Thursday, May 12, 2016

Here's Why an i3 Battery Upgrade Currently Doesn't Make Sense

The 2017 i3's 33.4 kWh battery pack is the same physical size as the current 21.6 kWh pack. BMW purposely designed the battery tray this way, so that future battery upgrades would be possible. Allowing the i3's battery to be upgraded was always BMW's plan.
The concept of upgrading an electric vehicle's battery pack is certainly not a new one. In fact, it's something that many EV owners have been vocal about wanting to see offered. So the news that BMW will begin a battery upgrade program for their current i3 owners is good indeed, even if it may be something that isn't really necessary, or practical - yet.

The big news in BMW i's May 2nd press release was, as expected, that BMW would be upgrading the i3's battery cells from 60 Ah to 94 Ah. This means the 2017 i3 will have an EPA range of 114 miles, up from the current 81 miles per charge. These new battery cells are physically the same size as the currently used cells, but can hold 50% more energy and are only slightly heavier. About halfway down the press release, this interesting bit was stated:

Retrofit Program: The Battery Can Be Exchanged Optionally

"The Main focus at BMW i is on sustainability. The consumer is given the assurance that his (her) BMW i3 can be adapted to the latest technical developments in a resource-saving way. This is safe-guarded by the flexible LifeDrive vehicle architecture. The BMW i3 is the first automobile in the premium compact segment in the world to have been designed from scratch as a purely electrically powered vehicle. This design also includes retrofitting new battery technologies.


With the introduction of the new 94Ah battery, BMW gives BMW i customers the opportunity of retrofitting their purely electric BMW i3 (60 Ah) with the new 33 kWh battery as part of the a high-voltage retrofit program. This program is available in select markets. The 22 kWh batteries traded-in by customers are used to build stationary storage battery modules thus starting their second life. This effectively proves how sustainable BMW i technology is across its entire production and service life cycle."

I highlighted "select markets" because it appears that BMW AG is allowing its regional offices to decide if they want to participate in the retrofit program. BMW of North America and BMW UK have both declined to participate at this time. It's believed that is because the cost of the retrofit is high, and since the cars are still relatively new, they believe few customers would elect to upgrade. While there hasn't been any official cost announced for the upgrade yet, I've had people in European countries that will participate contact me, and tell me they were quoted roughly $8,000 US. I've also seen people in i3 Facebook groups discuss a number similar to that, so I believe $8,000 is likely accurate.



This is actually pretty close to what I predicted an upgrade would cost, and why I've previously said it will be very hard for BMW (or any manufacturer for that matter) to offer a reasonably priced battery upgrade as new, better battery cells become available. There's a reason why no OEM has offered a battery retrofit program for a currently-available model like this. The exception being Tesla, which has offered a battery upgrade option for their Roadster owners to consider, however it costs $29,000 and was offered three years after Tesla sold their last Roadster. Tesla does not offer battery retrofit upgrades to vehicles that are currently in production, namely the Model S and Model X. Roadster owners were generally underwhelmed by the upgrade offer, and while it's unclear how many took advantage of the program, it's most certainly a very small number.

The only other upgrade comparison worth noting is that Nissan will allow LEAF owners to replace their pack with the same size 24 kWh battery for $5,499. They won't however, allow a customer with a 24 kWh to upgrade it to the new LEAF 30 kWh battery. This isn't a battery upgrade program since Nissan only gave customers the option to replace their battery with the same one, albeit new pack. Offering a battery pack upgrade isn't an easy thing to do, it's not just a matter of swapping the modules with the new cells. There's plenty of reasons why BMW is the first OEM to offer this on a currently available model. In fact, Transport Evolved covered this topic in depth with this post a couple months ago.

So BMW's retrofit program is indeed something unique, and hopefully something the other OEMs copy. The fact that BMW uses the traded in battery packs to build stationary energy storage modules opens up another question: Who's going to use them? Will BMW sell them to a third party or will BMW refurbish them in house and sell the battery storage unit themselves, ala Tesla's Powerwall?  I'd love to upgrade my battery pack in about three more years when I have 130,000 miles on it, and get my old battery back from BMW, refurbished and ready to be used in my home. BMW hasn't elaborated on exactly what they plan to do with the "stationary storage battery modules" made from the traded-in packs, but this is an option I believe and may very well end up being what they do.

Personally, I like the idea of getting my car's old battery back to use in my home. It would really expand the sustainable life-cycle model that I'd like to employ. It would also be a cool conversation piece, especially when someone asks me sarcastically, "Where do you think those EV batteries go when you replace them?" Intimating that they will end up in a landfill, leaking toxic acid which is a common misconception about high voltage lithium ion batteries used in EVs. I would be able to answer, "After powering my car for 130,000 miles, I replaced the battery pack with a new one that now allows me to drive twice as far as the original pack. I then took the original battery pack and put it in my basement where it will be used for about a decade, storing energy generated from my solar array, so now I'm always driving on sunlight, whenever I plug in to charge."
So why doesn't battery retrofit make sense now?

