Frank Weber, BMW’s new Development head, talks about his ecological lifestyle, the cars of tomorrow and rival Tesla.
Mr Weber, you’re supposedly the first real eco-enthusiast on the Board of Management of a major German automotive company. Is that true?
I try to eat 100 percent organic: If that’s what you mean, then, yes, it’s true. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and buy everything from the health food store.
Did you grow up with ecologically-minded parents, or what are your motives?
No, I believe customers have power. I decide what the world looks like with every buying decision I make. That’s why everything clearly has to be 100 percent organic for us.
Does that apply to your whole family?
Yes. Once you’ve made that choice, you stick with it; it's the same for the children.
So, they never have fast food or McDonald’s?
No, never. Definitely not. It's not a big deal for us. We got used to it a long time ago.
Why does someone with that kind of conviction study mechanical engineering of all things?
Perhaps because mechanical engineers are especially in demand for ecological restructuring – they develop technological solutions for a sustainable future.
And then you end up in the car industry – enemy territory for the eco-movement?
The car, in all its many facets, brings people a lot of joy, but, with my background, I certainly pay more attention to sustainability than many of the others in the industry. But it’s utter nonsense when people try to invent a conflict between premium cars and sustainability: I believe there is no premium without sustainability. That’s the direction I’m steering our business in.
You took over as head of Development on 1 July. What will be different now at BMW?
We are driving the transformation so we can become even faster. We are stepping up e-mobility. We will have 25 electrified models on the roads by 2023; even before 2025, we expect up to 25 percent of our global sales to come from electrified vehicles. And, of course, our developers are already thinking about the vehicle concepts that will come onto the market in ten years’ time, when there will be even more electric cars. We will also be introducing a new digital structure we call “Digital Car” on 1 October.
The next ground-breaking car will be the iNEXT. What can it do that other models today can’t?
It does everything better: not just a little bit – quite dramatically, in fact. You don’t have to go to a dealership any more for a software upgrade – you can do it all over the air. The iNEXT has 20 times more computing power for data processing than the best cars available today. It has only a handful of control units, instead of up to 100; it will be 5G-capable, with new automated driving functions, able to process twice as much data from information signals and uses fifth-generation electric drive train technology. These technologies will then be gradually installed in all models. This makes us the ones driving the entire industry forward. We set the standard.
Are you serious?
You’re welcome to compare us with the competition.
Daimler is also extremely proud of their new S-Class.
I don’t want to comment on individual manufacturers, but I will say this: Many of them have been trying to catch up with us for years, in terms of operability and digital performance capabilities. No system is as safe and easy to operate as ours. No one else has managed that.
We were thinking Tesla was unrivalled in this respect.
Not at all! They may have one or two things that are easier to implement because their models are pure electric. But we are guided by the motto that safety is paramount! The roads are not a testing ground – not for automated driving, either. Our cars don’t cause an accident when the driver just wants to turn on the windscreen wipers.
Anyone who thinks we are behind on the digital front is mistaken. To give you an example: We have 14 million connected vehicles on the roads, recording 25 million items of information relating to the road network, traffic signs or hazardous situations every day. We use artificial intelligence to leverage this anonymised data for further development of our driver assistance systems.
Is that why you halted your cooperation on autonomous driving with Daimler – after you just announced it with such hype last year?
For collaborations to succeed, the timing and the technology need to converge – even if we and Mercedes think in similar ways.
So, you might revive the project at some point?
Of course. We are just putting it on hold for the time being.
Wouldn’t there be an antitrust problem?
No. There are clear rules on where and how we can cooperate with competitors without falling foul of the law. At BMW, we operate at a very high level, and there have to be benefits for both sides.
If you develop everything by yourself, won’t that mean every car will cost a few thousand euros more?
The key to profitability lies in volumes and our modular approach: We always seek to have just one solution, whether it is for the 1 Series or our top-of-the-range models. We achieve economies of scale by installing identical technological modules, such as the drive train, chassis and electrical system. So, new driver assistance systems are installed first in the iNEXT, then the new 7 Series and then in all other model series.
When will we be able to sit back and not have to steer?
Our cars already have the technology for this: We offer customers up to 40 different assistance and automation functions to help with safe driving, parking and connectivity. On motorways, the computer steers, brakes and keeps the vehicle in its lane. In theory, I only have to monitor the system. The next step would mean no longer being involved as a driver; the machine takes over. But we will not be activating these functions until they are completely safe, and the legal requirements are in place. Because when I hand over control to the car, the system has to be able to respond safely in any extreme situation. This is a serious process the entire industry is approaching very cautiously.
