BMW has big plans for its i Series models, and we got the scoop at the LA Auto Show

BMW may not have dominated the show floor at the 2015 LA Auto Show with its reveal of the Shadow Sport Edition i3, but that’s not to say the German automaker isn’t planning some major electric vehicle moves in the coming years.

Digital Trends sat down (in the back of BMW’s 3 Series eDrive Plug-in Hybrid, as it happens) to chat with Christine Fleischer — area manager at BMW North America — about what’s on the horizon for BMW’s i Series model range.

Digital Trends: Tell us about the i-Series model you have here at the LA Auto Show.

Christine Fleischer: “We have two models here: the BMW i8 and a special edition i3 called the Shadow Sport Edition, which has been limited to 50 units in North America. We were lucky enough to have them sell out yesterday. Each is the pure electric version and adds a moon roof, sport suspension, European-version interior, the fluid black exterior, and special edition badging. The 2016 model year i8 just received an update with laser headlights, becoming the first OEM to offer a production vehicle with laser headlights.”

Digital Trends: What are BMW’s plans for the i-Series brand?

Christine Fleischer: “Well, i-Series is a brand just like M, and knowing BMW’s model history, there are a lot of numbers between 3 and 8. With that ‘room in the middle’ we’ll first offer something between the i3 and i8’s size and performance. It’s not coming in the very near future, because BMW wants to make sure each i-Series model is an innovation benchmark, and that takes time. With the i3, we set the benchmark for a zero carbon footprint, both from the actual vehicle and its manufacturing process. We want to translate ‘the ultimate driving machine’ into the ‘ultimate mobility service for the future.’ With the introduction of the i3, BMW became the first manufacturer to offer mass production carbon fiber, and the story isn’t fully told yet on the i3, so we’ll have time to explore that. In general, it takes time to get from the planning stages to production with this level of technology.”

Digital Trends: What are BMW’s key differentiating factors within the EV market?

Christine Fleischer: “Innovation. We are never satisfied with the status quo. For the i3, the usage of carbon fiber and telematics integration are unmatched in the industry. Additionally, we excel at anything that has to do with livability and data tracking for our cars and owners. We don’t stop at the car: BMW i is the idea of having a ‘mobile life’ while being environmentally friendly. The car will become one piece of the environmentally conscious life (the house, the solar panels, the battery, the car, etc.). We truly engineer beyond the vehicle. Additionally, our design benefits, like carbon fiber bodies, extend beyond eco-mindedness to driver engagement.”

Digital Trends: How would BMW define its target consumer for the i brand?

Christine Fleischer:  “That’s difficult to answer. The i Series brand goes hand-in-hand with urbanization, so our cars are designed for mega cities, specifically the i3. Also, because of our environmentally-friendly production process, customers must appreciate the same values. Our early adopters were very into precision, i.e. doctors, surgeons, pilots, etc., but now that’s moved to those who are more interested in general with electric vehicles. The adoption process will take some time, but our values of technology, luxury, and design will attract a good number of consumers. Once people move beyond (as they’ve started to) range anxiety, adoption will happen quickly. California, Boston, and Austin have all jumped on board. Really, anywhere there are government incentives, we’ll see more mainstream buyers (as opposed to just early adopters) wanting these vehicles.”

Digital Trends: What are some of the biggest challenges to growth, technology or otherwise?

Christine Fleischer: “In the beginning, the polarizing design was a hurdle. Now, with new paint colors for a more homogenous look, that’s less of an issue. Another challenge is how fast incentives change. State incentives are a constant variable, and we can’t predict which ones will help make our models attractive with better incentives. We also have a vast dealer network, and we’ve certified many of them as BMW i Series dealers, but there’s still a challenge to convey the true benefits of an i Series model to a consumer. Infrastructure was also an obstacle. The more you have, the easier it is. The more convenient the infrastructure, the more sales you’ll make. That’s part of the reason why we partnered with Nissan to create 500 DC fast chargers in addition to what we were already planning.”

Digital Trends: What’s the tipping point for mass-market adoption?

Christine Fleischer: “Education. If you’re confident with what you can do with the vehicle in your daily life, then it isn’t so much about the range. The range can always be improved with battery enhancements, which will happen, but when consumers really understand the value of, for example, the safety and advancements of carbon fiber, then they realize what they get for their money. It’s all about education. Right now it’s a price conversation at dealerships, and not so much about the product. That will definitely change over time. And the more competitors the better so people can realize that electric driving isn’t going away.”

Digital Trends: Which type of electric powertrain technology will reign in the future — hydrogen fuel cell, batteries, or others?

Christine Fleischer: “Maybe something else? It’s funny because hydrogen power has been around since the seventies and electric power much earlier than that. There have always been attempts with advanced alternative energy powertrains, it will just depend on where the government regulations land, and how adoption plays out. Right now, electricity makes sense for us. On BMW M cars, everything was naturally aspirated, but when the tech was ready, we went to turbocharging. The essence is always ‘the ultimate driving machine’ in whatever power delivery method. If electric is the technology of the moment, then we’ll make the best vehicles we can with that tech. We are surely committed to electric or electrically-assisted cars, and we will always be committed to efficiency. Either way, it needs to be designed as automotive grade. You can always build something aftermarket, but it’s so much more difficult to develop it for mass production in terms of testing, safety, and longevity.”

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