On Wednesday, BMW introduced an electric version of the Mini compact car at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The first 200 of the cars have already been delivered to the United States, well ahead of a wave of new electric cars expected from other major automakers starting in 2010.
“They’re the first to have a rollout,” says Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars, a group that promotes the development of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. BMW was able to speed the introduction of the car by adapting an electric drive system from a small company in California to work in an existing vehicle. Other automakers are instead developing electric-car models from scratch. BMW, which acquired the Mini brand when it bought the Rover Group in 1994, plans to build an additional 300 electric cars by the end of the year, bringing the total to 500. The cars will be leased to select consumers for a year. The automaker’s goal is to use the leased vehicles to gather information about real-world driving that will aid the engineering of future mass-produced electric vehicles. “There’s no reason, after the first 500, they couldn’t sell as many as they could build,” Kramer says.
BMW first approached the company that developed the Mini’s drive system, AC Propulsion, only a year ago, says Tom Gage, the company’s CEO. GM, by contrast, announced its plan to develop an electric car nearly two years ago and says that it will deliver its first vehicles at the end of 2010. (In the 1990s, GM aborted an earlier electric-vehicle program, which had produced a car called the EV-1 in limited quantities.) GM is working with suppliers to develop new battery packs designed specifically for its car, called the Volt. With AC Propulsion, BMW got a ready-made electric drive system that could be incorporated easily into the Mini, and which has been field-tested in AC Propulsion vehicles. Some of these vehicles have well over 100,000 miles on them, Gage says.
The technology used in the Mini is based on a drive system developed for the tzero, AC Propulsion’s high-performance electric sports car, which can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 3.6 seconds. The Roadster, a car produced and sold by the startup Tesla Motors, was inspired by the tzero, and the first prototype was based on AC Propulsion’s technology. Adapting the tzero’s system for the Mini required only minor modifications, Gage says.
The AC Propulsion design is distinctive in part because it uses a single set of hardware to both charge the battery and control the electric motor, saving space and weight. The system is also flexible. The battery can be charged at a variety of rates and voltages, from overnight charging from a standard 110-volt outlet to a 2.5-hour recharge from a special outlet that will be installed in the garages of those who lease the electric Mini.