Teardown: reverse engineering the BMW i3 (video)

BMW’s i3 electric car is full of lessons for automakers. So much so, in fact, that engineers have been tearing it apart to learn its secrets.

“It’s as revolutionary as the Model T was when it came out,” Sandy Munro said in an interview published on the Forbes website.

Munro is CEO of Munro & Associates, a firm that specializes in reverse engineering for the automotive industry and others – and he paid full price for the $50,000 i3 he subsequently tore down at his benchmarking facility in suburban Detroit, ready to sell information about it to anyone who is interested.

The i3 – the first mass-market vehicle made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic for reduced weight and improved range – went on sale in the US last May and BMW sold about 6,000 of them in 2014.

Munro started his i3 tear-down project in August and told Forbes that the most intense interest has been coming from Chinese carmakers.

While car manufacturers often do competitive tear-downs as part of internal benchmarking, Munro decided to study the i3 at his own expense and make his findings available for a price (about $500,000 for automakers, according to Forbes). Reports on key vehicle systems, including the body, rolling chassis, battery and heat exchange, powertrain and interior, will be made available to suppliers and others.

Munro is convinced that despite the high cost of carbon fiber and lithium-ion batteries, BMW has designed the i3 to be profitable at a volume of about 20,000 vehicles a year, which he believes will now be an industry benchmark for makers of electric cars.

During a walk-around with Forbes, Munro highlighted some of the i3’s chief innovations, including a carbon fiber “life module” (offering Formula One-style crash protection) that is glued and screwed to a rolling aluminum chassis module which includes the car’s suspension, battery and drive system.

The BMW’s battery is also unique compared to other electric vehicles. The 360-volt battery is made up of eight independently controlled modules, each containing 12 cells. When one cells goes bad, that module can be replaced. In other EVs it requires costly replacement of the whole battery pack.