At the Paris auto show in October, Klaus Froehlich, head of R&D for BMW, had some interesting things to say about the future of the company. When he was done, he left the impression that BMW is planning to soldier on without much research into electric car leadership and precious little development. If his remarks accurately portray what is going on inside the C Suite at BMW headquarters in Munich, the long, proud history of Bayerische Moteren Werke may be in jeopardy.
According to Australian automotive news source GoAuto, Froehlich said, “A very optimistic scenario says 30% of BMWs will be pure electric or plug-in hybrids and 7 per cent will be combustion. If you assume that, from this 30%, half of them are plug-in hybrids – I have 85% in my portfolio in 2030 with a combustion engine.
He went on to say, “I think the discussion about electro-mobility is a little bit irrational. But we are prepared. We already purchased…..cobalt and lithium from 2025-35. We already have the second life in place for consumers or for grid stabilization, we have built these battery farms. We are prepared to deliver. But the world — Russia, Australia, a large portion of the world — they will have combustion engines for a very long time.”
And lots of those combustion engines will be diesels, according to Froehlich. “The diesel development from BMW’s perspective is quite dramatic,” he said. “We have, I think, more or less the best diesels. All test show that we have the lowest emissions. We have a spiral in Europe where every politician sees only one solution — diesel bashing. From a CO2 and customer perspective, a modern diesel is a very good solution. Especially for heavy, high-performing cars.”
In Herr Froehlich’s mind “diesel bashing” includes German courts ordering cities to create diesel bans in order to protect citizens from dying early as a result of breathing in the crud that comes out of their tailpipes. It’s true that new diesels can be made to run cleaner, but is that really the path BMW wants to go down? Apparently so.
The company may not have as many diesel options in the future as it does now, but it has no plans to ditch its oil-burning engines. In fact, Froehlich says he is “very optimistic” about diesels. “I will perhaps not have three different specs. At the moment we have a 3.0 liter with a mono turbocharger, twin turbocharger, and quad turbocharger, so perhaps I will only have one solution with two performance levels or something. Yes, four and six cylinders will remain in the market. And I will have at least four power derivatives on the diesels.”
Not only is the market small, mein freund, but it is getting smaller all the time, as people who drive those high end diesels today are opting for the Tesla Model S in record numbers. The Model S is outselling the big luxo-barges from German manufacturers — the Mercedes S Class, Audi A8L, and BMW 7 Series — in Germany. How embarrassing to see those sales numbers and not recognize the handwriting on the wall.
BMW is hedging its bets. Instead of building cars designed to be electric from the ground up, it is sticking with cars that can accept battery power, gasoline engines, diesel engines, plug-in hybrid powertrains, fuel cells — anything and everything — so long as it can be built in conventional factories using conventional production techniques that have been honed to perfection over the decades since BMW started its climb to the top by manufacturing the lowly Isetta bubble car in the 50s.
The company does have an all electric sedan in the works — the iNext — but its claim to fame will be its connectivity and self driving capabilities as much as its electric powertrain. “Infotainment connectivity, 5G. Everything is in development for 2021. All for iNext,” Froehlich says.
Meanwhile, the plug-in hybrid models from BMW have been doing well in the marketplace but Froehlich is sending mixed messages about future models. “You have seen the i4 which will arrive in 2021,” he said. “It is a 3 Series class four door coupe. This car will be ICE plus PHEV. Perhaps in China, customers need to have the 3 Series as battery electric vehicle, I don’t know. But in the same class…..there will be an i4 fully electric in 2021. In the size of the 3 Series.”
Well, which is it, sir? Will the i4 be a plug-in hybrid or a battery electric? Perhaps the message got garbled somewhere between his native German and an Australian’s interpretation of the King’s English? Whatever the case, BMW seems to be guilty of muddled thinking as it contemplates the future. With the head of R&D predicting 85% of the company’s lineup continuing to rely on gasoline and diesel engines by 2030, perhaps the question Froehlich should be asking is whether BMW will still be in business by then.