BMW has launched an attempt to win over drivers worried about electric vehicles’ limited range with its first production-ready battery-powered car.
The BMW i3, which was unveiled this week, includes several options also being tried by competitors – including leasing models and a range-extending petrol motor – that allow drivers to try out the car’s electric capabilities without spending tens of thousands of pounds in order to rely entirely on battery power.
The move comes as electric vehicle (EV) sales remain relatively low and manufacturers look for ways to push the cars into the mainstream, despite the insistence of companies such as BMW that a more environmentally sustainable business model is vital for the future of long-term profitability.
One of the key barriers to public acceptance of EVs is range anxiety – the fear a car doesn’t carry enough charge to complete its journey – despite research suggesting 95 per cent of trips are under 30 miles, well within the range of most EVs.
The i3 was designed from scratch with an electric powertrain in mind, featuring a low centre of gravity due to the low, central placing of the battery, and a lightweight carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) body to cancel out the extra mass this adds.
But the car’s stated range of 81-99 miles (130-160km) in ‘everyday conditions’ is still comparable to those of other models already on the market, which have so far only sold several thousand units in the UK.
To counter the anxiety issue, BMW are making the i3 available with a petrol-driven motor that doubles the car’s range compared to battery power alone (in the way of plug-in hybrid cars such as the Vauxhall Ampera), and offering three-year leases and options to borrow other vehicles for longer journeys.
Although the company has not released sales or production targets for the car, BMW spokesperson Krystyna Kozlowska said, ‘We are envisaging that in the first instance the range extender will be a slightly higher proportion [of sales] than electric only. But I think over time that might change as people come to understand how they use their vehicle.’
The leasing model is already being trialled by Nissan with its all-electric Leaf and was tested by BMW when it ran an international study of EV usage with its Mini E, which has yet to enter mass production.
‘Research that we’ve done has shown that people tend to prefer to lease this type of vehicle,’ said Kozlowska. ‘There is some element of the unknown with it and so leasing rates have been popular.’
UK electric car sales are increasing and at a rapid pace (although from relatively low numbers), according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
‘In 2011 we saw just over 1,000 cars registered,’ said SMMT spokesperson Jonathan Visscher. ‘By 2012 that had more than doubled. This year we’re already past the 1,500 mark half way through the year, 85 per cent up on we were a year before.’
Visscher said several factors were driving the increase in sales, including falling prices – the cost of buying a Leaf has dropped from £25,000 (including the £5,000 government grant available for EVs) to £15,000 for a basic model.
‘A big part of that will be the development of the model, refinement of the technology and the new model is being built in the UK,’ he said. ‘We’re seeing more and more vehicles come onto the market so more vehicles, more competition, better prices etc, and different ways of owning them.’
He added that BMW’s entry to the market could help drive that trend.
‘When players like BMW come to the market it raises the game for everyone. It raises the awareness, it raises the perception and they think this is something to take seriously if the brand and influence of BMW are being part of this.’