BMW board member Weber: “Large hydrogen cars can make sense”.

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.

 

BMW i3 Batterie


BMW launched the all-electric BMW i3 back in 2013.

The proportions of the new iX appear relatively conventional despite the E-platform. Mercedes pushed the windshield of the EQS far forward to make the passenger compartment larger. Why does the iX have such a long hood that the customer can’t even open?

We do something different when it is functionally good and makes sense. The iX embodies what a BMW stands for. We have realized every advantage that electric architecture offers here. There’s as much room in the rear as in the X7, even though the car is about as long as the X5. The floor is flat, and the feet have generous freedom of movement. We were able to achieve the increased space by making the front end slightly shorter. After all, only the electric motor for the front axle, the charging electronics and sensors sit under the hood instead of a space-intensive combustion engine drive.

So you see the packaging advantages of the e-drive – but does it actually bring the hoped-for sustainability from BMW’s point of view?

The rise in e-mobility would increase CO2 emissions per vehicle in the supply chain by more than a third by 2030. We want to avoid this and even reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent compared to 2019. We already generate cells and modules exclusively with green electricity. This means that e-mobility only works if we close the recycling loop. Otherwise, we are merely shifting CO2 emissions – from driving to production. We work with Northvolt on battery production and Umicore on recycling. With these partners, we are currently establishing a European footprint that closes the loop all the way to recycling.

Recycling is all well and good, but first you have to produce the batteries using a lot of energy, don’t you?

The key to ecological BEV driving lies in the cell, how you manufacture them and recycle them for reuse after use. The transition to the BEV world always involves a change in the entire energy system. They can solve the so-called range anxiety up to a meaningful threshold, of course, with more range. In our view, that threshold is 500 to 600 kilometers. The iX has a good 100 kWh of storage and achieves this range through its high efficiency. Even larger storage units make e-cars ecologically questionable as things stand today.

For longer ranges from potentially non-fossil energy sources, there is still hydrogen. In your view, does hydrogen have any chance at all of being used in cars in the future?

Just think of the narrow urban canyons in Tokyo or Seoul: Here, one filling station converted for hydrogen can supply hundreds of vehicles. Achieving the same thing exclusively with an e-charging infrastructure would be much more costly. Especially since a large part of the power supply runs through above-ground lines. In Germany, we have underground lines and a very stable power grid – but even here, the expansion will take us decades. In certain regions and market segments, hydrogen actually makes little sense. In others, however, it makes a lot of sense – for example, in our upper segments like the X5. My favorite example is Japan: there, the politicians were quick to back hydrogen, as was Korea, by the way. There is already a good refueling infrastructure. And the conditions in the metropolises are different than here.

BMW recently updated 750,000 cars over the air. Is BMW already through with the second transformation, digitalization?

Quite the opposite: This will make every BMW more digital than ever. Digitalization is a major challenge for a classic, mechanical engineering industry like ours. Until now, all intelligence, the brain of functions, has been in the car. With the shift to data-driven developments and back-end functions, the brain is virtually moving out of the car and into the cloud. That’s changing the whole industry. Of course, we didn’t just discover the digital for ourselves with the iX, but already with the 7 Series 20 years ago, which most people will remember primarily for its special trunk lid design. The E65 was the first digital enabler. iDrive, menu navigation, control units that didn’t even exist before – that was a milestone for development at the time. BMW would probably not be where we are today without this car. That’s because its development led us to attach a great deal of importance to digitization years ago.

Where do you stand?

We now have 14 million cars in the field, from the 1 Series to the 7 Series, that are connected. In 2018, we also introduced the Remote Software Upgrade with our Operating System 7. This allows us to update our fleet digitally over-the-air. The campus in UnterschleiƟheim, where we develop automated driving, then brought in completely different development logics, such as artificial intelligence or agile working, which are important for the implementation of digitalization. And when I took up my new position, we asked ourselves: How do we want to position ourselves digitally across the board? At the moment, there is a tendency among our competitors to separate all the software developers together in one house – but that means that digitization is being pulled out of the essential functions – and that is exactly the opposite of how we develop cars.

Doesn’t the topic then get lost in the general development hubbub?

No. We have said that we need a strong body to network all these functions in the digital area. That’s why the new “Digital Car” organization has been in place since Oct. 1, 2020, as an integrated part of the Development department. We have around 10,000 dedicated “soft workers” spread across a wide range of functions – product development, production-related development, IT, etc. The Digital Car unit consists of three major pillars: Hardware and software, which we deliberately do not separate, connectivity i.e. interfaces, user interface, backend, and autonomous driving. But this process chain doesn’t just access its own people; it has a company-wide mission.

But BMW initially announced the iNext and the current iX as being capable of autonomous driving to Level 3, and now they say it can only manage Level 2. They are not alone in backing down. Why are automakers having such a hard time with this?

The iX has our new technology kit on board to enable us to introduce the next generation of driving assistance systems to the market. If we see real added value for our customers in the system’s combination of safety, function and assumption of responsibility, we will offer the option. In addition, the legislature is a key influencing factor that must first clarify how it will test and evaluate this technology. In highly automated driving, we have to prove that the computer drives more safely than humans. That is the reference parameter for us. The proof is at least a factor of 1 million more complex than in the development of previous driver assistance systems.

In the U.S., we already offer a level 2 assistance system that allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel for longer stretches on the highway – but they still have to pay attention to the traffic, and the assistance system monitors this with a camera in the cockpit. This is legally possible in the U.S., and our vehicles prove every day that it works safely. Nevertheless, the responsibility remains with the driver, unlike with level 3, where you hand over responsibility to the vehicle.

The person

Frank Weber, Entwicklungsvorstand BMW

Frank Weber at BMW’s Research and Engineering Center in Munich.

Frank Weber, born in 1966, is a mechanical engineer. He began his career in the automotive industry in 1991 at Opel, where he was director of program management and, until 2007, of advance and concept development. Then the family father went to the then Opel parent General Motors in Michigan, USA, as series manager for the Chevrolet Volt and first Opel Ampera (until 2010). After another year at Opel (Vice President Corporate and Product Planning), he moved to BMW as Head of Complete Vehicle Development, and was most recently Head of Product Line Luxury Class and Rolls-Royce. The convinced vegetarian has been a member of the Board of Management since July 1, 2020.

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