Mini E public trial starts next month

30 November 2009

BMW Mini EThe first batch of victims – sorry, we mean volunteers – in the UK Mini E trial will get the keys to their electric car on Sunday 13 December, we hear.

The 40 lucky/loaded members of the public are each paying £330 per month for a six-month stint behind the neat little steering wheel of a Mini E. We can’t help feeling that BMW is onto a winner, given that the trial participants are effectively paying to do the company’s R&D. That said, there was a queue of more than 500 people keen to get involved, so who can blame BMW for using the charge to whittle down what would otherwise have been an unmanageably long list.

Plus, of course, Mini’s target demographic is anyway made up of people willing to spend over the odds for a cramped car, so it all makes sense.

Having driven the Mini E recently, we know that the 40 volunteers are in for a great time – the Mini E is a real peach to drive as long as you don’t need a boot or a back seat, and are happy to let the car do its braking for you.

Meanwhile, here’s a little more from our chat with Alexander Thorwirth, head of alternative drives at BMW. Here’s what we asked, and what he said in reply...

GreenMotor: How close is the Mini E electric car to the Mega City Vehicle that BMW plans to sell within the next four years?

Thorwirth: the engine and power electronics and so on are relatively close – they are well defined principles. The intelligence of the power management may improve.

When it comes to batteries, people expect a quantum leap. I don’t think that will happen at the moment. There is still lots of work to do on the battery, and that is where we expect to see the most change.

Renault-Nissan sees battery development as a core competency for a car maker in the future, comparable to engine production today. Mini E uses 5,000 commodity cells – the same kind as go into laptops, for example. Will BMW continue to rely on other firms to supply batteries?

We definitely are interested in following battery development, but we see our core competencies not in battery manufacturing but in battery composition, then in power electronics – to manage the charging and discharging of the batteries.

We are buying cells, but it is how we are using them that’s unique. Also, the higher scale involved in commodity cell production means improved quality.

It’s also really too early to tell which route is the best for EV batteries. We have deliberately chosen the simplest option. One advantage of using lots of small cells is room optimisation – allowing us to distribute the weight around the vehicle.

How does Mini E relate to BMW’s hydrogen vision?

Our work on hydrogen has not diminished, it’s not disappeared. We see hydrogen as suited to long- and mid-range motoring. Electric cars will be for urban settings.

And does BMW still see hydrogen as an internal combustion fuel, as opposed to a fuel-cell electric-vehicle proposition? Has the position changed now that you are gaining expertise in electric drive management?

We see hydrogen internal combustion engines as the ideal way to interpret the BMW brand for the future. Fuel cells have not been our focus. There will be niche applications – for example with a small fuel cell you can get rid of the heavy car battery on a hydrogen ICE car. But we have not investigated fuel-cell electric vehicles in any way – it is much too early. By contrast we know what we can do with hydrogen internal combustion – we can take that out of the drawer when the infrastructure is ready.

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