Future Car-Making

Michael Sheridan finds out what's happening at BMW's 'i' division.

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When you enter BMW's Leipzig plant, you see a vision of the future - from 1972!

Sitting in pride of place in the entrance hall is a beautiful, electric-powered BMW 1602. The car was specially built as a showcase for the Munich Olympics. Now, over four decades later, the plant has started building the new i3 and i8 electric BMWs.

Motors went to the plant to find out why BMW says its 'i' division represents the future of car-making.

Dominating the skyline are four, 140-metre high windmill towers. Each has three, 49-metre long blades that turn the centre hub to generate the plant's 'i car'-manufacturing electricity demands. Over a year, each windmill produces 2.5 megawatts of electrical power - and before you ask, when the wind doesn't blow any stored surplus can be used. The plant is also connected to the standard mains supply as conventional BMWs like the X1 and 1 Series are also built in Leipzig by the 3,000-strong workforce.

We were shown, over a number of workshops, how the production process has been simplified and made greener, and also how BMW's vision has seen the amount of manufacturing space needed to build a car reduced by up to 50%.

At the heart of BMW 'i' is the use of the wonder material CFRP (Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic). BMW has invested over €660m in CFRP production. It is not just carbon fibre as we know it from Formula 1, but a fabric that when resin-saturated (under variable high pressure), and then heat-formed, can make car body panels that are very strong and light. BMW says it will use more of this material in conventional BMWs in the future.

CFRP parts and panels aren't cheap to manufacture but CFRP makes up for this by being around 50% lighter than the steel equivalent. As a result, the BMW i3's CFRP passenger cell (minus the four doors and tailgate) weighs less than 150kg!

The production process is also very quiet. The BMWi plant has no noisy steel presses. An army of robots - and a few humans - prepare and glue the CFRP panels together with high precision. Any human handling is done wearing gloves to avoid dust contamination. Some parts for the new 'i cars' come from outside the Leipzig plant, e.g. the drive module and plastic cladding (exterior body panels) come from the Dingolfing plant.

BMW i3 is an interesting machine on a number of fronts. Of course, the fact the 1250kg car is powered by electricity is the primary talking point. The rear-wheel drive car has a slab of batteries housed in an aluminium cradle that is bonded with super-strong glue to the underside of the CFRP passenger cell. Power is a healthy 170bhp and 250nm of torque. The car will have a range of between 130-180 kilometres, depending on how it is driven and weather conditions – Evs don't like temperature extremes.

BMW says that, if used exclusively on motorways, the i3 should not go below a range of 70-80 kilometres. But, as we know from other EVs we've tested, the open road is not the place for electric cars: they are city machines. In terms of charging, the usual methods apply, i.e. a domestic plug (2.5KW), wall-mounted home chargers (7.4KW) and a newer, yet-to-be-standardised, high-speed 50KW charger that can charge to 80% in 30 minutes. An extended range version of i3 is in development that features a modified two-cylinder motorcycle engine (remember BMW makes motorcycles) as a generator should the batteries run too low - similar to an Opel Ampera.

BMW says the batteries should last the life of the car: 10 years. BMW is confident that even at 10 years, the batteries should still operate at 80% capacity. Ninety-five percent of an i-car can be recycled and even the old batteries can have a second life as a static power source in the home. BMW says maintenance costs should be around 20% less than a 1 Series.

If you crash your i3, specialist repair will be required, but we were shown how the CFRP could be sectionally repaired and how aluminium components could be cut out and replaced. Overall, the car is very strong with similar crash performance to a 3 or 5 Series.

We were shown a number of crash videos and the physical cars used. The new materials were clearly very strong and energy was always taken away from the batteries. In a split second, when a collision is detected, the high voltage system is disconnected by a pyro (explosive) fuse blowing. BMW enlisted the emergency services to see how the i3 would perform in a rescue situation where cutters and pneumatic hammers etc. would be used and the car passed with flying colours.

BMWi is pointing the way to a manufacturing process that is greener and kinder to the environment. i3, depending on production supply, should reach Ireland by the end of the year.

Michael Sheridan


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