Emission-free mobility will not be enough to change the world. That’s one of the reasons why the BMW Group developed its first wholly sustainable series-production vehicle, the BMW i3. This pioneering work “demanded a totally new way of thinking from all of us”, explains Daniela Bohlinger, who promotes sustainability at all BMW Group design brand studios.
With sustainability thought through from beginning to end, the BMW i3 embodies a new attitude towards mobility. Ms Bohlinger, what was your goal in developing materials for the interior design?
Daniela Bohlinger: “We wanted to give sustainability a face and enable people to experience it with all their senses in the interior as well.”
What principle did you and your team follow?
Daniela Bohlinger: “Sustainable design seeks new answers. We found them by questioning everything. For example: Do we have to use chromium for tanning leather? Where does our wood come from? Can we use polyester made from recycled materials?”
What yardstick did you apply to new materials?
Daniela Bohlinger: “Two aspects provided us with direction: Does the material blend in with the interior concept, i.e. are the materials well orchestrated? Does the lifecycle of the material meet our sustainability requirements: from its origins – mainly in Europe – through processing and transportation, all the way to reuse and recycling. Our holistic approach really demanded a totally new way of thinking from all of us.”
There’s always potential in waste.
Let’s take a closer look inside the BMW i3: The leather, for instance, is tanned using nothing but natural olive leaf extract. Why is that?
Daniela Bohlinger: “Olive leaf tanning is safe for the environment and the leather itself required very little processing. We also made sure the tanned leather retains its breathability and the softness of aniline leather. By the way, olive leaves recovered from the harvest are generally viewed as waste – but I see huge potential in them.”
The use of kenaf is another focal point in the BMW i3 – for example, in door trims and the dash panel. What made you consider kenaf?
Daniela Bohlinger: “We’ve known kenaf for a long time as a backing material – normally, covered with a synthetic skin. In the BMW i3, we took a totally new approach, using kenaf for large areas for the first time.”
That sounds pretty revolutionary: bringing a secondary material into the front line...
Daniela Bohlinger: “Exactly! We replaced petroleum-based plastics with kenaf. This also reduced the weight of the BMW i3, because the natural fibre – which, by the way, belongs to the mallow family – is up to 30% lighter than conventional material.”
The seats are another important aspect: For seat covers, you’re working with 40% certified new wool. Why?
Daniela Bohlinger: “New wool is quickly renewable and it’s breathable as a wool blend. It regulates the temperature between the body and seating surface and keeps the seat pleasantly cool in high temperatures. In a more comfortable interior climate, the seat heating or air conditioning is needed less often. This, in turn, saves energy and boosts range.”
We were particularly surprised that you used eucalyptus wood for the interior strip in the first generation of BMW i3s: So, the tree’s good for more than just cough sweets?
Daniela Bohlinger: “It’s good for a lot of things, actually. The eucalyptus tree is naturally resistant to moisture and therefore requires around 90% less surface finishing. It is also one of the fastest growing tree species, reaching a height of 60 metres. The wood came from FSC-certified plantations in Portugal.”
Let’s come back from the Iberian Peninsula to your desk in Munich: Which materials are you currently interested in, and why?
Daniela Bohlinger: “I’m particularly excited about materials created in the test tube right now. I think they hold a lot of promise for the future. The same applies to 3D-printable materials.”
When it comes to economic efficiency, sustainability soon comes to an end: How do you manage to bridge the gap between ideal and reality?
Daniela Bohlinger: “I approach things with common sense and intelligence. You might call it a policy of small steps. There’s no doubt that our pioneering work in the BMW i3 will also have a lasting impact on all other BMW Group brands. This is already happening now.”
And, finally, a personal question: Has working on the BMW i3 changed you at all?
Daniela Bohlinger: “Absolutely. I think and live my life differently these days. In an ethical way, if you like. We all have to take responsibility and action to protect our grandchildren’s future – in both our professional and private lives.”