German carmaker BMW may be on the cusp of the most radical transformation in its history--one that will stun the auto industry if it comes to pass.

If a report from early this year is accurate, the company plans to convert the bulk of its product lineup to electric power over the next 10 years.

Virtually every BMW model would be powered by electric motors, with all-wheel drive and range-extending engines throughout the range.

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The transformation was laid out by British magazine Autocar in January, which describes it as "the latest thinking from BMW's advanced engineering department."

And the new architecture will affect even BMW's core model, its high-volume 3-Series sport sedan. It would not be the next generation, expected in 2018, but the one after that--meaning a launch in 2022 or later.

The driving force is stringent European Union regulations that greatly reduce the average carbon emissions permitted from road vehicles.

BMW i8 and i3 concept cars

BMW i8 and i3 concept cars

Tougher than either North American or Chinese standards, the current EU limits extend only to 2021. Further limits through 2025 are expected to be lower yet.

As a result, BMW has concluded that it must convert all its vehicles to some configuration of plug-in hybrid, lower their weight dramatically to compensate for larger battery packs, and make them far more aerodynamic.

The bodies are to be built from a mix of high-strength steel, both stamped and cast aluminum, and carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP).

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The first example of this new mix of materials is the 2016 BMW 7-Series, which has CFRP structural elements under the skin to replace what would formerly have been high-strength steel members.

The drivetrain of these future BMWs will consist of an electric motor on the rear axle, and another that powers the front wheels.

A front-mounted combustion engine both generates electricity as a range extender and can be clutched in to provide torque to assist the front motor under limited circumstances.

BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo Power eDrive prototype

BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo Power eDrive prototype

Which will sound quite familiar to Chevrolet Volt owners (minus the second motor at the rear).

The fundamentals of this system were shown off by BMW last November, when it presented its Power eDrive second-generation plug-in hybrid system at a technology day.

As installed in a BMW 5-Series GT demonstration vehicle, the Power eDrive system powered the rear wheels with a 200-kW (268-hp) electric motor. BMW said this would let the vehicle run much of the time on electric power alone.

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The front wheels were powered by a combined engine-motor-transmission combination, meaning the prototype was a so-called through-the-road hybrid for longer distances.

The motor in front was rated at 150 kW (201 hp), on top of the engine output, which wasn't specified.

One advantage of this system is that the combustion engine can be far simpler than today's complex multiply-turbocharged engines.

BMW's 3.0-liter twin turbo diesel

BMW's 3.0-liter twin turbo diesel

BMW engineers described the system as sufficiently scalable that it would power models from the core 3-Series sedan and 4-Series coupe right up through the largest 7-Series and Rolls-Royce luxury sedans.

As installed in the 5-Series GT mule, the battery pack occupied the tunnel and the space below the rear seats ahead of the rear axle.

Capacity in mainstream models is likely to be in the neighborhood of 20 kilowatt-hours, providing 60 miles of electric range.

BMW suggests that Power eDrive models could travel a majority of their miles under electric power alone, and that the engine would be powering the front wheels directly only perhaps 10 percent of the time.

BMW eDrive logo

BMW eDrive logo

The Autocar piece is worth reading in its entirety, because the transformation it describes is remarkable.

Already, BMW is acknowledged to be the electric-car leader among German makers.

If the full transformation occurs as described, under the pressure of regulation, BMWs of the future will be smooth, powerful--and largely electric.


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