BMW’s Transformation of Society – Still Pending

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Bodo Albrecht @ BMW i3 Unveil 2013

Hard to believe but it has been two years since my first Kitco News article on technology metals appeared. The debut piece was about BMW’s worldwide unveiling of the i3, a car destined to change society as we know it (see my report here). Two years later, battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are still associated with Tesla more than anyone else, including Nissan and their rather successful “Leaf”, the unsung hero of this public relations battle. And, as I reported in my recent IPMI conference paper, BEVs aren’t doing so well.

Of course the Tesla isn’t priced for the masses and the BMW i3’s design may be, well, polarizing. But that is not the answer.

First and foremost, society doesn’t want to be transformed. Explanations on why BEVs are more environmentally friendly than standard cars aren’t always conclusive but in truth, a majority of consumers will always decide with their wallets, decide for convenience, decide for size, decide for familiarity. BEVs depend on charging stations; they generally have a short range leaving consumers anxious of running out of power, a very real threat, as I experienced myself.

The average BEV will achieve around 130km / 80 miles of range on a normal day. Alas, it could be half of that in cold or hot weather. Several suppliers are working on doubling their vehicle’s range, which leads us to the main culprit: lithium! As became obvious in the slow progression of performance improvements, and as was confirmed by several of my guests on “Tech Metals Insider”, lithium ion battery technology produces performance gains of just 7-8% annually. It’s the reason why power-drained smartphone users gather around airport charging stations like Neanderthals around a camp fire, and it is why BEVs are losing momentum.

Tesla’s success remains fragile in light of forever new delays in releasing new models, and BMW’s i3 continues to be a rare sight on public roads with less than 800 units sold monthly in the USA (Source: InsideEV.com), about half as many as Nissan’s Leaf. Low gasoline prices drove yet another stake in the market, removing the cost incentive from the equation with no end in sight.

So where do we go from here? After the BEVs first demise a hundred years ago, after GM “killed the electric car” several decades ago, is the technology staring down the barrel of a gun yet again? I surely hope not, and my hopes rest on hydrogen electric technology (FCEVs), a topic for another day. Unfortunately, many BEV owners including Tesla’s own Elon Musk are still viewing the technology as their enemy, not their savior.

Besides my second anniversary as a contributing writer to Kitco News, 2015 also marks the market introduction of the Toyota Mirai, a car that will hopefully be as popular as the company’s “Prius” was, the “first of many”, as the name translates. Where will we be two years from today? Lithium batteries will be 14-16% more efficient. But society may be 100% on the move to embracing new sources of energy.

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