Monday, April 6, 2015

Q&A with BMW's Jose Guerrero at the New York Auto Show

Jose explaining the features of the concept i3 at the BMW i Born Electric Tour back in 2012

Having been in BMW's trial lease e-mobility program for five years, I've been able to get to know many of the program managers and engineers working at BMW i in North America. Jose Guerrero, Product Planning and Strategy Manager for BMW i, is one of only a few people at BMW of North America who has been a constant force in the program over the years. That's the nature of the auto industry though. People move around within the company, and often even leave to take on positions at competing OEMs.

So when I saw Jose's name on the list for available interviews at this year's New York Auto Show, I quickly reserved a half hour to sit down with him and talk about the i3 and the future of BMW i.

My i3's battery pack. It was removed from the car in less than an hour.
Future Battery Replacement

The first question was easy. There has been a lot of talk about recent comments by BMW's R&D chief Klaus Froehlich. Froehlich was recently interviewed by Automotive News Europe and asked if BMW would be offering a "more powerful powertrain" for the i3 or i8, and many took that as meaning better batteries once they become available. Froehlich said:  “I don’t think a retrofit makes sense. When better batteries are available, we could then offer models with a longer range or with the same range but at a lower price" and "replacing the batteries is very complex because they are integrated and bonded into the chassis." This didn't make sense to me because I know that any certified BMW i service center can drop the i3's battery and replace one or more of the eight battery modules and put the car back together in a couple of hours. In fact, I've personally seen it done on my car in less than a day. What would prevent BMW from upgrading these modules with higher energy-density cells once they are available in a few years? Here's what Jose had to say about that:
The underside of my i3 with the battery pack removed.

"The strategy of BMW i has always been focusing on sustainability, recycling and really maximizing the usage life of the car. I mean, first of all the car won't rust. It's made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic & aluminum so we are looking at how do we maximize the car for long usage. He didn't say it's not upgradable, but rather that at this point it doesn't seem to make sense. We really are investigating this and if it's possible, and it makes financial sense, why not? This would be in line with the BMW i philosophy. We haven't said we aren't going to do it, just that it has to make sense. A BMW i dealer can do a complete battery replacement in 3 to 5 hours so from a technical perspective it's clearly possible, we would just need to make sure it also makes financial sense. We are always getting asked, "Could you retrofit a navigation system, or Comfort Access into a car?" Yes, we could, but we'd have to rip the whole car apart. That isn't the case with better batteries once they become available, it just has to make sense. We are definitely investigating this, so if it makes sense we'll do it." Guerrero further went on to say it's conceivable Froehlich may have been misquoted or perhaps there was a translation issue because he certainly knows the batteries aren't "bonded into the chassis" as the Automotive News Europe's story indicated.

The Circuit

BMW i has recently launched a new online forum called "The Circuit". Would you like to explain why, and what exactly it is?

"We recognized these cars are different and customers will have questions that are unique to the i brand. We wanted to provide a forum where BMW i customers could communicate amongst themselves, share information and also ask BMW questions directly. There is an entire section called "Ask BMW" where customers can ask questions and get answers much faster than would have ever been possible before. It's direct access to BMW i personal that was not previously possible. We'll post information regarding technical updates, upcoming events, and all official BMW i news. It's our goal to use the forum to improve the BMW i ownership experience."

Hill Climb Assist

Late last year BMW had stated the i3 with range extender would have a software update in March which would add a new feature called "Hill Climb Assist." This was supposed to prevent sudden reduced power mode without warning while the REx was running and to make the vehicle more capable of climbing long, steep hills at highway speeds while in charge sustaining mode. Can you talk a little about this?

"This is something we are still working on. First, let me say the March 15th software update addresses part of the problem which was to provide information to help the driver avoid reduced power in these challenging driving conditions. A big gripe which the owners conveyed to us was they didn't have any warning before the vehicle reduced power. We've corrected that with a warning which comes on before the vehicle enters reduced power mode to warn the driver to alter their driving (basically that means to reduce speed) to hopefully prevent reduced power. Secondly, we've added a state of charge display so drivers can see the exact state of charge and monitor it more closely during these driving events. The the new state of charge display is also applied to the BEV i3s once they get the software update also.
An audible warning and this visual alert comes on when the state of charge drops to 3.5%, warning the driver that reduced power is possible, and giving them time to alter their driving to avoid it.  You can also see the new SOC display in the top left corner.

