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Into the Future

With its sustainable design, emission-free electric motor, and near-silent driving experience, the BMW i3 is far more than your typical electric vehicle—exceeding expectations with its superior performance.

Dylan Boddis of Auckland City BMW says that with the BMW i3 “expect the unexpected” is the rule rather than the exception. And it can definitely take some time to get used to a car that starts­—and drives— with almost no sound. Not hearing that reassuring hum at the traffic lights can be disconcerting at first, and you may find yourself compulsively checking the dash-mounted screen to assure yourself that car is, in fact, still running.

“Once you ride in it, you’ll see exactly why it’s easy to change from the complication of a normal, internal combustion engine car, where you worry about your oil, spark plugs, turbines going faulty, and this needs servicing, that needs servicing,” Boddis says. “It’s different with an electric car. It has less components to worry about, less moving parts, and it’s easier to manage, which is a win-win situation.”

According to the Ministry of Transport, there are now more than 6500 hybrid and electric vehicles in New Zealand, and registrations of electric vehicles, new and used are increasing steadily. BMW i3 was named 2015 New Zealand Car of the Year and has been making inroads into the country’s small but ever-growing electric car market for the last few years.

The i3 has been consistently ranked as one of the world’s top-selling electric cars. Pure electric vehicles such as the i3 are more popular among individual car buyers, rather than hybrids. But they are also now gaining recognition as fleet vehicles, particularly as companies start to look for non-traditional means of balancing their budgets. 

In 2016, Air New Zealand announced it was transitioning more than 75 of its light vehicles to electric in order to save approximately 65,000 liters of fuel per year, 36 of which were i3s in its corporate fleet. It seemed a natural choice as the interior and body of the i3 are made from the same carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) as the fuselage of Air New Zealand’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. The CFRP is only one of the revolutionary elements of the i3. Boddis explains that BMW considered three pillars when conceptualising the i3—creating an electric car, ensuring its sustainability, and validating its design as a city vehicle.
The sustainability aspect is particularly important, he says. “Sustainability is not about simply being electric, which is what most people think. It’s about the plastic, the build of the car from start to finish, and its impact on the earth—the materials inside the car come from recycled plastic, the leather has been tanned with a natural olive leaf extract, and the dash and doors are made from plant fibre. Instead of making or reusing more plastic, BMW have made something that would once have been waste into something useful.

“Going into the future, as our population increases, it will be even more important to have a car that is compact yet spacious, does everything we need to, and is easy to manoeuvre. And that’s exactly what the i3 has taken into account.”

”The CFRP used in the i3’s construction has an unexpected—and impressive—Kiwi connection, too. Professor Simon Bickerton of the Faculty of Engineering at The University of Auckland spent three years seconded to BMW in Munich, Germany to work on the manufacture of structural CFRP parts, which are assembled to create the chassis of the i3.

“We focused on the design and engineering of the manufacturing processes,” Dr Bickerton explains. “Our department managed the incoming materials, operated the production lines, and assessed the quality of the manufactured parts, before they were delivered to the next department responsible for assembly of the chassis. I was placed within a Materials Technology team, with a specific focus on the different forms that the carbon fibre is used in the manufacturing process chain. My main role was to develop a suite of fibre material quality measurement devices, and integrate them into the process chain that includes sites in the USA and in Germany. My work helped the department ramp up production, and contributed to ongoing efforts to reduce the cost of manufacturing CFRP parts.”

Driven by a fully emission-free electric motor, the i3 is designed for “urban mobility”, in other words, city traffic. This is reflected in its range. The i3 can travel up to 200km on a full charge—great for the daily commute or running errands around town—with the intention that the driver only needs to recharge the high-voltage lithium-ion battery every few days.

A range extender is also available, which increases the i3’s range up to 340km. It utilises a small combustion engine, which runs on normal petrol, that drives a generator that charges the high-voltage battery so the car can continue to drive electric.

The electric motor provides 125 kW/170hp with a torque of 250 Nm. Full torque is immediately available from a standstill—giving the i3 particularly high agility, which is essential in urban driving.

It’s certainly a heady experience, accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in approximately seven seconds, Dr Bickerton believes. “I’m probably biased, but I do believe that by starting with a clean sheet of paper and designing the i3 specifically as an electric car for the city environment, BMW created an optimal solution that drivers appreciate.”

Boddis echoes this sentiment, “Going into the future, as our population increases, it will be even more important to have a car that is compact yet spacious, does everything we need to, and is easy to manoeuvre. And that’s exactly what the i3 has taken into account.”