably the automaker of scale least knowledgeable about electric cars as recently as five years ago." is about the most ridiculous statement anyone has ever written in this site. Five years ago not one automaker of scale had ever sold an electric car except Toyota and they begrudgingly sold a few hundred to folks in CA. They really wanted to take them back and crush them like GM did to the EV-1. How can you possible compare what the other dozen or so automakers knew or didn't know in 2006 when none of them even offered an electric car?
    I have two friends that drive MINI-E's and they friggen love the car and have even offered to buy it and sign a service waiver indemnifying BMW from liability. I drove one for a day and it was fantastic. Right now only Nissan and Tesla can really brag about selling an EV. When is the Focus coming out? 2012? BMW had committed to having the i3 in showrooms in 2013(not 2014 as you wrote) and other than Nissan, Ford and maybe Toyota, no major OEM has committed to having a BEV in showrooms sooner than BMW.
    Note: I do like the volt, but lets face it, it's a plug in hybrid, not a BEV. Nothing wrong with that because it's a great car (I have driven 2 of them on short drives) but it is a just a sophisticated hybrid.

  3. @Mike: First, your friends didn't buy their Mini Es, they leased them. BMW will take back the cars at the end of the lease term; they will not be allowed to keep them.
    Second, many automakers--Daimler, General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and others--have up to two decades of experience with electric drive through either their previous electric car work or fleets of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. BMW had neither. That's the basis of the statement.

  4. John: Yes I know they don't own the MINI-E's. I did say that they love them so much that they "offered" to buy them, and these are experienced EV people who say it's the best EV they have ever driven. Of course BMW is taking them all back in October when the ActiveE is launched. From what they have been told the MINI-E's are going to Russia and China to participate in similar programs as done in the US, Germany, the UK, France, Spain and Japan.
    To me, nobody is really much ahead of anyone else at this point. Certainly Nissan has made the biggest commitment of all the OEM's, but nobody really has a huge edge based on what they have done in the past decade. GM was way ahead of the curve with the EV-1, too bad for them they didn't continue to refine/improve on that powertrain. Tesla seems to be ahead of everyone, but can they really compete? The Model S looks like it's better than anything on the horizon by the OEM's, but can they deliver them? Do they have the ability to make them fast enough to compete without compromising build quality? They have to get that car on the road, and not just the first 1,000 signature series. They need to start producing the 160 mile base model that's selling for 57K, which I understand will be he last into production.

  5. Continued: As for BMW, I have to give them credit because they recognized they needed to develop a strong EV program and have been spending a lot of money on it now. 600 MINI-E's and now 1,100 ActiveE's is a far cry from two dozen HFC Equinox. I would prefer to wait until 2013 for the i3 than buy a retrofitted focus that was really never meant to be an electric car. The i3 looks like it's going to be the perfect commuter. Extremely light weight & very efficient(140-150watts/mile). Sure we have to wait 2 years for it, but it looks like it's going to be a fantastic car when it arrives.

  6. John,
    I'm not going to try to go into who is ahead or behind, that's going to play out with who produces what real soon. However to say the MINI-E's aren't "particularly pleasant" is certainly an opinion not shared by many EV aficionados. The criticism can rightfully be placed on BMW for not allowing people to buy them, but to say the cars aren't capable, competent EV's is very far from the truth. I know you drove one for a short time when you wrote your original article, and really had an issue with the strong regen, but just about everybody that has these cars loves them. Just read what MINI-E lessees write on websites and blogs all over the internet. I know for a fact what Mike above said about his friends wanting to buy their cars is true, many of the MINI-E lessees have contacted BMW and offered to buy the cars for sizable amounts of money, They just don't want to give them back. Personally I would buy mine if they would sell it to me.
    I've driven many EV's, and the driving experience of the MINI-E is as good or better than any I've driven, including the Tesla Roadster. The handling, torque, strong right pedal regen pared with the smooth acceleration and fun factor that all MINI's have makes this car a blast to drive.
    Say what you want about how BMW is approaching electric cars, in time we will see how that plays out, but the MINI-E was an overwhelming success as an electric car compared to any of it's contemporaries.

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