Electric Warriors: Benz and BMW Take on the Future – The Big Picture


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Vast and loud and colorful, the Frankfurt Motor Show displayed the swaggering might of the German auto industry. But although there were plenty of interesting and significant production vehicles making their debuts across the sprawling Frankfurt Messe complex, the buzz was all about all the hybrids and electric vehicles we’ll all be driving in the next five years. 2017 was the year the future arrived at Frankfurt.

Glimpses of that future were everywhere, from the show-stopping Mercedes-AMG Project One hypercar with its 1,000-hp hybrid powertrain to a production version of the all-electric, all-wheel-drive, 400-hp Jaguar I-Pace hiding in plain sight under wings and spoilers and a race car paint job on the Jaguar Land Rover stand. These glimpses were tangible expressions of product strategies now in play as automakers get ready for what will be the most disruptive and transformational decade the industry has seen in more than a century. But here’s the kicker: No one knows who’s got it right.

Take Daimler and BMW. Both say they’ll have 10 to 12 battery electric vehicles (BEVs) on the market by the early 2020s. And both say the vast majority of the rest of their models will become either plug-in or mild hybrids with 48-volt electrics within the same timeframe. Their goals are strikingly similar, yet both intend to achieve them by very different methods.

Daimler, which is spending an eye-watering $12 billion on electrification, is taking a multiarchitecture approach. First, it’s dropping the gas and diesel internal combustion engines from the entire Smart lineup, making the ultra-compact city car brand entirely electric by 2020. And there’ll be plug-in and mild hybrid versions of every Mercedes-Benz model available around the same time. Meanwhile, subcompact Mercedes BEVs will be built on a modified version of the MFA2 architecture, which currently underpins the A-Class and B-Class models, and they are scheduled to arrive 2019.

The real investment, though, is in a unique BEV architecture that will appear under a whole new range of vehicles to be sold under the Mercedes-EQ brand—the first of which is due to appear by the end of 2020. Daimler strategy and product planning chief Wilko Stark says the dedicated yet highly flexible BEV architecture will give the company the ability to cover all vehicle segments. Engineers will be able to easily vary the wheelbase, the number of battery packs, and the number of electric motors and decide whether the vehicle is RWD or AWD.

BMW, on the other hand, is focusing on just two architectures—one front-drive, the other rear-drive—that R&D chief Klaus Frölich says will be able to accommodate conventional internal combustion engine drivelines and advanced plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and BEV powertrains. Daimler insiders suggest this strategy leads to weight, packaging, and manufacturing constraints that mean compromises for every vehicle, but Frölich insists the opposite. “We have worked 10 years on this,” he says.

Key to the BMW approach has been a program to dramatically improve the energy density of scalable battery packs with cells built to BMW’s own design and using its own chemistry, along with developing modular power electronics systems and e-motors in-house. “We realized in 2009 that if we doubled the energy density of the battery cells, we could do BEVs in our normal architectures,” Frölich says. He also says BMW has already met that target.

The 2021 production version of the BMW i Vision Dynamics concept shown at Frankfurt, called the i5 and boasting a 0–60-mph acceleration time of less than 4 seconds along with a range of 370 miles, will therefore roll on the same underpinnings as the regular 5 Series. Ultimately, Frölich says, BMW’s i brand lineup will have more than 10 uniquely styled BEVs and 20 to 30 iPerformance-branded PHEVs able to travel 60 miles on pure battery power.

So who’s got it right? Daimler or BMW? We’ll know 10 years from now.

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