As we all know, at the top, especially in the premium segment, the battle is heated between BMW, Audi and Mercedes. The Bavarian company aims to make its cars almost immortal, as it shifts production towards building carbon fibered cars.
All this starts with hundreds of thousands of fine white strands snaking upwards in a production hall in rural Washington. Looped through an almost mile-long course, what looks like the world’s thinnest rice noodles will be stretched, toasted and eventually scorched black to create carbon fiber – a material thinner than human hair and yet tougher than steel.
The company uses the sleek, black filaments for the passenger frame of the i3 electric car, which goes on sale at dealers in Germany tomorrow and around the world in the coming months. It’s the first effort to mass produce a car made largely from carbon fiber and represents the biggest shift in automobile production since at least the 1980s when the first all-aluminum car frames were made.
The strategy started taking shape six years ago, as Norbert Reithofer, then the newly appointed chief executive officer, examined trends affecting the industry and concluded that increased environmental awareness would likely prompt tougher emissions regulations.
“Looking forward to 2020, we saw threats to our business model,” said Chief Financial Officer Friedrich Eichiner, who was head of strategic planning at the time. “We had to find a way to bring models like the 6-Series, 7-Series and X5 into the future.”
For BMW to continue to sell cars that live up to the company’s “ultimate driving machine” claim, the manufacturer needed to offset those emissions with a viable electric vehicle for growing cities, where more and more potential customers would live. That was the start of the i3.
The downside is that it’s prohibitively expensive. Consultancy Frost & Sullivan estimates that carbon fiber costs about $20 per kilogram. That compares to about $1 for steel. BMW’s goal is to get the expense of a carbon-fiber frame down to the level of aluminum by 2020.
To produce the fiber, BMW formed a joint venture with SGL Carbon SE in 2009. Due to the strategic importance of the project, BMW even made the rare move to secure influence at the Wiesbaden, Germany-based manufacturer by buying a 16 % stake, countering Volkswagen AG’s purchase of a 10 % holding. Susanne Klatten, a member of the Quandt family, which controls BMW, also bought 27 % of SGL, putting the company effectively out of reach of rivals.
Manufacturing with carbon fiber is far more complex than taking sheets of steel and pounding out body panels. It starts with stripping atoms from acrylic thread. The chains of carbon crystals are then stitched into mats, layered together and injected with plastic resin. BMW’s process involves at least three production sites and the fibers travel more than 5,000 miles before a finished car ultimately rolls off the line at a factory in the eastern German city of Leipzig.
The i3 uses carbon fiber to protect the passengers and an aluminum under-body to hold the battery and absorb the force of an accident. Because carbon parts are reinforced plastic, they have some flexibility. But in the event of an accident, the plastic could rupture, which means the piece would need to be cut out and a new part bonded to it. In other words, it can’t be bent back into shape.
Also, the fiber production will go on, even if the i3 falls flat. Carbon components will start finding their way into BMW’s mainstream lineup starting with the next 7-Series.