We get the impression the dreams of driver-less cars were a little too bold.
It’s true the timing has changed for the industry. I’ve become quite cautious myself about naming a date for when cars will take over driving completely. We have to hold ourselves to the standard that every new development must be even safer than what we already have on the roads.
Motorways are the most suitable for autonomous driving?
That’s where it's easiest – so that’s also where we’ll see it the soonest. The hardest part is city traffic where there are lots of unpredictable events. There’s no great skill in using automated driving to get from Munich to Hamburg – all our cars can do that. But can the car also recognise with 100-percent certainty whether there's a newspaper blowing across the road or a ball or a child about to run out into the street? It will be a long time before we can drive fully autonomously in city centres – but there will probably be special zones where autonomous driving is allowed before that.
So, you’re sure the future will be electric?
Yes. I’ve been an advocate of e-mobility for a long time. Combustion engines are increasingly being replaced by electric vehicles – we’ve been saying that for years. Now, we’ve reached the point where we can offer the type of range that is attractive to customers.
What's the limit where people are prepared to make the move?
That depends most on their user profile, but customers are willing to switch to e-mobility by the time you get to a range of 500 to 600 kilometres. In Germany, six percent of new vehicles sold in August were pure electric and another 18 percent were plug-in hybrids. That’s why we are confident we can sell seven million electrified cars by the end of the decade: two thirds of them fully-electric.
You’re at half a million so far.
That’s right. We expect to reach more than one million electrified vehicles by the end of 2021. If you include plug-in hybrids, we’re the leader worldwide, because we have the widest range of models. The BMW i3 is still the best-selling battery-powered premium vehicle in the compact class.
Renault also claims the number-one spot with its Zoe electric model.
That’s right – for fully-electric and lower-class cars in Germany.
You both have the Finance Minister to thank for that! Government subsidies are obviously giving e-mobility a boost.
It’s not just due to purchase incentives or the reduction in VAT. We are seeing very strong demand for the X5 Plug-in Hybrid all across Europe, for instance. The reason is that customers can drive it 80 kilometres on electric power – that’s almost three times as far as the previous generation. This shows that if the product is good, customer acceptance will be high.
Then you can also manage without the purchase incentives.
It takes more than that: a compelling product, more support for setting up a private charging point, nationwide expansion of charging infrastructure and purchase incentives as a signal to society, so customers can say: I’m on the right track; e-mobility is the future. Incentives help a lot with this; they boost acceptance. And that is urgently needed.
The plug-in hybrids you praise are often attacked as ecological madness: How does it help the environment if an SUV drives a few kilometres on electric power and the rest just like it did before?
That’s not true. A plug-in hybrid makes a lot of ecological sense when it uses electric power for many of its trips. Our statistics confirm that. A hybrid also has other advantages – starting with the fact that it does not require a public charging station and helps a large number of customers get over the threshold: It brings them closer to electromobility, but with a fallback option. Hybrids are primary cars, allrounders.
Your carbon balance assumes the battery is charged with green energy.
That applies to both hybrids and pure electric vehicles. E-mobility is part of the energy transition, that much is clear. The two are inseparable. We will not save the climate driving on electricity produced from coal. Everyone has understood that in the meantime. We are also monitoring supply chains and environmental and social standards for the cobalt and lithium used in batteries. We do not ignore those kinds of questions.
Wouldn’t nuclear power be the cleanest energy from a climate protection perspective? Is running nuclear power plants for longer an option?
There is no social acceptance for this – at least, not in Germany – and there are other technical solutions for e-mobility.
Are you also a member of the Elon Musk fan club, led in Germany lately by VW boss Herbert Diess?
Tesla is a competitor we take very seriously. Elon Musk is pushing e-mobility with incredible energy.
Will cars from the Tesla factory in Brandenburg match the quality of the German luxury class?
People can decide for themselves by comparing the cars side by side. By the way, the focus on Tesla surprises me sometimes: We sell just as many electric cars in Germany with the electric MINI SE and the i3 alone, without all the fuss.
Mr Weber, I’d like to finish with a personal question: How are your musical talents these days?
They are suffering; I hardly ever have time to play the piano.
But music was a real career option for you – an alternative to mechanical engineering, the rumours say...
... I thought about giving music a real chance; I composed a little bit, tried my hand at guitar and drums, but, at some point before I went to university, I decided not to turn my love of music into a career. My passion for cars won through in the end.
Interview conducted by Georg Meck and Henning Peitsmeier.
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