Where is the BMW Group headed?

The BMW Group will make “vegan” cars

New thinking forges new paths: in response to shifting values in the industrialised nations, the BMW Group is creating products that are more sustainable to manufacture as well as cleaner and more economical to use. The only thing that is taboo is taboos.

Words
Adriano Sack

Is a fully compostable car a conceivable proposition? What may sound like somebody’s attempt at humour is in fact symptomatic of the critical shift in customer expectations and habits. This change is manifested in different ways and to varying degrees in different parts of the world. Status will also determine the values a company stands for. The answer to the “compostable car” question will not always be straightforward because economic behaviour and public sentiment are not always on the same page. And because the relationships between different things are often highly complex. Even if the prevailing opinion among traffic researchers, politicians and mobility companies is that the switchover to electric cars represents a historic necessity, an exemplary model like the BMW i3 still falls well short of solving all our problems. Questions still abound: how big is its production footprint? Where does the electric power come from?

Silk, stone, marble, bamboo and ceramics: who says that luxury in the 21st century has to mean leather and wood?

After all, one thing is for sure: customers want to save the world, but they’re not so keen on sacrifice.

A company like the BMW Group can only survive if it turns a profit by making and selling products the market wants. Private enterprise will not replace political decision-making. But the debate in Germany about how to meet the figure of one million electric cars by 2020 set by the federal government boils down to a chicken and egg situation: should the state provide a comprehensive charging infrastructure or does the automobile industry first need to generate significant sales volumes? Decisions on privileges for electric cars, such as using bus lanes, founder on disagreements between the federal and local authorities as to where the responsibility lies.

The example of Norway shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. There, electric cars are subject to neither import tax nor VAT. And owners don’t have to pay to park them, use them on motorways or take them onto ferries. In addition, charging is cheaper than filling up with fuel. So it stands to reason that 2% of all registered cars in the country are electric and that the country’s own target of 50,000 electric vehicles on the roads was met three years ahead of schedule.

Vegan cars? That’s not just wishful thinking but might soon become reality. With its focus on sustainable production methods and fuel economy, the BMW Group already takes its environmental responsibility very seriously.

But it is the private sector that will increasingly take on the role of initiator, because doing the right thing – and not being shy about it – makes good business sense. A German discount supermarket chain has installed 50 charging stations for electric cars in its car parks. The electricity is generated by photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of the stores. You can dismiss such a move as a symbolic gesture and question whether the customers fit the typical profile of electric car owners. But in the medium term, this will be a way of generating customer loyalty, since it reinforces the company’s eco-friendly image and provides the early adopters who will use the charging stations with a compelling reason to shop at such stores.

Critics of the BMW i3 asked why the car’s carbon-fibre passenger cell was really necessary. It is innovative and makes the car lighter, but it also generated high development and production costs. Ultimately, though, it will not be possible to develop the mobility of the future without trying out new things. The development engineers worked with silk, stone, marble, bamboo and ceramics for the Vision Vehicle presented by Rolls-Royce in London in summer 2016. Not all of these materials are vegan and not all might find their way into production-ready cars. But the question they pose is right on the money: who says that luxury in the 21st century has to mean leather and wood? The tricky part is anticipating new ethical standards, reacting to them (whether they are the product of public sentiment or legislation) and, at the same time, offering uncompromisingly emotional products. After all, one thing is for certain: customers want to save the world, but they’re not so keen on sacrifice.

12/08/2016