As for the Hill Climb Assist feature, we're still perfecting it. For the past four months we had a group of i3 REx owners beta testing Hill Climb Assist software and the feedback we got caused us to go back and redevelop it, creating an even more robust version. We are now testing a new version and once we're confident it is ready we will again give it to the beta test group for real world testing before we release it to the general i3 public. We are committed to getting this right and feedback from actual i3 owners is critical."

At this point I was shown a video of an i3 REx driving up a steep mountain climb at highway speeds in the snow. I was told this car had the new software and they were testing it in Vermont this winter on a closed road which was over 3 miles long, up steep hill at highway speeds in the snow. It should be noted that I am one of the people in the i3 REx customer beta test group which tested the previous Hill Climb Assist software. I reported back to BMW that it was insufficient, and it was my recommendation to re-engineer it before it was released to the public. I'm happy BMW agreed and look forward to testing the current version which I'm promised is more robust. I'll report on this new software once I have it on my car. It's not expected to have this new Hill Climb Assist software ready for the general public for another six months or so.
BMW i has a new North American Manager. What changes should we expect?
New Program Manager for BMW i

My last question was regarding the new Manager of Electric Vehicle for BMW of North America, Christine Fleischer. BMW i of North America hasn't had a permanent division manager since Jacob Harb left the post back in November. Prior to assuming the position at the helm of BMW i, Christine had been the BMW M & Individual Area Manager for North & South America.  I asked Jose what this means for the future of BMW i.

"Christine has now started her new role and we're all very excited. During Jacob's time here he was focused on the launch of the brand and we're now in a different phase. Now with Christine we're focusing on continuing dealer training and building sales. We're through the early adopter phase of i3 sales, and we now need to reach the early majority to continue to build sales. Dealer training is important and we'll continue to offer this specialized training so our sales force is prepared, and that's critical to maintain the sales momentum we've built. The whole team is excited to have Christine here for the next phase of BMW i."
The new North American BMW i manager, Christine Fleischer next to a 1M at the Canadian launch in 2011.
Photo courtesy of BMWBLOG


5 comments:

  1. Great reporting, Tom, I always appreciate your inside look at BMWi.

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  2. Tom, José should have given you much more time than a half hour!

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  3. Thanks for the information, Tom!

    With regard to the discrepancy between Froehlich and Guerrero on BMW's battery replacement policy, I got the impression there is still an internal debate within the company on their approach.

    From an engineering perspective, the concept of upgrading the battery must have been discussed from the very beginning, and was something that was anticipated (for the future). Lithium ion batteries degrade with time and typically will not give useful performance over the life of the car. This is especially true with the long-lived CFRP, aluminum, and plastic i3. Electric motors will last almost forever.

    That leaves the business/financial question. Guerrero said battery replacements would be a potential money maker. Froehlich seemed to be suggesting that customers should upgrade to a new model EV when better batteries become available. Replace the battery or replace the car?

    Better batteries will be available on an ongoing basis—batteries with higher and higher energy densities that become less and less expensive with time. If you have an extremely reliable car that will last for decades, that can be upgraded to significantly better performance and range with a quick battery swap and software upgrades, why buy a new model?

    Of course many people's needs will change, but for many others, the old car retailing model will become an anachronism. Perhaps BMW decision-makers are having this discussion again now, more urgently, because the future is just around the corner. In its "next technology roadmap," BMW's battery supplier (Samsung SDI) shows a "new" nickel-cobalt-manganese lithium-ion battery for 2016 that must certainly already be in test cars. Although the energy density is not given, it surely must be a step up from what is now in the i3.

    It seems that electric cars are not only revolutionizing automotive technology, they may also be bringing about a new business model—how manufacturers build, sell, and service cars, and how consumers approach car ownership. A big status quo upset.

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  4. BMW electric car is facing tough time in usa. The competitors like Tesla, Volkswagen e-Golf, Chevrolet Volt, Toyota and many more doing much better. Whatever you should checked the latest 2015 BMW X5. This is an Amazing car for bmw lovers
    http://goo.gl/QMTNyi

    ReplyDelete