Saturday, October 24, 2015

Krueger: BMW i3 to Get "Battery Facelift" in 2016

BMW CEO Krueger revealed plans to increase the i3's range in 2016
It's no secret that if BMW wants the i3 to continue to remain relevant they will eventually have to increase its all electric range. In fact, in about a year there will be no less than two electric vehicles available in North America that have double the i3's all electric range and also cost less. Nissan will be launching the second generation LEAF, and Chevrolet will bring the Bolt EV to market by the end of 2016 and they are both rumored to have approximately 200 miles of electric range.

I think it's fair to say most people expected BMW to up the i3's range to stay competitive, but when they would do so was not known. Until now. BMW CEO Harold Krueger in an interview with Die Zeit recently said this about the topic:

“Battery cell technology continues to evolve. The range of the i3 will be increased in 2016. A further technological improvement is to be expected in three or four years: Then you’ll be able to go twice as far on a single charge without any further increase in the weight of the battery."
This is the first time anyone from BMW has offered a clear statement about increasing the range of the current i3. Personally, I didn't expect this yet, but welcome the news. I had always maintained that the i3's range would be linked to the progress made by BMW's battery partner, Samsung SDI. So the news that the MY2017 i3 will have increased range is interesting as well as exciting. It's interesting because Samsung has maintained that they wouldn't be bringing the next generation of large format, automotive grade batteries with increased energy density to market before 2018 - 2019. See timeline produced by Samsung SDI below:
Samsung SDI Battery Technology Roadmap
So the question is: How is BMW increasing the i3 range? Here are some possible explanations:

1) They are sourcing higher energy density batteries from other suppliers. This could very likely be the answer. The i3's 130 kW/Kg battery cells are not nearly as energy dense as the cells Tesla uses for instance. BMW could have a partner to supply them with cells which have considerably higher energy density and accomplished the increased range using the same battery tray as the current i3.

2) Samsung SDI provided BMW with a battery which is incrementally better than the existing cells they provide BWM with, but not quite as energy dense as the cells they plan to have in three or four years, according to their technology roadmap. Again, this would allow BMW to use the current battery tray and not need any major structural re-engineering. 

3) BMW redesigned the battery tray to accommodate more battery modules, or used the area where the range extender goes to add a second, smaller battery pack. Either of these options would have required a lot of engineering, testing and validation. I just don't see BMW doing either of these for a mid-cycle refresh. Certainly when the next generation i3 comes out in 2018 or 2019 there will likely be new redesign of the battery tray area, but not for a refresh, it's just too expensive to do that only two years after the initial launch.

Another benefit of the increased electric range will be increased gas range for the REx i3s in the US. Unlike in Europe, the US i3 must have a shorter range when driving on gasoline than it does on battery alone. This is a complicated issue which is tied to the amount of ZEV credits BMW gets for every i3 they sell, but in short by increasing the i3's all electric range, they can then allow the gas range to increase and still qualify for the maximum ZEV credits they get. The current i3 REx is EPA rated at 72 miles per charge and the range extender's gas tank is software limited to 1.9 US gallons which provides another 70 miles of range. If BMW were to increase the i3's REx's electric range from 72mpc to 92mpc. They could then allow US customers full use of the 2.4 gallon gas tank, and the combined range would go from about 142 miles to roughly 182 miles.

BMW employee working on an i3 battery pack assembly
Krueger was also asked if current i3 owners would have the ability to upgrade their cars with the new batteries and his answer was: "We are currently looking into that." Personally I believe that will be possible, but not economically viable, for now at least. I know current i3 owners will be asking about an upgrade but it just doesn't make sense to replace a battery pack that is two years old for just a little more range. I think it's more likely that in four or five more years when some of the original wave of i3 owners have 120,000 to 150,000 miles on their car they will be looking at the next generation of battery cells which will be available and these "new" battery cells will already be obsolete. I would be surprised if BMW didn't engineer those new cells to fit in the same modules the current i3 uses, so a complete replacement with the upgraded battery cells would then be possible.

