Luxury Car Brands Adopt Hybrid Technology – But What About the Rest of Us?

BMW i3

The global auto industry has made an amazing recovery since the energy price crisis of 2008 and 2009, and sales figures indicate unbroken popularity of fast, powerful and luxurious vehicles.

But that hasn’t stopped R&D departments of leading manufacturers and suppliers from looking into the future, experimenting with ways to increase energy efficiency and reduce environmental impact. Research into alternative “green” propulsion technologies, such as electric motors and hybrid vehicles, is gathering momentum.

Some popular new-generation “green” vehicles in the small and medium range are BMW’s electric Mini, Daimler’s battery powered Smart, Audi’s A1 E-Tron, Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV and GM’s Ampera. On the high-end, BMW’s i3 and i8 electric prototypes are pretty spectacular.

Yet despite the growing visibility of green vehicles in the media, industry experts do not expect a major impact in terms of quantity for the foreseeable future. The reason is quite simple: so called “conventional” cars continue to be cheaper, at the same time offering better performance in terms of speed, autonomy and passenger comfort than currently available electric vehicles. BMW’s recently unveiled i3 and i8 might be the exception, but cars of this caliber are only available for a privileged few.

The i8 (a plug-in hybrid sports car, due in 2014) is expected to run $130,000, on par with rivals like the $109,000 Tesla Roadster, and the i3, a tiny electric for urban commuters, is expected to start at $47,000 (almost $12,000 more than Nissan’s Leaf) when it hits showrooms in late 2013, according to Forbes author Joann Muller in a recent review of BMW’s “entry into the global electric vehicle derby.”

The extravagant price tag on the BMW i3 and i8 does not come as a surprise if you consider the fancy materials that engineers are using to balance electric and hybrid cars’ inherent weight and performance disadvantage:

“Rather than welded steel, BMW’s LifeDrive body structure glues and screws a high-strength, lightweight passenger compartment made from carbon fiber- reinforced plastic to an aluminum chassis module incorporating the car’s suspension, battery and drive system,” Muller writes for Forbes. She concludes: “The i3 and i8 tick the required boxes for green marketing: electric drivetrain, extensive use of recyclable materials and renewable energy in manufacturing.”

So, will the market for electric vehicles be constrained to the privileged few?

“Not necessarily,” says Achim Kampker, chair of production management at RWTH University of Aachen, Germany, and CEO of electric car maker StreetScooter.

StreetScooter is a Germany based consortium of more than 50 specialized automotive and industrial equipment companies that aims to make electro mobility affordable for the masses. By applying highly innovative collaborative engineering practices to achieve progresses in weight reduction, energy utilization for both propulsion and climatization, and cost-effective manufacturing, the consortium is developing a purely electric vehicle for commuters in urban areas.

Kampker is convinced that it will be possible to sell StreetScooter’s target production volume of 25,000 vehicles to institutional customers that run fleets of delivery and service vehicles, and over time, to early adopters in urban areas. “Our target group is the owners of second or third cars that are typically used to take kids to school or to drive to the gym,” Kampker says.

And, of interest to price conscious customers, StreetScooter is committed to selling its electric car at a target price of 5,000 Euros, equivalent to 6,500 US Dollars. That price tag refers to the base version, of course, and it will not include the battery pack, which is planned to be provided on a monthly leasing fee – with the benefit of a free exchange in case of defect. There will also be a list of cost options the buyer can choose from to customize his car, but at the end of the day, Kampker is positive that the total cost of ownership will be lower than that of a comparable “conventional” city car.

Kampker is the first to admit that a production run of 25,000 cars is tiny when compared to the “big” auto OEMs. “But we don’t see ourselves as challengers of the “big” auto companies. By leveraging our partner networks’ specialized know-how, we hope to contribute to both cost and technology innovation. Our partners will be free to sell their solutions to customers in the automotive industry,” he says.

In this way, StreetScooter hopes to help pave the way for a gradual transition of the automotive industry into the electric era, making electric cars more attractive and usable for volume markets.

How do you see the future of the electric car?

Photo: Moto “Club4AG” Miwa on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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