CFA Society Singapore
Christopher Wehner, managing director of BMW Group Asia, explains how electric cars such as the BMW i3 help drive the message of sustainability
SINGAPORE (Nov 5): When designing the BMW i3 electric vehicle (EV), BMW’s designers probably did not expect the radically different ride to be used by ambassadors — a role typically fulfilled by stretched limousines.
So, when Dr Ulrich Sante, Germany’s ambassador to Singapore, took delivery of an i3 as his official car in May, they needed to build a special part that sits between the panel and the bonnet for the German flag to be flown, recalls Christopher Wehner, BMW Group Asia’s managing director, with a laugh.
For Sante, sending the green message by driving a modest-looking electric car is more important than sitting back in a high-end BMW 7 Series. When it comes to driving the message of sustainability, such a different kind of optic is more effective.
In an interview with The Edge Singapore, Wehner notes that sustainability has always been part of BMW Group’s strategy. For its i subbrand, “sustainability” applies to not just how the engines are powered, but also the process in which the materials used in the construction of the vehicles are produced.
“These are not conversion products. The BMW i models are specifically developed for electric and sustainable driving,” says Wehner. Many other automobile companies build electric models by taking an existing model and basically replacing the combustion engine with an electric one. “We started from scratch, we created something completely new,” he says.
Wehner points out that BMW’s research and development efforts in EVs had already started even before the wider environmental pressure grew heavier. He proudly calls BMW in its development of EVs “very much ahead of our time”. Research and development, especially for something from scratch, takes years.
So, the i3s seen on the roads today were conceptualised, designed, made and honed some time back. From Wehner’s perspective, the reason projects such as the i3 can get off the ground is a testament to BMW’s ability to think and plan for the long term.
Now, just to be clear, BMW’s push into EVs does not mean it has ditched the combustion engine market. “We are in a phase where technology is in transition, and both technologies have their respective advantages,” says Wehner.
Presumably, i3 buyers are more environmentally conscious. However, Wehner will not be drawn into finely defining the socio-demographic profiles of i3 buyers. “What they all have in common — they are early adopters who are open to new technologies; they are the people who want to be the first to change.” He does not believe i3 buyers hanker after status. “For status, you can buy a 7 Series, or the X5, or the coming 8 Series.”
Wehner does agree that in principle, the younger generation tends to be more open and receptive in choosing an i3 over other models. However, he is also mindful that the price of electric cars — at least those in the market today — will be quite a stretch for young people to afford.
One way BMW could move more units of the i3 is to sell them at a more affordable price. Wehner does not disagree with this law of economics. However, that is not what the company will do, for there are shareholders who rightfully expect BMW to make a decent profit, not only in the short term, but for the long term as well. This longer-term view, according to Wehner, is also one reason why BMW is pushing hard for EVs.
Having said so, EVs are not the only areas requiring significant, ongoing capital expenditure. For example, autonomous driving capabilities and digitalisation of automobiles are two other critical areas likely to require heavy investment commitments. Then, of course, BMW is making constant improvements to its combustion engine line-up too. “We’re doing all of this in parallel. Compared with the past, it was a bit simpler for us,” he says with a laugh.
Just like how BMW’s business was simpler then, Wehner, as a youth back in Germany, started off by riding a simpler vehicle too: a two-horsepower motorcycle. Along with his passion for automobiles, he moved on to bigger and better things. The first BMW he owned was a fourth-generation 3 Series.
However, he was by then already very familiar with BMW cars. Since young, Wehner’s family cars, back in Germany, have been BMWs. His father prefers the 7 Series for practical purposes. The space is needed when the family — which includes Wehner and his two brothers — go on road trips around the country.
Wehner did not begin his working career straight at BMW, though. Prior to BMW, he was at coffee company Tchibo, which, as a consumer company, instilled in Wehner the sensitivity and the skills to find out what consumers want. Eighteen years ago, Wehner brought those skills to BMW’s market research department. It was during his time there that BMW relaunched a modernised MINI, thereby helping older fans relive their nostalgia while winning over new fans for the iconic brand.
Wehner next moved to product management. He was responsible for BMW’s so-called mid-sized series — that is nearly half of BMW’s entire product line-up — ranging from the BMW 2 Series coupe and convertible to the 3 Series, 4 Series, 5 Series, 6 Series GT, X3, X4 and Z4 models.
“For me, it was a dream to work with BMW. What is really special about BMW is the passion of the people. You feel really passionate to work for such a brand, to develop products. I think this is completely different from other companies. We put in a lot of hard work into the development of our products are we are very proud of that,” he says.
In August this year, Wehner officially took on his current Singapore-based role. He has the challenge of selling premium cars in what is one of the world’s priciest car markets. For electric cars, which are sold at relatively higher prices compared with convention models, that is an extra challenge.
Wehner explains that while electric cars are indeed more costly, prices will come down eventually as the cost of producing the lithium-based batteries decrease. “In some years, I hope we will see similar prices are corresponding [to] gasoline engines.”
In addition, supportive infrastructure, better consumer confidence and friendly government policies will all help drive the popularity of electric cars down the road, he adds.
Some critics have also sniffed that the experience of driving EVs is not quite right. When the accelerator pedal is depressed, there’s no roar of the combustion engine, no tachometer needle swinging from 0 to 7,000 rpm. For the hard-core petrol heads, there’s the missing smell of the fume as well. In short, the experience is almost clinical, there’s no emotion that is evoked behind the wheels of an electric car.
But Wehner begs to differ. Electric vehicles do not cut corners when it comes to performance. The i3, for one, can accelerate from standstill to 100km per hour in seven seconds. Thanks to the way electricity-powered drivetrains are built, there’s instant torque and the pick-up is immensely energetic. “You feel this immense power, and [it is] completely silent — this is emotional for me,” says Wehner.
He acknowledges that the roar of certain combustion engine models, such as the BMW M models, does inspire a certain level of emotion. However, if one is behind the BMW i8 roadster, an open car, it can be quite an experience — and performance as well. “Back in the old world, it had its advantages. But perhaps, the future is the more electrified one,” he says.