MUNICH - For big-scale automakers like GM and Ford, building or converting an entire auto plant for EVs makes sense. They build vehicles by the hundreds of thousands or not at all. For smaller automakers this early in the transition to electric, that poses more of a challenge. BMW plans to build its EVs, both those based on internal combustion platforms and those that are all new architectures, on the same platform.
Dr Milan Nedeljković is the BMW board member responsible for production, a role he's had since 2019 after holding plant production management jobs for 20 years. At the IAA in Munich, we spoke with Dr Nedeljković about the company's electric plans as well as the company's bold goals for sustainability set out with the reveal of the i Vision Circular concept car.
The transition to electric seems to be happening in a very brief period by automotive standards, taking just a couple of generations. How is BMW handling such a quick transition? Dr Nedeljković says that flexibility and integration are key. "We think we have found a very effective good way of integrating electrical drives into our existing architectures and giving us the opportunity to integrate electrification into the existing plants," he said.
What does that mean on the factory floor? "We are even manufacturing all derivatives on one line," he said, referring to ICE, EV, and PHEV, calling that a "huge advantage" for the automaker in terms of handling market volatility and being ready for customer preference changes. He said that the flexibility was "a crucial point in the whole thing."
The BMW iX, he said, follows the objectives of the i3 "to be a technological leader in electrification and digitalization." It uses a standalone architecture with a carbon fibre cage and has extensive use of aluminum in the body. Despite that, the model can still be built on the same line as the 5, 7, and 8 Series cars.
Dr Nedeljković said that the vehicles we're seeing now are just a hint of what BMW has planned for mid-decade in its electric transition. Those vehicles are referred to as Neue Klasse or New Class, a nod to the 1500 and 2000 models that established BMW as the brand it is today in the 1960s. Those models will be exclusively, or at least primarily, BEVs on a BEV-oriented platform. Still, they can be built alongside existing BMW ICE platforms and, the engineer says, on the same line.
After initial rollout in Hungary, production of the new EVs will begin at BMW's oldest plant, in Munich. "Then, step by step, it will roll out into our production network," said Dr Nedeljković, "and by rolling it out we will have of course both architectures in one system."
The i Vision Circular concept's goal is to showcase a new way of looking at vehicle design. One that reduces the number of components used, the number of material types used, and that closely considers the ability to source from secondary and recycle after use. We asked how the increased use of carbon fibre (as seen in the iX) fit with those ideals.
"With the i3," Dr Nedeljković said, "we found ways to reuse the carbon fiber material into a different purpose." Recycled carbon fibre can't be reused for structural parts, but it can have a new life. He said that, for example, it can be used for ceiling tiles in buildings because of its lightness and other properties.
Batteries for the new generation of EVs are a part that can easily be recycled. Dr Nedeljković said that BMW is already hitting 96 percent recycling on its packs, including the cells, wiring, and cases. Despite that, he said that battery recycling isn't the best idea just yet.
"Our slogan is rethink and then reduce, and then reuse," said Dr Nedeljković. "With batteries, we are now targeting primarily [the] reuse option since once the car itself may not function anymore, the batteries themselves have a very long lifetime. It remains about 60-80 percent depending on the age." That, he said, is enough to buffer wind power. Something BMW is doing already with cells and packs from end of life i3 models at a plant and windfarm in Leipzig.
Can BMW bring a vehicle like the Vision Circular to production in the near term? No, says Dr Nedeljković, but that's not why it exists. "The idea is the point behind it," he said. "Think of the reduced bill of materials, think of reassembling the car, think of using recycled secondary material already from the beginning. Not every component can be manufactured by secondary material", he said, before getting to the core of the issue. "However, if you start from scratch when designing the car, already considering which components could be recycled or produced by recycled material, that would open a completely new field."
"I'm sure with the next generation of vehicles we will go step by step forward in getting a much higher recycling quota and a much higher circular quota of secondary material," he said. Each iX uses around 60 kilos of recycled materials, while BMW says it has cut 70 percent of vehicle production CO2 emissions between 2006 and 2019. It plans to cut that another 80 percent by 2030, and secondary materials are a big part of the changes.
Beyond using recycled materials, using fewer parts is a key part of i Vision Circular and BMW's plans. The components of the seat, for example, use just a single fastener each. Does this pose a challenge for the brand's quality assurance?
"If you take this example of easy reassembling and recycling components we have presented with our vision car, the less features you have, the better the whole thing works," Dr Nedeljković said.
"In general, I think that this will be the flow of the technical development," he added. "To minimize the components and to reduce it, which of course helps manufacturing. It will, as a side effect, improve productivity if you have less features."
He said that this side effect will be a big part of the Neue Klasse vehicles.