A small group of people gathered in a brick building in Germany in early 2008 It was one of the oldest in the area, and was located in the shadow of the BMW-Turm, the company's famous Karl Schwanzer designed HQ. A senior engineer was pacing up and down, with a prominent forehead, and a palpably Professorial Air.
The existence of a new mobility think tank was set up by the CEO of BMW, and only a few senior executives know about it. Although BMW's design had been completely reinvented by the iconoclastic Chris Bangle, this was a company still closely identified with its charismatic internal combustion engines and predominantly rear-drive handling smarts. The marketing guys were trying to switch the messaging from "the ultimate driving machine" to "efficient dynamics" but Reithofer knew that was just the beginning. He was thinking about a future that wasn't even imagined. To a time when conventional engines weren't around.
The man began speaking. He said that the unofficial group would get a proper budget. From the shadows, they could emerge. Their goal was to develop a project for BMW that focused on sports cars and megacity vehicles. He told them that there would be blood, sweat, and tears. He said that anyone could leave. No one did.
Kai Langer, now the head of BMW's "i" design, remembers that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was like being in a big boat.
The EV landscape was mostly barren back then. Major automotive manufacturers have yet to switch on to the concept of disruption as a positive, despite the fact that the only car that has been produced yet is the Roadster byTesla. It was a huge technological risk for one of the industry's biggest players to embark on a program that would result in the mass production of an all-new BEV city car.
The BMW i3 and i8 were the result of cars that put the Bavarian giant on a more stable footing. The i3 was a car that was so far ahead of its competitors that it had to wait for its rivals to catch up. We are still waiting.
There are electric dreams.
The i3 was all about the bigger picture. It was a pioneer for the whole "i" philosophy, aholistic approach to sustainable mobility that encompassed rapidly evolving electric drive systems, a drastic reduction in CO 2 emissions and water consumption during production, and the use of 100 percent green energy in the manufacturing process.
The i3's weight and structural properties were key to its success. The gateway to the car was unlocked. He spent time with the experts at BMW in Landshut, Germany, trying to figure out a way to reduce the weight of electric vehicles. Initially, the i3 used a 22-kWh battery, but it grew to 42.2kWh with an improvement in range.
The answer was found in the i3. The Life Module was the car's passenger cell and BMW decided to use CFRP. Carbon fiber is light and strong but complex and expensive to produce, which is why it is still used in high-end cars. BMW took a stake in American supplier SGL in order to monitor and manage the quality, even though the i3 was manufactured in a fully automated process that used 173robots and glue.
The team was galvanized by the engineering commitment. They could completely change the car's form language. This was mostly a freestyle process at the start.
The megacity car was created by us. We didn't have anything else. The density of the cities was increasing without gaining any extra space. How could we make mobility better? The most space efficient format was a monobox. We drew spaceships and cars that looked normal. We wanted a car that looked good. Design can help a lot of sci-fi movies head into the future. It can get too aggressive. It is less difficult to go down that road than it is to do something friendly. We wanted to let people know that they can have fun while being responsible. When the carbon fiber solution happened we ran with it because we worked so closely with the engineers.
In mainstream automotive, exposing a car's structure is rare. German engineers usually decide that the material isn't good enough after deciding on carbon fiber. It was going upwards. Tools that did the heating and pressing at the same time were invented. The thing was amazing. We knew we had to show this invention, and we couldn't just hide it.
Today's statement of the possible remains fresh. The airiness of the interior was improved by the fact that the window line was disorganized. That also led to a rethink. It is more difficult to be disruptive in the interior because there are so many components. The i3 doesn't look like dorky. We are still interested in what a car does emotionally. We were impressed by the Segway concept but you looked like an idiot on it. We wanted someone to look cool.
The design is freeform.
The i3 was designed by Richard Kim, a Korean American who had only been at BMW for four years. His i3 experience prepared him for his new role as the chief design officer of Canoo.
It was quite similar to jazz. He says that they were a small team and everyone was trying to play their part and provide a different angle. I think one of the reasons I was selected to be part of the team is because I don't care about cars very much. I don't know everything, but I don't feel like I don't have enough information.
I like industrial design for its ability to solve problems. The i3 was allowed to be what it needed to be. We didn't have to integrate anything. Straight lines and horizontals were what I wanted to create.
The purpose is what design is about. The purpose of a mid-engined supercar is to be exciting, but for a megacity car it's about progress, technology, and the user experience. For that, you need a different set of tools.
Kim insists that the i3's legacy is everywhere, even though BMW has reduced its carbon fiber commitment. Beyond the vehicle itself, its significance extends.
He says that the long term vision of the brand is more important than the numbers. You can identify the real investment by looking at how it pushed car design. BMW elevated interior design and user interface on the i3 The cabin of that car kept you calm. It used authentic materials and calmed things down. The team learned a lot about the brand and can support it for a long time.
We had no desire to stop using the i3. It is going out on a high that is more revered than at any point in its life. It has sold more than a quarter of a million units, but not as many as it would have liked. BMW has no plans to replace it. Every BMW project has elements of the i3 in it. It did its job. It would be a follow-up. Why should we answer the question again? We need to ask more questions.
Frank Weber is the head of development at BMW. He says the i3 is a true hero. I don't have to tell you how many people looked at the car. This will not occur. We were making more i3s. It became more and more attractive every year. The i3 was manufactured in the last production year. The vehicle has done a lot for the company. It carried a message that said the future is changing.