BMW’s CEO Harald Krüger is stepping down from his job after just four years, in part for coming under fire for the company’s slow transition to electric vehicles.
Though BMW got an early head start on electrification with cars like the i3 and i8, it didn’t capitalise on that lead with more potent EVs - all while losing ground to Mercedes-Benz and Tesla. Krüger’s strategy is one Bloomberg panned as “fail[ing] to provide a roadmap to the future.”
But before Krüger parted ways with BMW, I got a chance to talk to the company’s engineers about this plan. It’s a plan that’s come under fire in recent weeks, and one that BMW hasn’t announced immediate changes to even after Krüger’s ouster. When I spoke with the Bavarian automaker’s Chief Technical Officer, Klaus Fröhlich, late last month, he made a strong case for BMW’s plans to cautiously approach the electric car future.
Here’s what you need to know.
(Full Disclosure: BMW flew me business class to Munich, and put me up in a fine hotel just to show me car things.)
A few weeks ago in Munich, BMW held a special car show called “NEXTGen,” an event that the company described as a display of its “future technologies, services and products.”
One of my main takeaways from the event was that BMW is not jumping into the deep end of electrification like Volkswagen is (The Wolfsburg-based competitor announced last year that it plans to build 10 million cars on its dedicated electric car platform.)
No, Bayrische Motoren Werke is treading lightly, and, at least when I spoke to him, the CTO is extremely confident that this is the right approach.
No Dedicated Electric Vehicle Modular Platform In the Near Term
By now it’s pretty well established that building electric cars on dedicated EV platforms - and sometimes ignoring conventional ICE manufacturing methods in favour of EV-specific solutions - tends to offer a number of advantages, particularly in the area of packaging.
Gizmodo learned this when we looked at three major electric cars on the market, and here’s a snippet from a study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company:
Native EVs optimise battery packaging; non-native EVs force the battery into the awkward footprint of the ICE platform, which limits the realised energy capacity.
The native EV battery pack, by contrast, can take a simple, rectangular shape, giving native EVs up to twice the range - over 300 kilometers per charge and up to approximately 400 kilometres for the best performers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency - without forcing up the price (Exhibit 1).
In addition, native EVs achieve a larger interior space (up to 10 per cent by regression line) for the same wheelbase compared with not only non-native counterparts, but also standard ICE vehicles in the same segment.
Why, then, isn’t BMW planning to build a dedicated electric car platform to compete with the likes of Tesla?
This is a question I posed to Fröhlich, and what I learned is that he thinks BMW’s “One Platform Serves All” strategy is smarter than the fully-electric platforms that other automakers are dishing out. And a big part of that has to do with market uncertainty.
First, let’s talk about BMW’s rear-drive platform. “One Platform Serves All” describes BMW’s Cluster Architecture, or CLAR for short. It’s what underpins a number of rear-drive and all-wheel drive BMWs including the 3 Series, 7 Series, and even crossovers like the X3 and X7.
And it was specifically developed to accommodate the three different powertrain types shown above: internal combustion engines, plug-in hybrids, and fully electric. In 2021, the architecture will be adapted to store batteries flat below the vehicle’s floor.
“There is one common part, which is the bulkhead,” Fröhlich told reporters about CLAR during the event in Munich. “Then you have four die-cast axle carriers, which are very very stiff. And you can move them around in wheelbase and width like you want.”
He then described the two floor-types—one for conventional ICE cars, and one for both plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles—and how the company spent lots of time developing slim lithium-ion battery modules to fit beneath the floor of its CLAR bones (including those of the i4, which Fröhlich says will compete directly with Tesla sedans).
“You have two mid-floor derivatives between the axles,” he said. “Which is the conventional ICE and it’s a BEV floor... We use in the i4 very, very [slim] battery packs. That’s the reason why we had to wait for ’21 to develop such batteries... and this floor will also be used for the PHEVs.”
Speaking of hybrids, Fröhlich went on to say that BMW currently places plug-in hybrid batteries below its cars’ second row seats. This is suboptimal for packaging, compromising both battery and fuel tank volume, but after 2021, BMW’s plans are to move the slim batteries to the floor in what’s called an “Eagle Wing” configuration, a name that describes the shape the battery modules take in order to clear the rear driveshaft.
Key to this “flexible” design is a theme that Fröhlich mentioned a number of times: it allows the company to respond to changes in regulations and market demand. “We are free to scale the PHEV battery,” he said. “When you have a requirement of 80 kilometers or 100 kilometers or regulators ask for something, I can react.”
An Architecture that Lets BMW React to Regulations and Market Changes
When a journalist asked about BMW’s recently-announced strategy to accelerate its electrification plan by building 25 electrified cars by 2023 instead of 2025 as previously promised, Fröhlich seemed unconcerned. He said the fully flexible architecture from 2021 onward just means that the newly announced plan isn’t really moving development forward, it’s just changing around the product mix.
“It’s not complicated for me,” he said, nonchalantly, “because to design an additional BEV or an additional PHEV or something takes me a lead time of two years: One year is homologation and one thing is a little bit fine-[tuning]... so it’s not a stress for me.” Key to this, he said, were power electronics and motors that are shared between BMW’s PHEVs and BEVs.
“Is it PHEV spec or is it the BEV spec of the same power electronics?” he posed, rhetorically. “The M Next car has a e-axle at the front which is exactly the same e-axle I have in the iX3. So it’s a jigsaw puzzle. It fits perfectly. We can react.”
