We first heard about the vehicle now known as the BMW i3 in 2010 at the JEC show in Paris. There, we met for the first time Andreas Wüllner and Jörg Pohlman, managing directors of the then new joint venture between SGL Group and BMW Group, called SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers (SGL ACF). Wüllner and Pohlman told us about a new all-electric passenger car BMW was developing, called the Megacity Vehicle. It would feature a passenger cell made entirely of carbon fiber, which would be captively sourced from SGL ACF at a new plant to be built in Moses Lake, Wash. The car, they said, would be a production vehicle and thus would represent the first use of substantial amounts of carbon fiber in a car ostensibly targeted toward the everyday driver.
That vehicle, which became the BMW i3, is on this month’s cover, and you’ll find the i3 plant tour we have long looked forward to in this issue (click on "BMW Leipzig: The epicenter of i3 production" under "Editor's Picks" at top right). Now, the i3 is on the market in Europe and in the U.S., BMW is making 100 i3s a day, and the sporty hybrid i8 — also featuring a carbon fiber passenger cell — is due out later this year.
So, it appears that the long-awaited electric vehicle (EV) culture is here. There is, however, a certain amount of déjà vu. The same year we met Wüllner and Pohlman, we published in CT a story about other up-and-coming electric vehicles that promised to use composites for lightweighting. We wrote about Myers Motors’ two-seat Duo and one-seat NmG. We reported on Tesla’s Model S EV and the two-seat Aptera 2 Series being developed by Aptera Motors. We told you about Fisker Automotive’s hybrid-electric Karma. Where are they now?
The Tesla Model S lives on, but all of the others saw either limited or no life in production. Fisker, running out of money, entered bankruptcy in 2013 and was acquired by Wanxiang America Corp., which might or might not resume production of the Karma. Myers Motors is alive, but production of its EV depends on a crowd-funding campaign. Cash-strapped Aptera was forced to close its doors in late 2011, was subsequently bought by Chinese automaker Jonway and reactivated as Zaptera USA, which in turn created Aptera USA. Aptera USA has promised to produce the Aptera 2 Series, but as of mid-May, it was nowhere to be seen.
The bottom line here is, well ... the bottom line. Developing and manufacturing cars is expensive, and not for the shallow of pockets. The consumer market might be ready for smaller, nimbler, lighter, urban-friendly EVs, but meeting that demand takes investment on a scale that only companies like BMW and Tesla and Toyota can muster.
Even the i3 is not a guaranteed success, yet, but it has the corporate muscle behind it to give it more than a fighting chance, and for that reason, we in the composites industry should be glad.
Editor PickBMW Leipzig: The epicenter of i3 production
A glimpse into the inner workings of an automaker at the forefront of serial-production autocomposites.