Inside the Future of Mobility: The BMW i Born Electric Tour

By Michael Lockhart

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What is mobility? To put it simply: it’s how we move, how we traverse the distance between point A and point B, and the essential processes involved with that motion. Within a city, we live in an urban ecosystem that contains residential, commercial and social venues, connected by lifelines consisting of mass transit, personal vehicles and avenues for pedestrian mobility such as sidewalks, tunnels and bridges. However, as cities continue their growth, both vertically and expanding into the suburbs, transforming regions from farms to skyscrapers, we’ve seen the birth of the megacity—you presently know them as New York, London, Beijing and Tokyo—but then again, we’re just getting started.

Last week we had the opportunity to attend the unveiling of the next step of future mobility as part of BMW i’s Born Electric Tour’s stop in New York City, the third of a seven-city, yearlong global exhibition and conference meant to showcase the company’s new electric concepts and the brand’s investments in the realm of transportation and innovation.

Kicking off Monday night opposite Bryant Park—normally known for its semiannual fashion shows—actress Uma Thurman took the stage (below) for the North American unveiling of BMW i’s i8 concept roadster, the hardtop i8 version having made waves at auto shows in the spring. The gorgeous concept, which we were unfortunately unable to bargain for a ride in, is being shopped as a 170-horse plug-in electric with extended range (EV) that can hit 0-60 in under five seconds, with a top speed of around 155 mph. Advertised as innovation disguised as a sports car, the beauty of the i8 lies in its consumption, an estimated 87 mpg with an electric range of 20 miles, which is a zero-emission dream in the city.

The vision for BMW i, originally formed as a venture-capital subsidiary for Munich-based parent BMW AG, revolves around the concept of reinventing mobility in all aspects—not just the development of these unique vehicles, but also how they are sourced and produced, and how they will integrate into future megacities and meet the needs of those inhabitants. Fundamentally, this idea requires three major components to succeed: capital funds, partners for innovation and the constructive use of public policy to encourage next-generation infrastructure development.

The Born Electric Tour addresses these needs through a number of creative methods, with the roughly weeklong but highly publicized event serving as a distinct forum for discourse and invoking corporate interest in each of the host nations. This is accomplished by creating buzz around the tour—Uma Thurman’s opening night bash and the dual-story wraparound signage in midtown Manhattan were key to this strategy.

The engaging closed-conference lectures consisting of auto professionals, academics, policy makers, journalists and executives satisfied its purpose as a meeting of the minds, allowing the company to showcase its achievements but also its financial commitment to the vision. The remaining public days served to solicit feedback and opinion in the seven key markets, which will have a positive effect long-term, if not just for the sporadic nature of such an event.

While the 2013 i3 and 2014 i8 concepts were the event’s stars (especially as the world’s first purpose-built electric and hybrid electric production vehicles constructed using sustainably produced carbon fiber and batteries from the company’s own plants), Tuesday’s conference speakers stole the show with a number of presentations, announcements and workshops aimed at introducing the audience to what BMW i has been hard at work at over the past few years.

Among these were the results of a study conducted in partnership with NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy, led by Director Mitchell L. Moss. While the study (found here) strongly touched upon the changing statistical demographics toward the year 2050, the report’s findings emphasized how the evolution of automotive design will predict how cities will be reorganized in the future. For example, the continued trend towards smaller vehicles (such as the i3) and urban car sharing (such as BMW’s DriveNow electric fleet) will reduce the space needs for parking in the city, allowing for larger pedestrian spaces and mixed-use areas, which will give way to the integration of electric charging infrastructure that supports these kinds of vehicles.

But will American consumers take the plunge—at least for something like the i8? We sat down with BMW North America COO Peter Miles to chat about the i8’s appeal to the traditional American sports car buyer, a market known for its obsession with double-digit cylinder engines and a pure focus on performance. Miles stated that to grab this demographic, “[the product] first has to have appeal to the consumer, then it needs to make sense. More and more customers in the U.S.—and we see this from our sales of V8s or V6s shifting to the V4s—are certainly looking for something economical, but what we’re also seeing is smaller engines with increased performance.

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“These [performance V4s] are cleaner vehicles, though there is a certain mindset with American buyers who want something economical, but they don’t want to give anything up. When you bring those things together you’re looking at the i3 and i8. [The cars are] leading edge, but a lot of people don’t want to pay for that type of technology; but with this you’ve got the cool, you’ve got the substance and you’ve also got the performance.”

With a price tag rumored to be close to $200,000 for the i8 (our interrogation failed to produce a concrete number), the fact remains that almost $200K would easily fetch a number of high-powered traditional supercars. However, Miles reiterated the strength of the curb appeal: “If you look at the i8 and the statistics on it, there’s a lot of bragging rights on the car. But if you look at the Ferrari, Aston Martin or Bentley buyer, and the bragging rights with those cars—[they are] just cool cars to have. So when you can say [the i8] has 50-50 weight balance, 0-60 in five seconds, can do 87 miles per gallon, and your only complaint that it doesn’t vibrate like a V12 or a V10? Then yes, I think there is a buyer for this.”

While the event focused heavily on the future of physical transportation, an interesting perspective can be gained in the form of BMW i Ventures’ noted investments in mobility solutions, funding innovative homegrown projects that will benefit drivers. The first suite of mobile apps combines location-GPS services with convenience measures; for example, anticipating when your car will require a charge-up based on your route and finding available stations, or if necessary, a gas bar for an extended-range trip.

We caught up with the founders of one of the most innovative of these projects, an 80-plus city strong interactive city guide app entitled MyCityWay, which was born from two Wall Street executives, Puneet Mehta and Sonpreet Bhatia, with funding by NYC Mayor Bloomberg and BMW i.

Mehta asked us, “Can we outsource our sixth sense to the [computing] cloud and let MCW lead the way?” That is, can we combine our reliance on a number of sites and devices into one central info-hub, and trust it with our day-to-day schedule? “[MCW] will help you look around corners, predict what you might need before you even ask for it. We have built a platform which can plug into media companies so that they can engage their audience.”

Taking the app for a test drive, we were able to customize everything from our preferred route to work, with scheduled stops for coffee, to errands we might need to run on the way. The beauty of MCW is that as it learns your schedule it will automatically keep track of everything from traffic delays (to alert you to leave earlier) to where lower gas prices are (knowing your fuel tank), to what you should wear based on the weather, even giving third-party companies options to offer perks to users based on their habits (Lacoste discounts popped up on the model we were playing with).

While it’s inevitable that change in both transportation and mobility has already begun to occur around us, the increasing rate of adoption will more or less serve as a catalyst for how soon we will see certain technologies such as the i3 and i8 as a common occurrence on the road. Advancements such as we’re seeing in the production and development of these vehicles, studies such as Urban Mobility and exciting new applications like MyCityWay are really just the tip of the iceberg of what lies ahead in this field.

The Born Electric Tour does a great job of offering up a glimpse of what the future could potentially hold for us, but what it really proves is that the journey to that city full of zero-emission sports cars and predictive phones and dashboards is one that requires the input from the citizens of today, and it will ultimately be up to us to shape the reality of tomorrow.


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