MUNICH -- It wasn't so long ago that a typical discussion with BMW's r&d chief would focus on new combustion-engine technology, the aerodynamic qualities of the latest car designs or the relative driving characteristics of Germany's three premium carmakers.

Those topics are still important. But in an interview with automotiveIT, Klaus Draeger, BMW's board member in charge of r&d, focused on lightweight materials, electric vehicles, battery technology, car connectivity and infotainment.

With the industry changing faster than at any time in its 125 year history, the automotive battlefield of the early 21st century may well be in these areas.

Draeger was in Tokyo last week to announce a research tie-up with Toyota in the field of lithium-ion batteries. At a press conference there, he said: "Whoever has the best batteries in terms of function, cost, and quality in their vehicles will win more customers."

BMW will start rolling out its new battery powered brand i electric vehicles in a couple of years. In the interview with automotiveIT, Draeger said he hoped that, by then, the market for EVs will be out of its slow startup phase.

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At a press event in February, Draeger explained how carbon fiber would make the new i models lighter

"Everyone has shown their concepts and the first cars are actually on the market," he said. "Now we are at the point where we'll have to see whether there will be higher sales volumes."

Most of the industry has invested heavily in electric vehicles and hopes that, after a tepid start, demand will pick up.

BMW is no exception. It has been running tests of converted Minis and BMW models, has committed 400 million euros in EV technology spending at its Leipzig plant and has created its i brand specifically to compete in the new segment.

"We poured 100s of millions into r&d so we want to really sell these cars," Draeger told automotiveIT.

But the electric-vehicle revolution faces several hurdles. To name just two: The batteries that power the cars weigh a lot, which makes the overall vehicle heavier. And the batteries provide only a modest driving range before they need to be recharged.

Weight reduction

BMW sees strong potential for weight reduction in the increased use of carbon-fiber reinforced plastics, which are substantially lighter than either steel or aluminum.

Earlier this month, the German car company announced the acquisition of a 15.2 pc stake in SGL Carbon, a US based maker of carbon fiber composites. BMW's controlling owner, Susanne Klatten, already held  a 29 pc stake, giving BMW unofficial control of SGL.

The BMW acquisition was a logical one, said Draeger. "If you look at the global availability of carbon fiber andat our expected demand, you see that you will very quickly need a sizeable part of it," he said. "So it made strategic sense for us to deal with the issue a bit more intensively."

Carbon fiber, which will be used in the passenger module of the new i3, will help keep that model's weight down to around 1,250 kilos. That compares with 1,500 kilos for the electric Mini. Moreover, the i3 will be a four-seater with relatively big trunk space. The Mini, by comparison, has only two seats and very little space in the trunk.

In Draeger's opinion, the growth of electric vehicles also will not be slowed by worries over their driving range. The BMW executive is optimistic that the energy density of battery cells can be improved by 5 pc-7 pc a year in coming years. That can provide comparable improvements in electric driving range.

But Draeger isn't sure whether higher capacity batteries will actually be used to lengthen the i3's electric driving range. Tests with electric Minis have shown that range anxiety was not an issue among long-term EV drivers.

Said Draeger: "Maybe the 160km range of the i3 is sufficient and we can use fewer batteries and make the car lighter and less expensive."

Strong infotainment offering

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At a press event in February, Draeger explained how carbon fiber would make the new i models lighter

BMW is facing strong competition in its efforts to provide a truly connected car that features class leading infotainment systems. But Draeger is confident the Munich-based car company can offer a compelling set of options.

"Where we aim to differentiate ourselves is in giving our customers access to the information they need such as their calendar, their contacts and their music," he said. "But equally decisive is to give customers easy access to these data."

The "connected car" has for the past several years been a priority for BMW. Hence the company's readiness for the planned Europe-wide implementation ”“ in 2015 ”“ of the eCall emergency warning system.

BMW's Assist eCall system has been available in all of brand's models since 1997. Said Draeger: "We have a superb eCall system." He also noted that the BMW system meets US requirements.

The BMW executive agreed that eCall still faces some hurdles before implementation.A key obstacle still lies in European automakers' different views on how the system should work.

Draeger also acknowledged that eCall, though affordable in a premium car, faces a cost issue in the lower segments.

Said the BMW research chief: "When such a system becomes mandatory, it generates sizeable costs in a small car."

-By Arjen Bongard