While this sounds great, the truth is it's still a little premature to get excited about the retrofit program. The i3 is only about two years old, and even the earliest i3s delivered in Europe aren't even close to the point where they need a battery replacement yet. Here in the US we just passed the two year anniversary of the first i3 delivery this week. It just doesn't make sense to replace an EV battery which is only two or even three years old, especially since the vast majority of i3's are leased. I believe this is why BMW of North America and BMW UK both decided against offering the battery upgrade program at this time. It's not that they don't think battery retrofit is a great idea, it's just not time yet.

I took delivery of the first i3 REx in the US on May 25th, 2014, so I've owned my i3 for almost two years now. I have a little under 50,000 miles on the odometer and so far my battery has about 94% of its original capacity. I have one of the highest mileage i3s in the country and still have 94% battery capacity; why would I, or anyone for that matter, want to buy a new battery pack now? As I mentioned above, I definitely plan to upgrade my battery at some point, but I first want to get value out of the pack I already paid for. If I continue driving at the same rate I am now, which is 25,000/yr, then in three more years (2019) I'll have 125,000 miles and will probably be ready to upgrade.

Coincidentally, in 2019 BMW's battery supplier Samsung SDI, is scheduled to release their next generation of automotive lithium ion battery cells, which will be 125 Ah. The cells BMW will be using in the 2017 i3 are 94 Ah, replacing the 60 Ah cells I have in my i3. I'll most likely skip the 94 Ah generation and upgrade directly to the 125 Ah cells once they are available, and that's exactly what I expect most 1st generation i3 owners will do. Upgrading to the future 125 Ah cells will effectively double the car's range, as opposed to the 40% increase in range the 94 Ah cells are delivering.

That's how battery retrofit makes sense. Paying $8,000 to replace a two year old battery just to add 35 miles of range simply doesn't add up, and it's why most markets won't offer the retrofit program just yet. However replacing a battery with 125,000 - 150,000 miles, after it's been used 5 - 7 years or longer, and doubling the range of the car when it was new does make sense, even at a cost of $8,000 if you plan to keep the vehicle long term. Plus, the cost of the cells will most likely continue to drop, and the replacement pack will probably cost less in three years than it does now, even though you'll get better batteries. I really like that BMW AG is starting the program now, even if it's not likely to get many takers. This will allow them to work out any potential problems, gradually improve the program, and in a couple of years time when the early i3 owners start inquiring about it then BMW will be 100% ready. By 2018 I expect most major i3 markets will be participating in the retrofit program, just as the demand for battery pack replacements begin to rise.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

It's Official: The 2017 BMW i3 Will Have New Battery, Moonroof Option, New Colors & More

The 2017 i3 comes with 40% more range than the current model. It's also available in a nice new color: Protonic Blue
The worst kept secret of the BMW i3 is officially no longer a "secret". BMW has formally announced that the 2017 i3 will have a new, longer range battery pack. They are indeed using the new Samsung 94 Ah battery cells that I speculated they would five months ago.

Just as I predicted the new battery pack is increasing from 21.6 kWh to 33.4 kWh, which in an increase in capacity of about 50%. However the range of the i3 BEV will only increase by 40% from 81 miles per charge to 114, which is less than i predicted. That's because BMW is now using a larger buffer (the difference between the total battery capacity and the usable capacity) and also because the car now weighs more (roughly 100 lbs more) because the new higher capacity cells weigh slightly more than the ones they replace.  The slight increase in weight will likely only have a very minor effect on performance, if any. The old battery used 60 Ah cells and had a capacity of 21.6 kWh, of which 18.8 kWh was usable. Which means BMW allowed the 87% of the capacity to be accessed. The new pack uses 94 Ah cells, has a total capacity of 33.4 kWh, and 27.2 kWh is accessible. That means only 81% of the total new battery capacity will be usable.

The reduction of usable capacity could simply mean BMW just wants to be more conservative, and with more available capacity they didn't need to squeeze every possible kWh out as they did with the much smaller 21.6 kWh pack. Or, quite possibly the new battery cells don't fare as well as the current cells do when they experience frequent deep discharges, so it's necessary to build in a larger buffer.

