Why the next BMW i8 will still be a hybrid

Speaking to journalists at the Frankfurt auto show last month, Henrik Wenders, head of BMW’s i division, said the next BMW i8 will continue to be a plug-in hybrid. Why? Because despite the fact that battery technology is moving ahead rapidly, it is still not to the point where it can match the range and ease of refueling of conventional cars. The same calculus is the reason Chevrolet built the Chevy Volt. Maybe in 20 years, the BMW i8 and Chevy Volt will be obsolete, but in the meantime, both offer customers something pure electrics cannot — a total absence of range anxiety.

Cramming more batteries into a car is not the way to go, says Wenders, who says other companies that are trying to convert conventional cars to electric power are going about it all wrong. Unless the weight of the batteries is placed properly, it detracts from the way a car handles by raising the center of gravity. Both the BMW i3 and i8 were designed from the ground up to be electric cars, so their batteries are mounted as low as possible in the chassis.

At BMW, the focus has been on reducing the weight of the cars to enhance performance. The company has singlehandedly invented new manufacturing techniques that substitute carbon fiber structures for steel stampings. The integration of carbon fiber and metal to create high strength, light weight chassis is now showing up in other BMW models like the all new BMW 7 series sedan, which is several hundred pounds lighter than its predecessor.

One area where new battery technology may have a huge impact on the electric cars is the development of solid state lithium ion batteries. Those will allow manufacturers to dispense with the heavy and expensive heating and cooling systems today’s batteries require, opening up space in the chassis for more battery power with less weight.

Efficiency is the watch word at BMW, as it strives to strike the right balance between safety performance, longevity and sustainability. It believes that keeping the next BMW i8, whatever it turns out to be, a plug-in hybrid is the best way to strike the proper balance between those competing goals.