What effect this will have on i3 sales from now until this new longer range i3 is available is unknown, but there is at least some comparable data to use. Both the Chevy Volt and the Nissan LEAF launched in late 2010 and are just now releasing upgraded range models. The Volt is a complete redesign and the LEAF is doing more of what BMW is now by keeping basically the same vehicle and offering it with an incremental longer range. The 2nd generation LEAF which will be completely redesigned and offer much more range won't be available for about another year. In both cases these cars experienced greatly reduced monthly sales in their final months as customers waited for the new model with longer range. Like Nissan and Chevrolet, BMW will likely have to offer some favorable financial incentives to clear the remaining 2016 stock once the new battery i3 is nearing availability meaning this should be a good time to pick up an i3 for a great deal.

In any event, this is all great news. It further proves BMW's commitment to electric cars and their willingness to upgrade the i3 as battery technology improves. 

5 comments:

  1. As you mentioned, Tom, there are certainly batteries now with much better energy densities than what BMW uses in the i3. I’m guessing that Samsung SDI’s 2016 “advanced” lithium ion battery chemistry (likely with silicon added to the carbon) is significantly better than what their chart would have you believe, no doubt because at the time the chart was made, they did not want to reveal their unproven projections.

    It should be a simple matter to put the improved cells into the i3’s battery pack, and modify the software to accommodate the changes in battery performance. As you noted, Tom, the next step would be Samsung SDI’s “innovative” battery, which presumably would go in the second-gen i3.

    I was dismayed that Krüger would not offer a position on whether current i3 owners would be able to upgrade their battery packs, saying “We are currently looking into that.” Really? That would have been an obvious question considered during the design of the i3, and answered years ago, at least internally. I interpreted the question as, would current (and potential) i3 owners be able to install new-generation batteries in their cars when the existing battery packs no longer gave acceptable performance, rather than the pack being replaced with an original battery chemistry pack.

    Tesla has offered to replace worn-out Roadster battery packs with an upgraded version. I would think any manufacturer would do that for its customers, and since BMW has an improved battery pack ready for its refreshed i3, why would it not offer to put that pack in older i3s?

    I don’t see Krüger’s waffling on this issue as demonstrating a commitment to electric cars. In fact, Krüger said that BMW was going to focus on diesel cars between now and 2020, and then would turn to electric cars during the five years leading to 2025.

    I had been considering buying an off-lease i3 in a couple of years, expecting I would be able to have a new-generation battery pack installed a few years later, but now I have serious doubts. The Tesla Model 3 beckons, and even Honda has signaled an intent to finally get in the BEV game. The all-electric CR-Z they entered in last summer’s Pike’s Peak Hill Climb was very impressive, with all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering—very fast and nimble (it won its class). BMW’s ex-Board member for development Herbert Diess, who was a major force behind the i sub-brand (and an i3 driver), has been CEO of Volkswagen (the core brand) since July. Since diesel-gate, he has shifted VW’s priority to efficiency and electrification.

    If BMW really is committed to EVs, Krüger needs to show it with clarity, transparency, and actions, or else be prepared to be left behind.

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  2. This is good news and I think a sign of commitment. As an i3 owner who is happy with my current BEV range I would only be interested in replacement batteries when the warrenty expires in 7-8 years.

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  3. This is good news and I think a sign of commitment. As an i3 owner who is happy with my current BEV range I would only be interested in replacement batteries when the warrenty expires in 7-8 years.

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  4. Tom, thanks as always for the heads-up. My i3 REx came loaded so I don't see myself getting another i3 anytime soon. Further, as I am semi-hemi-demi-quasi retired, I just don't put on the kind of mileage that I once did. For my driving needs, my current battery plus the Rex addresses 95% of my driving needs. I bought the car as advertised, a "city car"; the battery plus the REx handling that description just fine. Mind you, if I was offered a battery with greater range, a battery that would fit the current configuration of the vehicle without adding additional weight and, another big if, if it did not cost an arm and a leg, I would certainly consider a battery with more range. Until then, I truly enjoy driving my i3 which provides ample propulsion for my drives from suburb to city and back again.

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  5. "used the area where the range extender goes to add a second, smaller battery pack".

    That would put a battery pack in the rear crumple zone. It is fine to have the REX in the crumple zone. But a battery in the crumple zone would require additional reinforcement to ensure the battery isn't damaged when the vehicle is struck from behind. I don't see that happening.

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