As the auto industry plans more electric cars in higher volumes for the 2020s, one of the great debates is whether they will need to be designed from the ground up solely for battery power.
Doing so allows designers to offer larger cabins due to the more compact drive motors and electronics.
One of the best examples of that idea is the upcoming Jaguar I-Pace electric SUV.
The I-Pace design is clearly that of a Jaguar, but its proportions include a shorter nose and longer cabin than would be possible in a gasoline-powered crossover of the same shape and footprint.
VW Group has decided its future electric vehicles will all be built on a dedicated architecture known as MEB, with the first one—the Volkswagen ID hatchback—going into production late next year.
But BMW is going against the flow, following a radical 2016 restructuring of its future electric-car lineup for 2019 and thereafter.
The company believes that the next generations of its two core platforms can serve equally well for vehicles powered by engines—with or without plug-in hybrid capability—and those running exclusively on energy stored in a large underfloor battery pack.
One platform is the next version of the FAAR front-wheel-drive platform that underpins today's Mini Cooper range and BMW X1 small crossover. It now offers all-wheel drive either via mechanical drive or using a rear electric motor.
The other is the CLAR architecture first used for the latest 7-Series and 5-Series large sedans, which has been "re-engineered to accommodate combustion, hybrid, and EV drivetrains," according to Car magazine in the U.K.
We sat down for a brief chat at last week's Detroit auto show with Stefan Juraschek, the head of BMW's Electric Powertrain group. He's a man deeply enmeshed in the plug-in electric vehicles that BMW will launch over the next two to 10 years.
He declined to answer a number of the questions we asked, including the structural specifics of how future vehicles would vary.
But he confirmed BMW believes its two architectures—in the form of "modular kits" of components—are fully capable of serving both cars with powerful engines and those with large battery packs and more compact electric drive motors.
2017 BMW i3 and 2017 BMW i8
Summarizing the conversation, Juraschek's points included:
- The BMW i3 and i8 launched for 2014 were cutting-edge for their time, but the company has learned a great deal about real-world use of electric cars since then
- Its modular architecture kits, under development for three years now, will underpin every vehicle it makes for the next 10 years
- BMW now has "confidence for the future" that its "modular kit" of components provides a "whole bandwidth of architectures" suitable for everything from battery-electric cars to plug-in hybrids
Juraschek's points continue on the following page.
2018 BMW i3, 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show
He also said:
- The company has "answered the questions" it had about architectures that provide the "best compromise for the body-in-white," which will be both "scalable and flexible for the future"
- One key factor is the need to keep similar driving positions among cars with different powertrains, to maintain the BMW brand personality—despite thick underfloor battery packs that alter the proportions of vehicles
- Future plug-in hybrid BMWs will evolve toward what he sees as the optimal electric range of 60 to 80 km (35 to 50 miles), a number based on real-life driving data accumulated since 2009
- Future electric cars still depend on future battery technology and capacity, which BMW sees improving at 5 to 6 percent a year
- No fundamental hurdles exist, just the "hard work" to produce a more "highly integrated drivetrain" that costs less and provides greater capabilities to drivers
- The company says it now has "the right module architecture," with fewer interconnects, to take its battery packs well into the future
Mini Electric concept, 2017 Frankfurt auto show
- DC fast charging for highways must and will move to rates of 350 kilowatts, but 50 kw is sufficient for urban use and most daily driving
- BMW remains conscious and aware of "360-degree sustainability," which is to say not just the carbon footprint of driving the vehicles but also their manufacturing and components (carbon fiber is highly energy-intensive to make)
The next plug-in electric vehicles expected to emerge from BMW are an all-electric Mini Cooper for 2019, and an electric version of the latest BMW X3 compact crossover utility vehicle for 2020.