BMW Board Member for Development Frank Weber in an interview
“Large hydrogen cars can make sense!”
Mr. Weber, like the entire auto industry, you are facing major transformations. Perhaps the biggest is the change in drive principle. BMW is initially integrating the e-drive into the individual model series, apart from the solitaire iX. Is that enough?
We started very early with BEVs through BMW i. But the market for PHEVs is at least as important, so we’re focusing on both concepts.
How do you deal with the current accusations that plug-in hybrids are a fig leaf or a sham?
The first-generation PHEVs had ranges that made charging worthwhile for only a few application profiles. The new X5 with plug-in hybrid drive, for example, is quite different. In real-world operation, it can travel 60 to 70 kilometers on a single charge, and the electric driving share is correspondingly high. The X5 PHEV is very popular with our customers. I’m sure that with the future ranges of around 100 kilometers in the cycle, at the latest, the electric driving share will rise to 50 to 60 percent. Everyone agrees that the PHEV is important for large-scale electrification now: They make themselves independent of charging infrastructure for long distances. For those who have reservations about range and charging conditions, the PHEV allows them to go electric more often. It also has economic and business relevance because the transition from one technology to the other will not happen overnight. Also, those who argue in terms of securing employment will therefore have sympathies for this technology.
Speaking of employment: What does BMW want to do about future e-cars itself?
With regard to e-drives, it is important to us that we define the cell chemistry of the future together with our suppliers. Incidentally, this is in line with our development principles, which we do in exactly the same way with a transmission supplier: We understand every shift mechanism that ZF builds into its automatic transmission, our application engineers know exactly what happens in this transmission and optimize it together with the supplier. This also makes us valuable as a partner in industry. And we see it in exactly the same way with battery cells.
But that also means that you won’t be building battery cells yourself any more than you do transmissions, will you?
From today’s perspective, we will not be producing battery cells for our production vehicles ourselves, especially because the technology here is in flux. It would not be the right moment to enter production now.
But the battery cell is the key technology for e-driving – doesn’t an automaker have to do it in-house?
Understanding the process, what makes the best cell, is essential. Our battery cell competence center evaluates the entire value chain: how does manufacturing scale up, what are the commercial effects and what are the quality implications? We’ll even expand on that, because in the end it’s not just the best chemistry that determines what the best cell is, but its industrialization for production is at least as important. Reports of new cathode or anode materials that enable double the range are now coming from universities almost every week. This also works – in the laboratory. For us, however, the question is: How can they run millions of these best cells automatically from a production line in perfect quality? That’s why we will also be producing prototype cells close to series production here in Munich in the future, in order to map precisely the process in the supplier structure, so that we can also talk to suppliers completely at eye level during industrialization. We build the battery modules in-house anyway.
And the electric motors from Bayerische Motoren Werke?
It’s quite clear: We develop them ourselves and build them ourselves in Dingolfing. Incidentally, we also develop the power electronics in-house.
The iX3, for example, integrates the e-drive into an internal combustion engine architecture, and this will also be the case for the upcoming 7 Series.
that will also be the case. It’s different with the iX. How will you deal with the shift to e-mobility in your vehicle architectures in the future?
The iX is not yet based on a new architecture, but on its own pure E platform. But its components, e-drive, motors, high-voltage storage, for example, will also be used in the next 7 and 5 Series on the flexible CLAR architecture with all four drive types. Starting in the second half of the decade, we expect electrification to increase significantly, which is why we are now starting to develop the successor architecture as a matter of rotation. This new architecture will shift the focus from combustion engines to electric drives. We also want to retain flexibility in the drive variants with this future architecture – it is still too early for details. Nevertheless, this is a pretty big leap and not just a purely development-related issue, but a 360-degree task of commercial, industrial and aesthetic challenges. We have set up a new department for this purpose, which will ensure this networking within the company and initially report directly to our CEO Oliver Zipse.
Isn’t this new architecture coming a little too late?
No, it’s exactly the right time. It will come from the second half of the 20s and is exactly the right way we want to serve the market then. We are also well on track for the first half. We are number 1 in Europe and worldwide for plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). It is essential for BMW to be first in the mainstream. It is one of BMW’s most important development principles to have already looked around a corner while others are still moving toward it. We have often succeeded in this. We’ve always been at the forefront when it comes to the use of sensors, Ethernet and software upgrades, for example – it’s all Maistream now.
How big will the new department be?
It will be comparable to the product line organization. It will manage all the related areas. What happens organizationally to define the new architecture is an early-stage product line, and the new architecture will eventually replace the old one. In principle, therefore, the employees remain where they are, as is also the case with digital development.
But that was different at BMW i, wasn’t it?
When BMW i was created in 2006, the mission was completely different. At that time, there was so much doubt as to whether electric would ever come at all that Project i had to provide a much greater impetus. The organization was not yet ready to take this step. Now we don’t need any more impetus. We are transferring to a new architecture, which will then also form the core of BMW.