Discussing this strategy, BMW’s development chief talked about Europe’s change in diesel demand over the past few years. BMW, he said, adjusted by planning to bring eight more PHEVs to the market to meet 2021 emissions targets. He said the move was “no problem for us.”
The whole time, it seemed as if Fröhlich wasn’t concerned about ramping up electrified and electric vehicle output, almost as if all he had to do was press a button, and silent, crankshaft-less BMWs with charging ports would roll right out of the factory. “We can react on short-term requirements. Regulatory or customer requests,” he said.
BMW could, he insisted, even manage 100 electrified cars by 2025 if the company felt there was demand.
Fröhlich Seems to Think BMW’s Approach is Better Than VW’s
I asked Fröhlich about the dedicated-EV skateboard platform design (which optimises battery placement to maximise interior volume and range) that other automakers are using, and he told me that this approach is “old fashioned.”
When I mentioned that other automakers swear by pure-EV platforms, he implied that BMW’s method is superior. “It’s very difficult to make a flexible platform,” he said. “That’s the reason why we worked so hard. If people start later, they will not achieve the result. So their decision is logical.”
Then I specifically asked about Volkswagen’s Modular Electric Drive Matrix, or MEB, platform shown above. “Volkswagen started 2016 with electromobility,” he said. “They have no clue. So they could not make such a complicated architecture... so they had to jump [to purpose-built] because they have to deliver something, especially in China, where they’re 40 per cent of the volume. Four million cars.”
Fröhlich is confident in his CLAR flexible architecture, to the point where he seems certain that it’s a smarter setup than pure-EV platforms offered by other OEMs.
But Will It Yield Better Electric Cars?
Considering the company’s CEO just got booted for allegedly being too slow to embrace the EV future, the conversation with Fröhlich is an odd one in retrospect. He seemed so confident that BMW will, especially after 2021, have a safe and quick method for dialling up EV, PHEV, and ICE production knobs in a strategic manner.
The question I’m left with is whether an electric car based on a flexible architecture like CLAR will be as well-optimised as competing vehicles based on EV-only bones? How significant are the compromises using a common architecture (but with a unique floor) with ICE-cars, and even a common floor with PHEV-cars?
Though Fröhlich appeared convinced that his flexible architecture strategy is smarter than a fully-EV one, he also seemed to imply that there would be some advantages to an EV-only design, stating that after 2025, BMW may go that route.
When I asked him about the significance of 2025, he told me it’s all about reading the market. “It’s simply the market draws. You need a certain cake that you can make a dedicated car concept only for that cake,” he said.
“I need this flexibility over the next five to ten years. If the segments for pure electric vehicles are large enough, then beyond 2025, I can do also a pure, purpose-built architecture. But I need... at least a volume of 100, 200, 300,000 units per year to make a 3 series purpose built EV,” he explained. “For the next five to 10 years, it’s the right strategy. And it’s the smart approach.”
Clearly, even though Fröhlich speaks highly of his CLAR architecture, it appears that an all-EV one could offer some benefits if demand were right.
I also think that part of BMW’s justification for its strategy has to do with scale. When I asked if BMW’s relatively low volumes compared to VW’s made making a dedicated platform unfeasible, the BMW board member’s answer started a bit snarky.
“They have volume zero,” he said. “They announce a lot, and we sell already high volumes.”
But then Fröhlich followed up with “Of course they have more scale from the beginning. But we make this very intelligent scale - the PHEVs and the BEVs have all BMW internal synergies. And then we cooperate and achieve more synergies.” So I’m going to surmise that the answer is that indeed, BMW doesn’t have the volume like VW does to justify developing a special EV platform. Which makes sense.
In fact, when a journalist asked about his opinion of Audi possibly offering a dedicated EV-only A8, the BMW development boss criticised the move as unwise and also said: “I have not the money to develop two 7 Series.”
(Incidentally, BMW’s CTO was not just critical of VW and Audi, but also threw plenty of shade at Tesla, saying about BMW’s battery cell monitoring strategy: “That’s one of the differences why our cars will never explode like other cars in parking lot[s].”)
What I learned from all this, and especially afterward, in the wake of the CEO’s abrupt departure, is that BMW is in a transitionary period. And though a flexible architecture that can be used for various powertrains isn’t as sexy as a pure-EV design, it’s clear the German company thinks it’s the right move for now.
Perhaps it is for a company of its size, though I have to wonder if partnering with another automaker to offer a full-EV platform, a strategy that others like Subaru are employing, could yield an inexpensive, better overall design.
We’ve heard talks of a BMW and Daimler EV platform partnership, so maybe that will get the green light from the new CEO.
I asked BMW if its electrification strategy had changed since my discussion with Herr Fröhlich.
The company responded with a negative, writing in an email that CLAR and FAAR—a front-drive architecture employing a similar flexible methodology as CLAR and underpinning the X1, X2, and the new not-for-the-U.S. 1 Series are still set to lead the way:
There have been no announced changes to BMW Group’s plan of 25 electrified vehicles by 2025.
Future vehicles will continue to be based on CLAR (RWD / xDrive) and FAAR (FWD / xDrive) architecture.
Both platforms will support modular drivetrains for new vehicles arriving after the production version of the iNEXT (2021).
Both CLAR and FAAR based modular vehicles will be able to offer a choice of internal combustion / hybrid / electric-only drivetrains in the same model/body design.
Not surprising. Even if BMW does change its strategy, that’s not likely to happen quickly, so it’ll be interesting to see how the new flexible architecture-based EVs compete with the rest of the electric car pack.