BMW’s $200 million additional investment in an American carbon fiber factory may be more important than its $1 billion investment to expand the BMW production facility in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Here’s why:
The smaller investment underscores the success of BMW’s new electric vehicle, the i3 (pictured above) and interest in the high performance i8 due in mid-2015. It also indicates that the Munich-based carmaker will be adding more carbon fiber to its gas and diesel vehicles, such as the high performance M series.
I’m not writing off BMW’s significant commitment to Spartanburg, which produces the X3, X5, X6 and new X4 crossovers, and will produce the new plug-in hybrid model of the X5. Since it opened in 1994, the factory has produced more than 2.6 million vehicles, of which 70% are exported around the world.
The additional investment and expansion will boost production by half, to up to 450,000 vehicles a year by 2016. That will make Spartanburg BMW’s single largest production capacity anywhere in the world, including in Germany, according to BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer.
But I digress. Back to the carbon fiber factory in Moses Lake, Washington, a joint venture between BMW and SGL Group, which runs completely on hydropower. Running manufacturing plants on sustainable energy is another trend.
One example is the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, powered in part by a 33 acre Solar Park (pictured above). It contains nearly 34,000 solar modules which can produce enough electricity to power 1,200 homes for a year – or the production lines. The factory itself is the world’s first manufacturing facility to be LEED certified.
Detlev von Platen, Porsche North America CEO, told me recently that the super green designation is a goal for the factory Porsche hopes to build and open somewhere in the US before the end of the decade. Pardon the pun, but stay tuned for the location announcement. Porsche is building a new headquarters in Atlanta, which von Platen told me also will be LEED certified.
Okay, let’s get back to carbon fiber. It’s as strong as steel, but much lighter, which helps reduce weight and increase fuel economy in conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles. The lighter weight also balances the extra weight of the battery packs in plug-in vehicles, so the i3, and especially the i8, can perform like a conventional BMW ultimate driving machine.
The lower-case ‘i’ cars (the ‘i’ stands for innovation) are the first production models built substantially from carbon fiber, which is significantly more expensive than steel. Its high cost is why it is used primarily in Formula One racecars and high end sportscars like the Lamborghini Aventador. But German efficiency and economies of scale are likely to bring down the cost.
The Moses Lake facility is expected to become the world’s largest carbon fiber plant, able to produce 9,000 tons a year. The rolls of fiber material are shipped to Germany, where they are processed into layered sheets, which are then molded into body parts for vehicles, including at the factory in Leipzig, where the i3 and i8 are assembled.
BMW also is using SQL carbon fiber for the solar-powered recharging stations it has designed for the i-series vehicles (pictured above). The carport uses glass-on-glass solar panels designed to last 30 years, and also features a conventional plug-in charging station for rainy days.
BMW hasn’t released the cost of the solar charging stations, but the sticker price of the “urban mobility” electric i3 is $42,275 including destination fee, with a range of about 100 miles fully charged. My recent test drive shows it to be fun to drive – not as much fun as a 3 Series, but more fun than most EVs, and with room for five.
The i3 may need a separate garage for the awards it is winning for its engineering and design innovations. It has won the titles of 2015 Green Car of the Year, 2014 World Green Car of the Year and the 2013 World Car Design of the Year award at the recent auto shows in New York and Los Angeles.The futuristic-styled i8, with gull-wing doors, is $136,625. It gets my own Wish List Award for its cutting edge style and technology.
This article is adapted from my Freewheeling column, nationally syndicated by Motor Matters.