Except for a lot of green talk, my German compatriots are not known for enthusiastically embracing the EV idea. Japan, even China is way ahead of them. Despite high gasoline costs (taxes, taxes), even hybrids are everything but runaway successes in the Fatherland. If Germans want to save, they buy a Diesel, or take the train. But even the train isn’t the bargain it used to be. One car company bets big on Electric Vehicles. So big, that they built a whole new factory for them. You won’t believe who.
It’s BMW. With Chancellor Merkel in attendance, BMW started construction of a factory only for EVs. The plant is outside of Leipzig, and looks “like a stranded UFO,” as Die Welt reports. In 2013, the factory will churn out BMW’s EVs that currently go by the working title “Megacity Vehicle.” Instead of putting a battery and electric motors into a (more or less) existing vehicle, BMW will build a whole new vehicle around battery and electric motors. Or so they say.
Here is the big EV conundrum: The car has to lug a heavy battery around. Weight is the enemy of range. The bigger the battery, the bigger the weight. Can’t win. So BMW makes the car itself as light as possible. Instead of heavy steel, even instead of light aluminum, there will be carbon fiber. “Less weight, more range” taught CEO Reithofer the assembled press and luminaries, just in case they had slept during Newton. So get ready for a future that replaces carbon dioxide with carbon fiber.
BMW started a joint venture with SGL Carbon. They are building a factory in Washington State that will mass produce carbon fiber in an environmentally-friendly fashion. “When we make carbon fiber in our state, no harmful substances will be emitted into the air,” bragged Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire, who was also in attendance. Even the power to make the fiber is green: Hydroelectric power, there is one plus to all that rain in the Northwest.
Still, BMW has to deal with the usual problems that plague EVs. First, there is the nasty price. It won’t be cheap. But BMW customers usually don’t rely on social security. Then, there is range. Klaus Draeger, head of R& at BMW says it will go for 200km (124 miles) – no wonder it’s for megacities. Its range is barely enough for the M25, London’s ring road. In a true megacity, like Beijing, it will run out of juice before circumnavigating the 140mile long 6th Ring Road.
Then, there is a huge gamble: Currently, carbon fiber is obscenely expensive. Two to three times as dear as aluminum. Nearly 30 times as expensive than steel – if you go by weight. BMW is betting that the price of carbon fiber (and hopefully that of batteries) will come way down before they launch their Megacity Vehicle in 2013. If not, it will be a megadud.