BMW is using carbon fiber-reinforced plastic on its new electric i3 to shave off up to 350 kgs from the auto-body compared to using traditional materials.
They are able to do this without significant price increase. The result is a four-passenger car that can go 160 kilometres on a charge with a sticker price of just over USD 40,000.
Fuel economy is greatly affected by an automobile’s weight. For years automobiles got heavier. In the U.S., the average curb weight of a passenger vehicle climbed 26 percent from 1980 to 2006. Advances in powertrain technology have not led to drastically higher mile per gallon ratings because of this increased weight, among other factors.
It’s no coincidence that BMW’s development of its first production electric vehicle coincided with a dramatic investment in a new design paradigm based on carbon fiber composites.
BMW knew it couldn’t just slap batteries and motors into an existing model. The i3’s battery pack weighs in at more than 450 kg, so body weight reduction was critical to offsetting the batteries’ weight.
To achieve a range approaching 160 km on one of its existing vehicles, it would have needed a very large battery pack to move around that heavy steel.
Carbon fiber composites
To achieve a level of weight reduction that could begin to effectively offset all that electric powertrain mass, BMW designers changed the body’s shape to better integrate the new electric drivetrain and motors. They also would need materials that could offer the same structural integrity with less weight.
Despite carbon fiber composites’ higher cost per kg as compared to steel, every kg saved by virtue of the new materials’ structural advantage was a kg the battery pack would not have to move around.
The business case for making a dramatic investment in an all-new material, with its own unique structural characteristics, manufacturing processes, production facilities and supply chain suddenly made sense.
400 vehicles per year
Currently BMW is able to produce an i3 body about every 20 hours, allowing it to kick out a shade over 400 vehicles per year, not many by auto industry standards, but an important start.
Whether starting with whole carbon fiber composite vehicles at low volume or individual parts at high volume, the goal is the same: very quickly scaling a new material industry to pave the way to a transformed transportation system built on the unparalleled lightweighting potential of widely adopted carbon fiber composite.
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