Bringing a new car to market is an expensive proposition. First it has to be designed, itself a long and costly process. And if it will use new technology, like an electric drivetrain, money has to be spent to make those new ideas production ready, and then you’ve got to retool whole factorys to build your new car It often takes car companies years to amortize all those start up costs; for instance, it took Toyota ten years and three generations before the Prius finally began making a profit.
But one engineering firm says that BMW will start making money on the i3 after only 20,000 cars are built and sold. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment for a vehicle that brings so much fresh thinking and new technology to market. Munro & Associates in Michigan specializes in providing automakers with real-world costing analysis and manufacturing tear downs of competitor’s cars. They purchased a brand-new BMW i3 last August and spent several months disassembling and reverse-engineering it to figure out just how it is constructed and how much it costs BMW to build it.
The i3 uses a unique carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) body shell, an advanced battery pack, and lightweight construction techniques that all qualify as disruptive technology in the auto business. Quite simply, there is nothing else quite like the i3 on the market. “This is, without a question of a doubt, the most advanced vehicle on the planet,” said A. Sandy Munro, chief executive of Munro & Associates, in an interview with Forbes. “It’s as revolutionary as the Model T was when it came out.”
Munro’s engineers found that the BMW i3 is far more energy-efficient to build than a traditional steel-framed car. It was amazed to learn that the fibers of the CFRP are so carefully aligned to resist crushing that the plastic body shell functions as well or better than steel in providing a super strong but ultra-lightweight survival cell for the passengers. BMW has expressed interest in selling its carbon fiber technology to other automakers, among them Tesla Motors, whose Model S can weigh close to 5,000 pounds when fully-loaded.
In battery cars, weight is critical. Less weight means the car needs smaller, less expensive batteries and motors. Couple that with the reduced energy needed to produce the body shell and you have a car that can be profitable years sooner than anyone ever thought possible. Munro also gives BMW kudos for designing a modular battery that allows individual cells to be replace as needed rather than the whole battery pack. Few other electric cars offer that advantage, and it could save owners a lot of money in case of an accident.
While BMW’s CFRP technology is revolutionary in the car business, it is also drawing interest from other industries. “We’re not just selling this [information] to car companies,” says Munro. “Airplane companies, high-speed rail companies, even people making furniture are interested in this car because it’s that revolutionary.”