The new range rating for the REx model hasn't been announced yet, as it is still undergoing official EPA range testing. I have a theory about why this is so, but I'm going to wait until we get the range rating of the new REx before I elaborate. I do expect the REx to have a smaller percentage of range increase than the BEV i3 did, but I'm going to leave it at that for now. I'll dedicate a new post to this subject once the official EPA range for the new i3 REx is announced.
The new Protonic Blue will likely be a popular choice
While the increased range is the biggest news for the 2017 i3, it's not the only changes. The i3 will be available in a new color, Protonic Blue. At the same time the popular Solar orange is being discontinued. So the color options for 2017 on, will be: Fluid Black, Protonic Blue, Capparis White, Mineral Gray, Platinum Silver and Ionic Sliver.

One interesting nugget which was announced in the BMW AG press release, yet not in the US press release was the BMW i battery retrofit program:

"With the introduction of the new 94 Ah battery, BMW gives i customers the opportunity of retrofitting their purely electric BMW i3 (60 Ah) with the new 33 kWh battery as part of a high-voltage retrofit program. This program is available in selected markets. The 22 kWh batteries traded-in by customers are used to build stationary storage battery modules thus starting their second life. This effectively proves how sustainable BMW i technology is across its entire production and life cycle" 

This is very exciting news, even if it appears that initially only BEV i3 (not REx) owners will be able to upgrade their battery, and initially at least, the US market won't be able to participate. I'd be very surprised if this upgrade program isn't made available to the US market at some time in the future, but I believe the real question is what will the cost be? I would imaging the entire pack, including the thermal management system and packaging probably costs BMW somewhere between $7,500 and $10,000. If they offer a $3,500 discount for the old pack as a trade in, than the customer's cost is somewhere between $4,000 and $6,500 without adding the cost of labor for swapping the packs. So unless BMW subsidizes a big chunk of the cost it's going to be a very costly upgrade, especially considering the owner is replacing a battery that is less than three years old.
The new 94 Ah Samsung battery cells are the same physical size as the current 60 Ah cells, but they weight slightly more. 
I think that's partially why BMW of North America isn't rushing to bring the battery upgrade program here. The i3 just passed its two year anniversary here in the US, so even the earliest buyers still have a relatively new battery. I have one of the highest mileage i3s in the US, and currently have just under 50,000 miles on my car. My battery still has about 18 kWh of usable capacity, after starting with about 19 kWh. So in two years, I've recharged the vehicle about 1,200 times, driven nearly 50,000 miles and my battery has only lost about 5% of its original capacity. I'm definitely not ready to drop $5000 or so on a new battery just to add 30 or 40 miles of range.

I do expect BMW of North America to eventually offer a battery replacement program, but honestly it's just not necessary yet. I could definitely see myself buying the replacement pack in another two years, when I have about 100,000 miles on the car. I'd also be interested in buying back my old pack, once it's been refurbished into the stationary energy storage unit, and using it in my home. My solar array could charge the unit during the day, and when I come home at night I'd use the stored energy to recharge the new pack in my car. I don't know if BMW has plans to make this kind if home energy storage units, but if they did, I'm definitely interested, especially if I could reuse my old battery pack.
Atelier will be called Deca World for the North American market and will be the new base interior trim
The new Dark Walnut wood dash trim
There are also a few interior changes on the new i3. Finally (Let me repeat that!) FINALLY, the US market will be able offered the moonroof option. Much to the chagrin of i3 owners across the country (and particularly the ones in California), until now the moonroof option that was available on the i3 everywhere else in the world, wasn't available in North America. It will now be offered once the 2017 i3 begins shipping sometime in late August. There is also a new interior option being called Deca World (to go along with Mega, T\era & Tera Worlds). Deca World replaces Mega World as the base trim and is an attractive Black fabric with BMW i Blue trim. It has been available in Europe since the i3's launch, where it's called "Atelier". There's also a new dark oak wood option to go with the lighter Eucalyptus wood dash panels. Customers who order other of the two top interior trim levels (Giga or Tera World) will now be able to choose which wood trim they prefer.


             BMW's "Born To Go Further" video ad for the 2017 i3

In all it's pretty much what I expected the 2017 i3 would offer. BMW calls this kind to product refresh an LCI (Life Cycle Impulse). That's a mid generation refresh for the vehicle where they make improvements, but don't create a new vehicle. The battery upgrade is the big deal of this LCI, and will probably the biggest improvement the first generation i3 has during its lifespan, which will likely be until about 2019. I expect a totally new 2nd generation i3 to emerge about that time, along with the next generation of batteries that Samsung is still working on. These new future cells are low profile, are 125Ah with a specific energy of about 250Wh/kg. They pack about 33% more energy than the new 94 Ah cells BMW will introduce in the 2017 i3. So while 2017 brings some nice improvements for the i3, the next big leap forward in battery tech is once again only a couple years away. It's not difficult to see how similarly priced EVs will soon attain cost and utility parity with internal combustion engine vehicles. It's all about the batteries.