BMW intends to play a leading role in the electric car market and welcomes competition, says BMW Group Asia managing director Christopher Wehner

(Sept 9): At Singapore’s recent National Day Parade, a long convoy of military vehicles wowed the 27,000 spectators. The 10 Leopard main battle tanks, each weighing more than 50 tonnes and looking menacing with their 5m-long guns, were the highlight of the display.

Main image: BMW’s upcoming line-up of EVs includes (from left) the technology flagship iNEXT; the iX3, which is the EV version of the X3 SUV and the i4, which is based on the 4-series

The tanks were not the only made in Germany vehicles that hogged the limelight at the parade. Earlier, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrived at the event in a gleaming white, newest generation BMW 750Li. It was the first time a BMW marque had been used to drive the prime minister to the parade.

Christopher Wehner, the Singapore-based managing director of BMW Group Asia, is naturally pleased that a BMW had enjoyed such a high profile. Yet, if he could have his way, a different model would have been used — one that no longer runs on a traditional combustion engine like the 750Li. “Maybe for the next parade, they will change their car to a plug-in hybrid, and then arrive in full electric mode,” says Wehner in an interview with Options. 

Wehner: Customer demand in different countries is a little bit different, but we can react with flexibility

In addition to the conventional combustion engine vehicle, there is a category of “plug-in hybrids” that is powered by a combination of fossil fuel and electricity and, of course, fully electrified vehicles that run solely on their individual rechargeable batteries.

On Aug 1, BMW announced plans to accelerate the introduction of its portfolio of electrified models. The original schedule was to launch 25 models by 2025. Sensing changes in market demand, the company now wants to bring the date forward to 2023. There is a growing awareness that global warming is a real issue, and consumers, regulators and businesses such as carmakers need to act sooner rather than later. Producing more electric vehicles (EVs) is one way of addressing this concern. 

While the timetable for the launch of all 25 models has yet to be confirmed, BMW says in the next two years, a total of five all-electric series production vehicles will be rolling off its various production lines globally.

There is, of course, the improved BMW i3. The original i3 is a trailblazer with its completely ground-up design. Demand for this model increased by more than 20% in the first half of 2019. In November, an all-electric version of the iconic MINI, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary, will be launched for sale. At a preview in July, more than 40,000 customers expressed keen interest in the MINI Electric. Production will begin at MINI’s plant in Oxford.

In 2020, BMW’s plant in Shenyang, China, will begin the production of the all-electric BMW iX3 SUV. The following year promises to be even more exciting: The BMW i4, a new addition to the -i-family series of fully electric vehicles, will start production in Munich. And the BMW Vision iNEXT, touted as a new cutting-edge model, will roll out from its Dingolfing plant in Germany.

Choices and flexibility

BMW’s ambition may be huge, but its execution will be nimble. No one can accurately project market demand. As such, the brand is not putting all its bets on EVs. The process of changing from combustion engines to electric ones is not as simple as upgrading to a new smartphone. The entire ecosystem —fuel suppliers, regulators, support and maintenance — needs to be changed as well. That is why in the foreseeable future, EVs will co-exist with fossil fuel engines, and the mix will vary widely between different markets. “We always say at BMW, electrification is not a sprint, but a marathon,” says Wehner.

Towards this end, the company plans to maintain a “flexible architecture” for the new models. Via a highly flexible production system, BMW will be able to quickly change its assembly lines based on which model is in demand. 

The company’s strategy for Singapore will be the same mix of choices and flexibility. It currently has six electrified models in Singapore: the fully electrified i3, and five more plug-in hybrids — the i8 coupé, the i8 roadster, the 5-series plug-in hybrid, the 2-series plug-in hybrid and the 745 six-cylinder plug-in hybrid. Come November, the 3-series plug-in hybrid will be introduced, followed next year by the X5 plug-in hybrid, the MINI Electric and the i3X, which will be a fully-electric SUV.

“Customer demand in different countries is a -little bit different, but we can react with flexibility. If we see in Singapore more demand for EVs, we can react and offer our customers the products they want,” says Wehner.

For example, Norway is the leader in electric cars, with more than half of the new cars sold in the country being electric models; in many other countries, 100% of cars sold still have combustion engines. In Singapore, the percentage of electric vehicles sold in comparison to the entire market is in the single digits. Wehner attributes the low proportion to the lack of supporting infrastructure for EVs, although he expects improvement soon. In 2020, Singapore is likely to have around 3,000 charging stations. “This could change the picture completely and lead to the acceleration of EVs,” he says.

“Currently, for a customer, if you don’t have a charging station at home or where you work, how can you charge your car? It is nearly impossible. But, if you have these two charging points — one at home, where you can charge overnight, and one at the office, where you can charge during the day — then it makes more sense,” he explains.

