BMW is spending millions of dollars developing electric cars that motorists don’t want to buy, according to the head of its research and development. The German company needs to add battery-powered cars to its portfolio to comply with the draconian emissions regulations coming into effect soon in the early 2020s in key markets, including Europe, but it doesn’t expect electric cars will outsell gasoline-powered models anytime soon.
“There is no customer request for battery-electric vehicles. There are regulator requests for battery-electric vehicles,” explained Klaus Frölich, the man who oversees BMW’s research efforts, in an interview with Australian website Motoring.
Frölich spoke from experience. BMW began experimenting with electric cars in the early 1970s, and its i3 (pictured) introduced in 2013 entered production well before many of its rivals jumped into the segment. It was developed as an electric car from the ground up, which makes it a better electric car than one converted from gasoline to kilowatts, but it hasn’t been the sales success many hoped it would be. Frölich argued electric cars are still too expensive to buy, and the cost of electricity remains relatively high in some European countries. In Munich, the company’s hometown, it’s cheaper to drive a car powered by a fuel-sipping, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine than to drive a comparable electric car.
He added the story is a little bit different in the United States, where the incentives awarded to motorists who buy an electric car tend to be higher, and consumers often have more than one car in their household. The idea of buying a car with a plug is much more attractive when motorists are eligible for a $7,500 tax credit, and living with it is easier when they can forget the phrase “range anxiety” behind the wheel of an SUV.
BMW will continue investing in electric technology, it recently showed a 720-horsepower electric test mule, but Frölich believes plug-in hybrid technology is the best compromise between range and emissions. His team plans to develop a gasoline-electric powertrain capable of running on electricity alone for 50 miles, and he argued the internal combustion engine (in both gasoline- and diesel-burning forms) still has several decades left to live. Even the mighty, turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 that powers its bigger cars will stick around for at least 15 more years.
“From what we see, battery-electric vehicles are good for China and California, and everywhere else is better off with plug-in hybrids that have a good electric range,” he summed up, later adding “the shift to electrification is overhyped.”
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