In anticipation of the Sustainable Brands Conference which BMW is sponsoring, I spoke with BMW’s Head of Marketing for the BMW i series, Uwe Dreher about the future of sustainable cars and transportation. Megacities are the market they’re most interested in serving, a massive challenge for any automaker. How to sell cars to the people who need them the least? By not selling them, actually…
SS: Why has BMW chosen to be the premier sponsor for Sustainable Brands?
UD: I went last year, and was very impressed with the conference. I just came back from Sustainable Brands in Rio, and they have one in Istanbul as well. We like that it’s got an international focus, and think it has the potential to become the leading sustainability conference. When we choose partners, we like to work with properties that are global, and fit well with our sustainability efforts.
SS: BMW is known for high-performance cars that are built to last. Tell me how BMW balances performance with fuel economy.
UD: This is exactly the sort of big challenge our engineers wanted to do. We are an engineering-driven company, so this excites us. It’s not just about increasing power every year, we wanted to become more dynamic and more efficient at the same time. We’re always looking for the new challenge, the new innovation. Sure, our planet needs cars that are more efficient, but we don’t want to give up performance and fun, the core of our brand is always the driving pleasure.
SS: Which brings me to the next question- Active cruise control is a step toward a fully-automated car. When you say “intelligent mobility services” for the i cars, are you thinking of a more automated car?
UD: We’re not really coming out of that angle, but we are looking at how automated it can be. It can offer the driver a more relaxing time, enable them to get more work done on the way to the office. Insurance-wise it will be a long time until they can be fully automated, this is seriously not tomorrow, it’s something that will happen in many many years.
The BMW i brand is where we look at what’s happening in modern cities, and how to serve the people in them who don’t need cars. We want to connect with potential future customers who may not need to own a car now. We have megacities where people don’t want to own their own cars, traffic and parking make public transit faster and more appealing than driving. So we focus on mobility services for these customers.
SS: How is the Drive Now program coming along? Will you expand this to other cities?
UD: It’s already in four cities in Germany, but it takes quite an investment into technical infrastructure. It’s not just a pilot, it’s the start of a bigger roll-out. Almost every US city is suitable, but it depends on the city’s infrastructure and whether there’s a viable market for this program.
SS: Is there any way to track sales from Drive Now customers who then decide to buy a BMW?
UD: It would be too complicated to track that information, but it definitely can be a factor. A test drive of an electric BMW can only be one trigger in the decision, which in the US could lead to the purchase of a 3 series or a 5 series, because we don’t sell the electric cars in the US yet.
SS: When will the i3 and i8 be available?
UD: We have a launch in Europe in Fall 2013, then in Spring 2014 the BMW i3 and BMW i8 will come to the Americas and Asia.
UD: We did a lot of market research, in the end the BMW i8 combines the best that our existing engines can offer. Our customers want a weekend escape and excellent daily range. The BMW i3 is the perfect commuter car, so it’s all electric, but the BMW i8 needs that extended range.
SS: I hope the i8 comes to market looking like the concept. When I was at the LA Auto Show it really caught my eye, it’s so beautiful.
UD: We are staying very close to the original. We didn’t want to create beautiful concepts just for the show, so we’ve kept them very close. You will not be disappointed.
UD: We love that! It shows there’s a lot of energy in the electric car market, that just needs to be triggered by the right product. This proves it’s a stable industry that will continue to grow. Previous models were not enough to make people switch, so it’s great that they’ve come out with a model that has made so many people switch. The Tesla is a good car, it fills people’s practical and emotional needs. It’s good news.
SS: What do you think of Tesla’s direct to consumer sales model? Would it make sense for BMW to use a similar model for the slim profit margin EV’s, even though it challenges the current sales structure?
UD: We work within legal restrictions on sales models, but more importantly, we want excellent salespeople and service. You need someone to explain the car in detail, especially when it comes to electric cars. As a premium luxury brand, we want to provide the best service possible, and it’s what our customers expect. You really can’t buy a car on the internet like buying a t-shirt.
SS: Have you considered getting more people to try your motorcycles & scooters as a way to offset traffic in megacities like Los Angeles? I couldn’t live here if I had to drive a car. (BMW makes an excellent highway-capable scooter, and is about to launch their first electric scooter.)
UD: We have some cross-business in our company, but the BMW motorcycle owner uses it for their leisure life not so much for commuting. We will come out with electric or alternatively powered bikes, but that’s in the future.
SS: As an avid motorcyclist, former BMW owner who currently rides a Zero electric motorcycle, I have to ask- when will BMW offer an electric motorcycle?
UD: It’s a very realistic scenario actually!
SS: What’s coming up for the BMW i-brand line? we know about the i3 and i8, what is the next logical vehicle to offer?
UD: There is some space between the figures 3 and 8 and also above and underneath, right?