Future fantastic

Future fantastic

I have seen the future of mobility. And it looks just fantastic!

Think about your mobile phone. It is a tool that you use for so many different reasons (certainly not just for communication; that’s so last century). And, when it’s not needed, it’s often on charge – at the office or overnight while you’re snoozing. You plug it in and forget about it.

Now take the paragraph above and imagine that I am talking about your car. No, I am not kidding or fantasising. I have just attended an e-mobility conference hosted by BMW – and, if the company has its way, we’ll be driving home in silence (because our cars will be powered by electricity) and then charging our cars in our garages. Over weekends, we will drive to restaurants – and charge our cars there (and you thought free Wi-Fi in restaurants was cool). Oh, and en route to the restaurant, we will go onto the internet to make the booking – using our cars, not our phones, of course.

Now I know exactly what you’re thinking: this is going to happen in a decade or so – right? Not true. The scenario is just around the corner; the BMW i3 will be launched in South Africa in April 2014, followed by the BMW i8 in July 2014. The drop dead gorgeous BMW i3 is an all-electric vehicle while the even more delectable BMW i8 is a plug-in hybrid, which has an electric motor and an internal combustion engine.

The i3 is a light, safe and spacious city car, which is ever so easy to manoeuvre and to park. Performance is good: the electric motor over the rear axle, which generates output of 125 kW and impressive torque of 250 Nm, ensures that the i3 accelerates from 0 to 60 km/h in under four seconds and from rest to 100 km/h in less than eight seconds. The range of the i3 is 130 to 160 km, which is absolutely fine for normal city driving.

Its bigger and sexier brother, the i8, combines the modified electric drive system from the BMW i3 – fitted over its front axle – with a high-performance three-cylinder combustion engine producing 164 kW/300 Nm at the rear. The electric motor in the BMW i8 is a full-capability unit, which can also power the car on its own if required; the car can travel up to 35 kilometres on electric power alone.

The acceleration and fuel consumption statistics pertaining to the i8 are class-leading. It accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h  in under five seconds and fuel consumption (in the European cycle) is under three litres per 100 kilometres. When the car is driven hard, this will rise to between five and seven litres per 100 kilometres – still pretty impressive.

Both of these vehicles come with a bundle of innovations that are tickling me pink (or maybe that should be green?) For instance, drivers will be able to find their vehicles, flag up nearby charging stations, allow battery charging and check the status of their vehicles … all at a touch of a button via their smartphones.

Speaking of green, climate change is not the only reason for the introduction of these vehicles. Another important consideration is increasing urbanisation. What this means – in motoring terms anyway – is that people need mobility, not necessarily a car. BMW has recognised this trend, with Norbert Reithofer, chairman of the board of management of BMW AG, recently going on record as saying that the company will in future be “the leading provider of premium vehicles and premium mobility services”.

But precisely what is the big deal about mobility? It means getting from A to Z in the most efficient, economical, convenient and planet-pleasing way possible. It could, for instance, mean never owning a car.

In June 2011, the BMW Group and Sixt AG launched a mobility service called DriveNow in Munich. Essentially a car-sharing scheme, it has to be one of the smartest concepts I have ever seen in action – and it’s ever so easy (and inexpensive) to use too. In the simplest of terms, it’s like hiring a car – but it’s just so much easier and more flexible. That is because you find DriveNow cars all over Munich, parked on the streets. If you want to find one, you simply go onto the internet, check via a smartphone app or simply spot the car in the street. Vehicles can either be hired on the spot, without booking, or can be booked via the internet or a smartphone app.

Conventional car keys are not required either, since the DriveNow vehicles can be unlocked by means of a chip inserted in the driver’s licence and started using a starter button. When you’re done with the car, you just park it and walk away. The fees are extremely reasonable – Bavarians tell me taxis are more expensive. There are even free parking spaces at selected multistorey car parks up for grabs (and, trust me, this is a Seriously Big Deal; it costs an arm and a leg and a whole bunch of Euros to park in Munich). Electric DriveNow cars are planned for the near future.

But – back to South Africa – and that mysterious concept of mobility. How does it apply to us? Intermodal transport is obviously important – the powers that be at BMW would like to see a scenario whereby South Africans buy an i3 or i8 but then use that vehicle selectively. If, for instance, you’re flying internationally, you would leave your i3 or i8 parked at home (on charge of course). You would grab a DriveNow car and head towards the Gautrain station, where you would park that car and then hop on the train. What about a holiday? Electric cars aren’t designed to be driven long distances … No problem. You would take your i3 to a BMW dealership, leave it parked there (on charge) and collect a replacement car with a regular combustion engine.

But how far away is this scenario? It is just around the corner. Senior staff members at BMW’s e-mobility conference (a thoroughly fascinating affair, incidentally) confirmed that discussions with local car hire companies had already begun – with a view to introducing the DriveNow concept locally. And, of course, the arrival of those magnificent machines – the i3 and i8 – is on track for next year.

We cannot wait. Naturally an electric car is not without its challenges. One is the purchase price. The battery for the i3 costs R200 000 alone; the car is expected to cost about R450 000 or so. Another is the availability of electricity. But assuming it is available, it costs a tenth of the price to “fuel” a car with electricity – versus that nasty petrol and diesel stuff.

As the launch of these two cars draws closer, we will keep you posted. Watch this space!

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