Sunday 16 August 2015

The battle for electric cars: BMW i3 vs. Tesla model S

Last weekend we visited the beautiful sand dunes of Zealand in the Netherlands. When we parked our car, I noticed the electric car BMW i3 next to us. It was loading his batteries to be ready for the travel back home.  It can clearly be seen that this car doesn’t look like a classic BMW.

From the polymer engineering point of view, the BMW i3 is quite unique, since its whole body structure is based on carbon-fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP), which was not yet used in such a dimension in a commercially available car.

Apart of the BMW i3, I noticed more and more the Tesla model S on the streets of the Netherlands. Both car types are indeed impressive. Then I wondered: What are the main strategies of those two manufactures? And why is Tesla so successful compared to the other electric car manufactures?

So, here is what I found out and would like to share with you:

  • The battery system: the most important thing of an electrical car is its batteries. Tesla manufactures its own battery systems.  It uses standard battery cells, as those you can find in your notebook, and align them together to a big battery comprising about 5000 individual cells. Thus, Tesla is not dependent on a battery system supplier. Furthermore the use of standard cells (from the world market) allows Tesla to minimize associated costs due to the existence of competition. Tesla holds all the patents related to the production of such big battery systems composed of 5000 to 8000 standard cells. Conversely, BMW started a partnership with Samsung SDI to also develop its own batteries. Now, Samsung can either take advantage of this situation by increasing the battery price, or they can help BMW i3 to develop cheaper batteries, which may contribute to lower down the price of a car and, thus, make this technology accessible for more and more people. In the most critical scenario Samsung builds its own electrical car. We will see!
  • Fact and rule as well is: the company which holds the patent for the batteries holds the car! The engine is not so important because it is no longer a secret, since Nicola Tesla developed the three-phase A.C.-motor. Those engines have a high energy density (69 kW) in small dimensions.
  • Tesla cars can be indeed considered electricity driven cars. The Tesla model S has one engine and that’s it! A different situation you find under the hood of the BMW i3, wherein there is an electrical engine and in addition, a 34 PS Otto- combustion engine that generates additional battery power. This is in my point of view one system too much. Double systems result in more weight, space and, thus, cars become more expensive. You can also choose the BMW i3 without range extender; however, instead of including more batteries, the space stays then unused and empty.
  • Regarding technology innovations: A rule of thumb says that you should only put one new innovation onto the market. Too many innovations at one time are overloading the users and probably could even turn them down. This means that in the case of Tesla model S, the central positioned computer system is the new innovation. The batteries and the engine were already used in the previous model Tesla roadster. Both cars use an aluminium car body, which is also well known. In the BMW i3, several things were new: the engine, the battery system, and the carbon-fibre reinforced plastics structure (CFRP) for the whole body. This is too much for the customer and as well for the manufacturer.
  • Apply new philosophy to electric cars: they ripen at the customer. In the old industry of car manufacturing, you were used to have a face-lift after 1 to 2 years that the car entered the market. In the Tesla model S, the control computer downloads updates and you can customize several things on your own. These are the new ways of car face-lifts.
  • Last but not least - the selling strategy: it is easier to sell new technology to people, who have more money than the average population. For the normal customer is the BMW i3 too expensive for just having a car for getting into the city and go shopping. The model S from Tesla has dimensions of the Mercedes S-class and looks just good. It is aimed towards the population driving upper middle class and upper class cars. It is a limousine and this is the reason that people will spend more money than usual! The BMW i3 is much too high and the BMW-logo is pressed in the front, which looks like there was no space anymore.

So what are the main conclusions to take-away from this comparison: Tesla has a fresher view on the electric car philosophy, where else the embedded car manufactures still have strong component of old industry thinking. This old thinking is based on turning a combustion driven car into an electrical car. It is like in polymer engineering when more and more metal-made products get replaced by a 1:1 looking plastic part although total different design rules apply for polymer based products.

Furthermore, there will be new car manufactures such as Google and Samsung and these have the power to seriously compete with the well-known car producers. This summer, Google tests their developed electrical car in their home town Mountain View. The car is designed for two people and will probably not even have gas and brake pedals, neither a stirring wheel because it is driven by the central computer only. The rumours around a development of an electrical car by Apple are not stopping.
Audi wants to bring a battery driven SUV by 2018 on the market. Audi wants LG Chem and Samsung SDI as battery supply companies. Here we have the same situation as with the battery supply of BMW.

One thing is clear: the way of mobility will substantially change and I think that this will be decided in the next five years.

Kind regards,

[1] Tesla model S:
[2] BMW i3:

[3] Tesla strategy:


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