World class wonders. KONGSBERG sits down with BMW, one world class industry leader to another, to discover how the manufacturer is steering in a new direction for future business success.

  • Gunvor Hatling Midtbø
    Vice President, Communications

The Full Picture Magazine falls in love with the bewitchingly beautiful BMW i8. BMW i Head of Design Benoit Jacob takes us under the bonnet of the concept car to discuss collaboration, innovation and the motivation to drive an industry forward in sustainable style.

Walking into the Geneva Motor Show is a bewildering assault on the senses.

The main exhibition hall opens up like a giant treasure chest, delegates and the press spilling greedily over every glittering automotive jewel, buzzing, chattering with an excitement that irresistibly drags you into the mayhem.

In amongst this hubbub, hunched seductively on a platform surrounded by familiar blue and white propeller logos, sits a sight that somehow drowns everything out – silently demanding your focus, requiring your attention.

This is the jewel that is shining brightest at Geneva 2012. This is the star of the show. The BMWi8. Standing alongside the sleek carbon fibre shoulders of the i8 like a proud father, TFP finds the stylishly disheveled frame of Benoit Jacob – the French-accented, passionately animated, Head of BMW i Design.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” He smiles. It is, understandably, a rhetorical question.

Jacob has every right to look pleased. The i8 is a stunning creation, on a myriad of different levels.

The big brother of the all-electric i3 – a city runabout due to hit the market in 2013 – the i8 is an plug-in hybrid that is capable of 93 miles to the gallon, reaching 0 to 100 km/h in around 4.5 seconds and leaving green-car sceptics choking on their own exhaust fumes.

But the stats and the curvaceous body only tell half the story here. Jacob is itching to tell the rest. This, he imparts, is something of a revolution, rather than an evolution, of the existing sports car sector: “Something completely new”.

He allows that thought to idle for a second, and then races off: “Typically electric or hybri d cars are built around conventional chassis and drivetrains, or they’re modified versions of existing vehicles. The i3 and i8 are purpose built around the new LifeDrive modular architecture, with two separate main modules – the Drive module and the Life module.

“The Drive module has been built horizontally, with a flat structure – a bit like a laptop, if you like. “In the i8’s case, this mainly aluminum module houses an electric engine in the front, battery cells in a central tunnel and a 1.5 litre turbo-charged combustion engine in the rear. This linear style creates balance and optimises space and weight distribution.”

Benoit Jacob
Head of BMW i Design

Jacob joined BMW as an exterior designer in 2004, after spending time with Renault, Audi and Volkswagen. He sees the i8 as an opportunity to provide “performance with a conscious” – a sustainable supercar for a new generation of consumer.

He continues: “Sitting on top of that, as a bridge between the two drive units, is the Life module, constructed entirely from carbon fibre reinforced plastic – which is a first for the industry. “This is like a racing car cockpit in some ways, extremely stable, rigid and safe, while being incredibly lightweight.”

In fact, i8 Product Manager Henrik Wenders later tells TFP, carbon fibre is 50% lighter than steel and 30% lighter than aluminum, meaning that if an equivalent ‘module’ had been constructed from those materials it would add 250kgs in weight to this svelte supercar.

A matter of life and concept death, according to Wenders: “This weight saving allows the car to house the two engines and retain its speed, all-round agility and its supreme efficiency in terms of energy consumption. “Less weight and less consumption, equals more fun,” is his simple, explanatory equation.

The innovations don’t screech to a halt there though, far from it.

The i8 also boasts laser lights (more than twice as efficient, and ten times smaller, than LED headlights), a smartphone app that allows remote-controlled checking and charging of its battery, and ‘stream flow’ sculpted bodywork, ‘air curtains’ and a completely enclosed, smooth underbelly, all of which work to reduce drag and increase that all important efficiency. ‘All important’ because this is the beating heart at the core of the i sub-brand – efficiency, and more precisely sustainability.

Henrik Wenders
Product Manager, BMW i8

Sustainability is a buzzword uttered across many industries, but at Geneva 2012 it swarms ferociously, incessantly throughout the entire exhibition arena. Swat it away passing the Volvo stand and, before you know it, it’s zeroing in on you again thanks to Nissan, Ford, Citroen, Fiat, Kia, Peugeot and a fleet of other manufacturers. In an industry for so long tarnished as a major world polluter and, quite literally, one of the driving forces behind global fossil fuel consumption, it can be difficult to see the word as anything other than the latest marketing ploy. Which, of course, it is… but in the case of the BMW i brand, there’s a little more to it than that.

Jacob describes the i brand as a chance to: “Build cars for the future, completely from scratch, with a clean sheet and sustainability throughout the entire supply chain.” It is, he stresses, a new approach, a kind of pilot project: not just for BMW, but for the industry. The carbon fibre nature of the cockpit structure, the Life module, presents obvious challenges – production
cars have never been built in this way before – but it has also created a major ‘green’ opportunity.

In 2009 BMW formed a collaborative venture with industrial carbon manufacturer SGL Group – creating the new entity SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers – to manufacture carbon fibres on a commercial scale for the car industry. Together the firms, each leaders in their separate fields, have built a 60- acre carbon fibre production plant at Moses Lake in Washington, USA, investing around $100m.

This plant – which produces the fibres themselves, that are then made into i components in Germany – is run by a purpose-built onsite hydropower facility to ensure its green credentials. At BMW’s Leipzig assembly base, where up to 800 extra jobs have been created by the advent of the i models, four giant wind turbines will generate the juice needed to get the production line flowing.

The scale of this commitment contributes to the fact that, by 2013, development costs for the i3 model will have surpassed the ¤400m mark. Neither Jacob nor Wenders would answer TFP when quizzed on how much the i8 has cost so far. “How much do you think?” Wenders laughs.

So, the production line is green, but what about the i8 itself?

According to BMW’s press information, the sports car will go around 20 miles on its electric charge alone, which isn’t very far down your nearest Autobahn. It relies on the supercharged petrol combustion unit to wade in and add some much-needed stamina, making it a truly usable supercar, rather than just a beautifully sculpted ornament marooned by the side of the road. So, why include an electric unit at all? Is this just ‘greenwashing’ to give this Geneva jewel a little friend and empowered by the lightweight build, means that 100km of road can be eaten up as less than three litres of fuel are washed down – truly groundbreaking consumption figures for a supercar.

Ready for the road ahead: the i8 is set for a 2014 launch.