BMW SA bets big on electric cars - TechCentral

BMW SA bets big on electric cars

The BMW i3

The BMW i3

Electric cars are the future of the automobile, Germany’s iconic luxury vehicle brand BMW believes. And it’s about to make a big investment in South Africa to back up this view.

Worldwide, the race to electric vehicles is hotting up as leading vehicle manufacturers — Nissan, Volkswagen, Toyota, BMW — race to build models that charge quicker and go further. Nissan has already launched the Leaf in South Africa, though it’s been criticised for its R446 000 price tag. And let’s also not forget, of course, about the pioneering work of Tesla, the US electric car maker founded by South African Elon Musk.

As the price of petrol increases — with no relief in sight — electric vehicles look set to take a growing slice of the market from vehicles powered directly by fossil fuels.

This is certainly the opinion of BMW South Africa’s Deena Govender, who looks after the Bavarian automaker’s electric vehicle portfolio. “We have reached a point of diminishing returns in getting efficiencies out of the internal combustion engine and it’s become clear we had to ‘electrify’ our cars,” he tells TechCentral.

The BMW i3's battery

The BMW i3’s battery

BMW South Africa is taking a calculated approach to the launch of its two electric vehicles, the i3, which is aimed at urban drivers, and its flashy i8 sports hybrid. Both cars are expected to go on sale locally in March next year. But don’t be surprised to spot one before then: BMW has a small demo fleet on the road already.

“The market for electric cars in South Africa still needs to be created,” says Govender. But BMW isn’t letting that impede its plans. More than one in seven vehicles in its portfolio in 2015 will be plug-in hybrids or electrics. A plug-in hybrid is a car with both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, whose batteries can be plugged into a wall socket. BMW’s i3 electric vehicle will be able to charge from a public charging station or a normal household electric socket.

The i3 will also come with what looks like a large notebook charger that has a type 2 electric socket on one end and an intelligent power brick connected to a standard three-prong socket on the other. The power brick is used to monitor and control the power that is fed to the vehicle.

To ensure that the car’s batteries are not damaged during charge, or that the i3 does not trip a power circuit, the car will be able to pull three different amperages: 6A, 9A and 12A. This can be set manually using the i3’s iDrive — similar to those found on BMWs today, but with a few additions to cater to the electric vehicle functionality.

Look ma, no petrol

Look ma, no petrol

BMW’s recently launched ConnectedDrive will also be present on the i3.

The i3 is the car that BMW hopes will replace a household’s second car, or one that will be used by urbanites who don’t travel out of the city. This is because electric vehicles do not have sufficient battery capacity yet to compete with the drive range of  a full tank of petrol. On a single charge, the i3 will go for up to 160km, depending on how it’s driven. Govender believes this range will treble over the next few years as battery technology improves. Early adopters, be warned then.

However, to address the concerns early buyers might have — or to cater to the needs of those people who want more mileage per charge — BMW is also launching a version of the i3 with a “range extender” option. It includes a  two-cylinder petrol engine, holding 9l of petrol, that develops 25kW to maintain a minimum charge level in the battery. It boosts the driving range to about 300km. “We call this a range extender and not a hybrid because the electric motor and the battery pack are the only traction elements that drive the car,” says Govender. “It has a 650cc internal combustion engine from one of BMW’s bike ranges … to charge the batteries.”

Govender says this engine is intended to be used only as a backup in emergencies.

The i3 comes with its own smartphone app — available for Android and iPhone — that provides charging information to owners as well a range map to show not only the distances the car can travel on its current charge, but also where the nearest charging bays are to be found. The app also allows remote control of some of the car’s functions, including setting the climate control.

Public charging stations
Although the i3 can be charged at home, a full charge using a household power socket takes about nine hours. BMW calls this the occasional-use charging cable as it’s not meant to be used all the time. It allows electric car owners to charge from anywhere if a public charging station is not close by, but public stations will provide much quicker charge times.

Govender is also chair of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa’s (Naamsa’s) electric vehicle working group. “Naamsa, together with government and Eskom, has come up with a solution for what we need in terms of charging infrastructure.”

Direct current (DC) fast-charging stations are one option that will be provided. These stations will charge an i3’s battery to 80% in just 20 minutes. Alternating current (AC) charging stations will also be available, but these will take about three hours to charge an electric vehicle.