Wehner recognises that charging service providers will come into the market in a big way only if it is commercially viable. He believes it should not be too difficult for some charging service providers to run a viable business as they would not be starting from scratch. They could be existing power generators or power retailers. Or, they could be petrol companies that want to build a new business for the future.

Indeed, more big companies are throwing their weight behind the EV ecosystem. On Aug 19, Anglo-Dutch oil major Shell announced it had launched an electric charging service at its petrol station at Sengkang. It plans to introduce the service, dubbed Shell Recharge, at nine other stations in Singapore by October. Shell says its 50kW rapid DC chargers can charge from 0% to 80% in about 30 minutes and the service is priced at 55 cents per kWh. The energy company is the first to introduce an EV charging facility at a petrol station in Southeast Asia.

Wehner is happy the ecosystem is getting more support. “Infrastructure and cars have to be developed in parallel. Or else, it will be a chicken-and-egg situation. We, as the car manufacturer, have a lot of electrified models in our portfolio and we can say, that in a way, we’ve done our duty. Now, we need a little bit more support in terms of infrastructure.”

Infrastructure and ecosystem

BMW, a leader in the automobile industry, is at the forefront of another significant development: -autonomous driving. Up until some years ago, AD — otherwise called self-driving — was very much the stuff of science fiction. Major players have begun to introduce an element of AD into some of their models. For example, with better sensors and computational powers, drivers of some cars can already take their hands off the steering wheel in certain road conditions.

Complete AD, however, might be a reality only in five to 10 years’ time, estimates Wehner. Again, as with EVs, it is not because of the technological limitations of the individual vehicle makers. Infrastructure — specifically next-generation, high-speed mobile networks — are needed to guide the vehicles safely on the roads.

In addition to technology, regulations need to be updated. For example, how should self-driving cars respond in certain situations? An example of this conundrum is when a car faces an impending front collision. Should it swerve out of the way and risk hitting pedestrians? Should it go ahead and collide instead? If the former decision is made, will it be the driver or the manufacturer who bears responsibility? These are legal and ethical questions that have to be addressed before the carmakers are comfortable producing the vehicles in large numbers. “I think all these are questions that are not so easily solved,” says Wehner.

In any case, such non-technological challenges have never stymied BMW’s engineers and designers. In fact, they have been continually introducing new capabilities in the cars. One such feature is where the car can automatically reverse the last 50m of a distance covered — a useful feature in tight confines such as a multi-storey car park or when one gets caught in a dead end. The three-point turn, just like driving with manual gears, may soon be a lost art. “It is a nice feature,” quips Wehner.

Fans of BMW can expect even more AD capabilities in the upcoming new models. The fully electric Vision iNEXT, for example, has been touted as BMW’s next technology flagship. The brand has been teasing the answer to this question: “How will the BMW Group design a car that doesn’t have to be driven any more — but can be?” Besides much improved AD capabilities, there will be breathtaking changes in the way the human interacts with the car. In a promotional video, the passenger is shown controlling the car’s audio system just by lightly scribbling on the iNEXT’s seat cover.

The iNEXT boasts cutting-edge new technologies. Passengers can control the car’s sound system by lightly ‘drawing’ on the seat cushion cover.

Wehner has a soft spot for another upcoming model, the i4 electric vehicle, which is designed based on the 4-series grand coupé. Prior to his posting here in Singapore, he was involved in the development of the 4-series. “I think this is really the perfect car: the body shape, the proportions and the design. It has lots of space and a long range too,” he says. Wehner believes the i4, slated for launch globally in 2021, has great potential to be the new main car of multi-car households.

Century of competition

Now, while traditional carmakers are steadily expanding their portfolio of both electric and combustion engine models, a couple of upstart electric carmakers are drawing plenty of attention. US-based Tesla, with its mercurial CEO Elon Musk, is one. UK company Dyson, better known for its hairdryers and vacuum cleaners, has also announced plans to assemble its first electric car here in Singapore — a surprising choice given the high cost of labour in the country.

Wehner says BMW does not plan to set up assembly operations here, adding that the city state is better suited for other important regional support functions such as finance and IT. “There are better opportunities here in Singapore, instead of producing cars. You have qualified people. We can use talent in Singapore for a lot of other things.”

He is also unfazed at Dyson’s impending entry into the EV market. In fact, BMW appreciates the competition — not just from Dyson, but other companies too. After all, tough competition has the positive effect of spurring everyone ahead.

“BMW has proven that in the past 100 years, we’ve always improved with competition. We are a strong company with plenty of resources, lots of knowledge and the right partners. So, we will watch what Dyson is doing, and maybe we can learn something and be better at what we do,” he says.