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BMW Doesn't Think Electric Vehicles Are Right For Most People

BMW i3 concept

Sometimes it seems like a new flashy electric car is announced every week. But the CEO of BMW North America—which has at least two electric vehicles on tap—just announced that he doesn't think EVs will work for more than 10% of the population. Why is the company ragging on its own cars?

Jim O'Donnell, BMW's North America chairman and chief executive officer, recently told the Detroit News, "(EVs) won't work for most people. For at least 90 percent and maybe more of the population, (an EV) won't work (at the current battery range)." How forward-looking, Jimbo. That's a pretty oversimplified statement, to say the least.

The Nissan Leaf, perhaps the most well-known of the new batch of EVs, has an EPA-rated range of 73 miles. That's perfect for shorter work commutes (or longer ones if there is a charge spot/plug waiting on the other end), as well as quick errands around town. It's not so useful for long weekend trips. And since Americans love their weekend getaways, this is a problem.

But the U.S. is a two car per household country, which means that it's perfectly feasible for most people to have a shorter-range EV and a longer-range gasoline vehicle for extended trips. And in any case, the average American drives 29 miles per day—well within the range of the Leaf and the Chevy Volt, which has an all-electric range of 25 miles before its combustion engine kicks in. Perhaps O'Donnell just doesn't want people buying the electric cars already on the market? Maybe a BMW electric car would be more appealing?

"Maybe 90% [of the population] wouldn't choose it as a first vehicle, but they may choose it as a second vehicle," says the very diplomatic Chevy Volt spokesman Rob Peterson. "I think electric vehicles are here, and I think we're at the very early stages of market introduction. To discount the technology at this point is inappropriate."

BMW isn't the first car company to make this kind of statement about EVs. Last year, Dr. Karl-Thomas Neumann, Chief Officer for Electric Traction at the Volkswagen Group, told us that approximately 3% of VW vehicles delivered globally by 2020 will be EVs. This is probably in part because VW relies more heavily than most on clean diesel vehicles, which are something of a bridge technology between gasoline-powered cars and EVs. And remember: BMW is also a fan of clean diesel.

Despite its CEO's negative attitude, BMW is charging ahead with EVs, leasing the ActiveE electric coupe in six major U.S. markets next year and unveiling the i3 pure electric vehicle in 2013. Next time, BMW, it might be wise to refrain from trashing the sales potential of your products.

[Photo credit: BMW (the i3 Megacity vehicle concept)]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • RalfLippold

    People are so entrenched in current reality mental models, they should watch John Sterman's lecture on this issue at @MITworld, (Why Bad Things happen to Good Technologies)

  • Mercuryrising

    I can see why BMW's north American boss takes this view on the US obsession with electric vehicles when the mpg of existing fleet of combustion engines in the US would make executives at auto makers in Europe flushed with embarrassment.

    The average mpg for automakers in the US is a paltry 22.5mpg. Surely it would be better to improve fuel efficiency to European levels before creating an over-engineered solution that's designed to fail:

  • Andrew Krause

    Here's a newsflash: EV's won't work for most people. O'Donnell is doing something most tree-hugging eco-idiots are incapable of: acknowledging the reality that the technology simply can't support most drivers' habits. When someone produces in an electric car that can charge in 5 minutes and drive 300 miles between charges and do all this for as low as $10,000... then you'll have a product that fits the needs of 100% of drivers.

  • John Smithy

    If I could afford a new car I would definetly buy a hybrid or electric... Gas is freakin 1.40$ here and it costs me 120$ to fill up my damn truck. Hopefully the price of electric cars will go down.

    John @