Saturday, October 10, 2009

BMW's Electrifying Mini E

Stephan Durach, who heads the BMW Silicon Valley Technology Office, shared his unit’s efforts:
  • Working with local universities
  • Forming partnerships to leverage new technologies
  • Using electricity as fuel 
  • Integrating the car into the broader transportation network 

These individual programs are part of his unit’s broader goal “to absorb Silicon Valley’s unique culture of innovation”.

During product development, research was conducted with UC Davis (Note 1) on the power train. BMW Silicon Valley office then forged a partnership with AC Propulsion to develop vehicle propulsion and battery technology. Five hundred test cars leveraging the existing Mini platform are currently in a year-long pilot.   Rollout is expected in a few years. There are two test geographies --- in New York and Los Angeles --- both close to major BMW engineering facilities to make maintenance easy.

Stephan Durach reviewed how the year-long Field Trial that started in June was “an active pilot where customers are regularly interviewed to understand adoption and usage patterns and cars monitored for performance in the real world”.  Key learning goals:
  • Charging: Where to charge when away from home? How owners without garages or access to 40 amps will charge?
  • Battery trade-off: Will consumers forgo some extra range to reduce battery cost?

Prior to the test, consumers experience “range anxiety” where they worry about the distance that can be covered and time to recharge. Studies have repeatedly shown that 75% of all trips are less than 10 miles and average commute is less than 20 miles each way. Consequently the range provided by Mini E should cover most scenarios. Early feedback from the test as reported by Stephan Durach is that “range anxiety diminishes dramatically after the first week”. He believes that over time these issues will become moot as more people have direct experience with the electric car.  

Using electricity creates opportunities to provide new services such as utility management services. One such service would determine the best time to charge for most attractive rate. One other example is utilizing energy stored in battery to provide supplemental power and then recharging before the driver is ready for the next trip.

Harnessing the Silicon Valley Culture
I applaud BMW for releasing 500 Mini E electric cars for consumer test. But wonder if BMW can accelerate the broader adoption by embracing the ethos of the Silicon Valley culture. Specifically, the fundamental characteristic of that culture ---go fast, don’t wait until perfect.  The Silicon Valley cycle is release, learn, improve, release with constant iteration.

I also appreciate that a car has a set of preconceived consumer expectations and BMW has its brand equity to protect. Within those constraints some ideas for BMW to consider:

Test using a statistically representative group.
A representative sample will likely illicit a broader range of feedback than a limited pool selected for its proximity to the two BMW engineering centers. It is also telling that BMW chose to stay close to home rather than go into the field. How can Peoria provide input?

Provide a new approach that compliments the new fuel.
Finding a way to consume much less power will make the battery issues of cost, range and recharge time easier to solve, since a smaller battery will be required. BMW’s approach to pilot an electric car using an existing Mini did allow the Mini E to be released quickly, but the next iteration should follow promptly that then makes other changes. Weight, for example, has been an easy way for auto manufacturers to convey substance and luxury, but requires a large amount of energy to move the vehicle. How can BMW transform light-weight nimbleness into a luxury in the consumer’s mind?

As Henry Ford aptly stated “If I had asked the customer, they would have asked for a faster horse.”

Rethink the car.
The big Silicon Valley success stories took a dramatically different approach to invent new categories. Apple, Google, and eBay are a few examples. Being tied to the automobile has the benefit of a built-in market, but also constrains creativity for designers. Consumers are also much more elastic in their thinking when interacting with a new category. Consumer testing and feedback are helpful to fine tune, but not very useful when defining new categories. How can BMW go beyond updating a product in an existing category to create a new category for the personal mobility market? (Note 2)

Given its German heritage for engineering perfection, BMW should continue to question if they are being prudent or overly cautious.  If they are successful at combining the ying of perfection with the yang of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, BMW Group can claim to be the ultimate innovation machine.

  1. University of California: An editorial comment, I am alarmed that the California budget cuts will destroy the knowledge factory of the UC system that provides basic research and a key source of engineering talent that built Silicon Valley. Sustaining intellectual capital is a critical issue.
  2. New personal mobility category: One answer that BMW cheekily put forward on April Fool's Day was perpetual motion using a series of magnets in each of Mini E's four wheel hubs to both pull and push the wheels in the desired direction by exploiting the magnets' natural property to attract and repel. The major engineering challenge is controlling the speed which is nearly instantaneous and so fast that it is restricted only by wind resistance and drag of the car's body. BMW's annual tradition of ultimate spoofs is good fun and I hope they can find a real-world technology to reinvent the concept of personal mobility.  
Related Post: Part 1 on BMW's Efficient Dynamics Program. Read more. 


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