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The BMW i3: Advancing Automotive Sustainability

The following post is a part of TriplePundit's coverage of the 2011 Opportunity Green Conference in Los Angeles, California. To read all the posts in the series, click here.

When I think about the companies that are leading in the corporate social responsibility space, I have to admit that the automobile industry doesn’t generally make it onto my short list. Despite the success of the Nissan LEAF and the Chevy Volt, I still have some reservations about just how much greener electric cars really are. In my mind, the materials and energy intensive nature of automobile manufacturing seems like an impossible hurdle to overcome. However, a presentation given by BMW’s Manuel Sattig at Opportunity Green 2011 has me rethinking my assumptions.

It turns out that among auto manufacturers, BMW is one of the most sustainable in the world. It was ranked as the second most sustainable global vehicle manufacturer by Newsweek this year, and is the only car company that has been ranked on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index every year since the index’s inception. Now BMW is using it’s expansion into the electric vehicle business as an opportunity to question and rethink their entire business. According to Sattig, BMW is pursing “electro-mobility,” a concept that goes beyond just producing greener cars by redefining the meaning of personal mobility.

BMW hasn't rushed their launch into the EV market. They have been conducting field tests on multiple iterations of EV models. The company began their foray into EV’s with the MINI E, a 100 percent electric two-seater. BMW used scientific monitoring during field trials to study the impact of the range of the car, how people behave when they are driving it, and how they use EV infrastructure to recharge it. The learning from the trials was then incorporated into the design of the ActiveE, a BMW-branded full size sedan which is currently in field trials in the US.

BMW’s first mass produced electric vehicle will be the BMW i3 which is scheduled for release in 2013, and will be followed by a sporty plug-in hybrid, the i8 in 2014. In designing these two vehicles, BMW looked at its entire value chain to identify ways to reduce its environmental impacts. To address the issue of raw materials sourcing, the company replaced 80 percent of the aluminum and 25 percent of the plastics used in the car with either recycled material or new material produced using renewable energy. BMW worked with the SGL Group for the cars’ carbon fiber components which are manufactured using hydropower, reducing the associated carbon emissions by 50 percent. Both cars will be produced in BMW’s Leipzig plant in Germany using 100 percent renewable energy. This plant has the leanest production system in the European auto industry. As part of the expansion of the factory, BMW improved the space as a working environment by incorporating more natural light and reduced sound levels 50 percent by eliminating the need for a steel press.

In addition to revamping the i3’s production, BMW transformed the body of the car into an elegant if not futuristic looking design optimized for electric powered mobility. The lightweight architecture of the car increases both its range and driving performance. The streamlined interior – the so-called “Life” module – has been enhanced in terms of both space and connectivity. BMW’s integrated mobility services provide drivers with a variety of smartphone applications and an intelligent navigation system that creates a more meaningful connection between the car and the driver’s life outside it.

Instead of taking a car and simply swamping out the combustion engine for an electric drive system, BMW has rethought and redesigned the entire vehicle for it’s most promising application – as an emission-free urban mode of transport that’s just as innovative and intelligent as it’s owner is likely to be.

[Image credit: Claudio Núñez, Flickr]


Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School.

Kara Scharwath

Kara is a corporate social responsibility professional and marketing consultant with expertise in consumer research and environmental science. Currently, Kara is working as a Graduate Associate on the <a href="http://corporate.disney.go.com/citizenship2010/">Corporate Citizenship</a> team at the Walt Disney Company. She is also a founding partner of <a href=http://besui.com/">BeSui Consulting</a>, a boutique marketing consulting firm specializing in consumer insights and marketing communications.

Kara graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in <a href="http://admissions.rutgers.edu/Academics/AcademicContent.aspx?CAMPUS=New… Policy, Institutions and Behaviors</a>. She is currently pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management from <a href'"http://www.presidioedu.org/">Presidio Graduate School</a> where she is exploring the impact investing space and working to identify new ways to increase access to capital for start-ups and social ventures. Follow her on Twitter <a href="http://twitter.com/karameredith">@karameredith</a&gt;.

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