BMW R&D man Klaus Fröhlich – flexibility is key

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‘We can do 100 EVs if we want’ If you want electric, BMW is ready. Or hybrid. Or petrol. Even diesel! Klaus Fröhlich explains how.

 

Klaus Fröhlich BMW R&D Chief

The CAR inquisition


Nobody enjoys having a challenging deadline pulled forward. So imagine being BMW R&D boss Klaus Fröhlich last year, when BMW announced the accelerated roll-out of its electrified vehicle programme. No longer did Fröhlich have to deliver 25 plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and full battery-electric (BEV) BMWs by 2025. Now it was 2023 – with more than half expected to be BEVs.


Klaus Fröhlich BMW R&D Chief
Klaus Fröhlich BMW R&D Chief

If that sounds daunting, the 59-year-old board member – a BMW lifer since 1987, who once developed V8s and worked on Land Rover programmes – is sanguine at the prospect of delivery. ‘Honestly, it’s very simple – we have this fully flexible architecture. We have not moved product forwards. We have simply decided to have additional products, so that the counting to 25 reaches that number earlier.’ Having announced that he will retire in July, it won’t be Fröhlich himself who guides the project through the 2020s, but he’s the man who’s built the apparently solid foundations. (He’s being replaced by Frank Weber, currently in charge of the 7- and 8-series, and previously in charge of electrification at General Motors.)

The key is BMW’s flexible CLAR architecture, introduced on the 2015 7-series. Now updated for electrification as NextGen CLAR, it will be used across all powertrains, from combustion engines through PHEVs to BEVs.

The first new electric BMW to use NextGen CLAR will be the iX3, due this year, followed by 2021’s i4 saloon – both with the caveat of ‘partly’ using NextGen components. It’s the iNext SUV – due in 2021 – that’s billed as the first full-blooded NextGen car.

‘From the 3-series successor to the X7, there is one common part, the bulkhead. It’s a little higher on the X7 than a 3-series, but that’s it. Then you have four die-cast axle carriers, which are very stiff for precise steering, and you can move them around in wheelbase and width, and there are two mid-floor derivatives – with conventional engines – and the BEV floor we use in the i4, with a very low battery pack. We had to wait until 2021 to develop such batteries. This floor is also used for PHEVs,’ Fröhlich explains.

‘It’s a jigsaw puzzle; we can react. In Europe, we have had a drop in diesel requests by 20 per cent minimum in the last two years, so we acted already and brought eight additional PHEVs because we have to achieve C02 targets in 2021. We can do 100 electrified vehicles by 2025 if we want.’

Fröhlich has two big predictions about EV production. First, there will be ‘some kind of fight for raw materials’. It’s why BMW has secured access to cobalt to 2035, already agreeing pricing structures, mining practices and working conditions with mining companies. It has also developed electric motors using silicon carbide. This reduces dependence on the rare earths usually used, and leaves BMW less reliant on China, responsible for 95 per cent of rare-earth production. The second prediction is that solid-state batteries remain a decade away. ‘Perhaps there’ll be some pilot projects by 2025, but they will have lower performance and higher cost. Lithium-ion is far from exhausted. It will be 99 per cent of the cake in the 2020s.’ The expense of developing new technologies has led BMW to pursue collaborations, including with Daimler for autonomous driving, and Jaguar for a new e-axle.

‘We have R&D of six or seven per cent of our revenues, and it would be even more if we did not co-operate. The base business is under enormous pressure because of electrification.’ The move to PHEV and BEV brings vast development costs, which can’t be passed on to the customer without making prices uncompetitive, so he needs to find savings where he can.

BMW has co-developed hydrogen fuel cells with Toyota. Although Fröhlich doesn’t envisage using hydrogen in the next couple of generations of BMWs, it might be needed in certain markets, so he wants to be prepared. If anywhere, it could have a use in commercial vehicles. In a dig at Tesla he describes BEV trucks as ‘complete bullshit… you would need a six- or seven-tonne payload only for the battery!’ And he unsubtly reminds us that electric BMWs don’t explode in car parks, because ageing battery cells are better managed.

He’s facing a massive task, but Fröhlich points to his track record with the i project as proof BMW will not only deliver, but set the pace. ‘I worked on Strategy Number One in 2006, which kick-started the BMW i8 and i3,’ he recalls. ‘We outperformed the opposition, and from 2021 onwards I suspect we will do the same with our very flexible technology toolbox.’


Six questions only we would ask

Tell us about your first car

‘A Mercedes Benz 206 D Transporter bought for 200 DM [approx £80 today] in 1980, to take motorcycles and camping gear to the Nürburgring.’

What is your proudest achievement?

‘Strategy Number One in 2006 – our incubator for innovation topics and the basis for the i8 and i3.’

Tell us about a time you screwed up

‘Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I just can’t think of a an example spontaneously…’

What’s the best thing you’ve ever done in a car?

‘Summer 2019, lapping the Nürburgring in a BMW M8 Competition, easily overtaking Taycan prototypes.’

Supercar or classic?

‘I very much enjoy driving classic cars – I own a 1973 BMW 3.0 CS E9 and a 1987 BMW 325i Convertible E30.’

Company curveball…What was BMW’s first prototype electric vehicle?

‘The 1602 Electric at the 1972 Olympic Games.’ [Correct]

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