A big difference between the two is cost. “The public DC charging stations are about R350 000 fully installed, while the AC charging stations cost about R25 000,” says Govender. “The manufacturers have agreed we will offer the two major standards to cover the charging needs for all electric vehicles in South Africa.”

Given current electricity prices, the i3 at home will cost about R25 to charge fully, says Govender.

A lack of public charging stations could prove the biggest impediment to uptake. Govender says car makers have to work together on this.

The BMW i8

The BMW i8

“We are already in the process of installing public charging stations at 11 BMW South Africa-owned facilities and BMW dealers. These will be placed in semi-public spaces like visitors’ parking lots,” he says.

Nissan has installed charging stations at nine of its dealers and, essentially, electric vehicle owners will be able to use charging stations at any one of these. Charging stations will all conform to the standards agreed upon for South Africa.

Government also plans to install public charging stations at 60 locations in Gauteng, with deployment to begin next year.

“We are also in discussion with the Airports Company South Africa, the Gautrain and various property development companies and malls to install charging stations,” says Govender.

By the time the i3 and the i8 launch in South Africa next year, he says there will be a widely available charging infrastructure in urban areas.  — © 2014 NewsCentral Media


  1. This is going to open the door to make electricity prices skyrocket because of growing demand for a limited supply of recharge points and Eskom’s excuse for additional load on the grid from cars that have large power drains.

    HOWEVER, *wait for this one*, they will make it illegal for you to supply your own electricity from wind or solar. Either that or it will be HEAVILY regulated and taxed making it non-viable for the man on the street and forcing him to buy from the national supplier.

    The next window tax is on its way. Wait for it. Call it a use-of-nature tax.

  2. >This is going to open the door to make electricity prices skyrocket because of growing demand for a limited supply

    It should be fine – the vast majority of owners will charge them overnight when everyone’s sleeping. The Tesla has an intelligent charger when you tell it when you want it charged to 100% by, and it draws as little current as possible to have it done by then. I’m guessing most EVs and hybrids are the same. The power draw on a full overnight charge is somewhere between an LCD TV and a pool pump, depending on how depleted the battery is.

  3. How much of the current petrol price is government taxes and levies?

    How will government make up for the tax and levy revenue being lost through less petrol and diesel consumption?

  4. “A lack of public charging stations could prove the biggest impediment to uptake.”

    Then build it so that you can charge it from a normal wall socket…

  5. Alexis_Zenios on

    Something like this can actually help the power grid. Push energy back during peak times, and only draw energy during off peak.

  6. Greg Mahlknecht on

    While theoretically possible, that’s a very wasteful way to store energy, and will cost consumers a lot of money as selling back to Eskom will be at a fraction of what they purchase.

    It’s better just to do the calculations and realise it’s not a problem at all for the power grid. The batteries will probably only need half a charge daily, and charge over the space of 6+ hours when the grid isn’t under much load. It’s pretty much a non-issue IMO.

  7. Alexis_Zenios on

    Yes one would need to implement on and off peak rates for that to make sense, for buying and selling.
    Hugely wasteful I know you getting conversion losses both ways, but Eskom is in abit of a pickle when it comes to power generation. Grid is pretty closed to being maxed out, with no quick solution in sight.

  8. Greg Mahlknecht on

    Well yes and no – it’s going to probably take a decade until there are enough electric cars on the road to register even a small blip o the power grid; by that time, even with all Eskom’s delays for new power plants, it should be fine. A quick solution isn’t really necessary.

  9. It all sounds like a distant brainfart in my subconcious.
    Oh I see, so the car manufacturers make decisions that effect the population and again its the tail wagging the dog. So any other impact that may or may not be in a car manufacturers mind, that is worth considering, they get to make “their” choice anyway. For me its “a hope” and a short “may the force be with us”………..and away we all go.

    Humans suck at being humans sometimes.

  10. There is a quick solution…if the money (our money) that Government recieves, was not lost down the hole of fraud and corruption, there would be enough to bring around a change that we could all benifit from. The only thing maxing out currently is the incredible amount of stupidity that it takes to allow this to carry on, before our very eyes. So we get fed fancy consumer adverts, and we spend all day working out what we think we choose like flate rate this and fancy On and off peak rates that etc etc but the first step is to run their sorry asses out of town. Things will become clear and simple as they can be, very quickly.

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