The i division at BMW was supposed to lead the way to the electric car future. Its first two cars, the i3 and i8, were highly innovative and were a showcase for the company’s legendary engineering talent. Both utilized advanced construction techniques to incorporate carbon fiber into the chassis and body panels of the cars. Carbon fiber is light but strong. Weight is critical for maximum range in electric vehicles.
i3 owners are passionate about their cars, but sales have been disappointing. The company sold only 25,000 of them last year. The i8 plug-in hybrid sports car is selling well, but at $150,000, it is never going to be a volume leader. Meanwhile, electric cars from competitors like Tesla, Volkswagen, and Porsche are on the horizon.
BMW has frittered and diddled about whether there would be a third model in the i division lineup. Some said it would be a version of the 5 Series sedan. Others said it would be a crossover vehicle. Whatever it is, the Bavarian company has now put off thinking about putting it into production before 2021.
Instead, it will focus on making Level 4 autonomous driving cars, according to BMW board member Klaus Froehlich, who is in charge of development for the company. “It is now in ramp-up stage. We call it Project i Next,” he told the press at company headquarters in Munich recently.
The company is hiring experts in machine learning and artificial intelligence. It is also integrating the functions of existing computer driven assistance systems like cruise control, emergency braking, lane-keeping support and automatic parking, according to Reuters.
Earlier this year, BMW suffered a number of high profile defections. Dirk Abendroth, manager or the “i” powertrain group, Henrik Wenders, vice president of “i” product management, and Carsten Breitfeld, vice president of engineering and head of the i8 program, all left to go work for an electric car start-up in China.
Froehlich tells the press that with self driving cars, BMW could launch a ride hailing service to compete with Uber and Lyft without having to pay human drivers.
All car makers are concerned because more and more people are comfortable with sharing a vehicle rather than owning one. If you build cars for a living, that’s a scary prospect. It’s not enough to make “the ultimate driving machine” if a computer is doing the driving.
The pace of change in the car business is greater now than at any time in the past 100 years. The competition is keeping the pedal to the metal and even such a large and capable company as BMW is having a hard time keeping up.