Big Flap over BMW-USA CEO’s Remarks on Electrics

In a nutshell: Jim O’Donnell (above), Chairman-CEO of BMW North America, said, “For at least 90 percent and maybe more of the population, (an EV) won’t work (at the current battery range).”

He probably should have qualified that statement with the phrase, “…won’t work as a primary car,” but it’s still obviously true. And he expressed another opinion: that the U.S. government should end the $7,500 tax credit for EVs. “I believe in a free economy. I think we should abolish all tax credits.”

I think he’s wrong about the tax credit, for reasons I’ll give below. But he’s certainly right about the 90 percent figure, and he got hammered by a number of green-car websites for speaking the truth. Autobloggreen, for example, went looking for an apology, which O’Donnell in fact issued last Friday.

So, political correctness wins again, even though auto execs are just about the most PR-challenged group around.

Right now, there are too many green cars chasing too few buyers, which is Problem No. 1. And the major issue is price. BMW has been collecting data on EV usage and driving habits so as to make its EVs more practical for more people.

O’Donnell’s remarks should have taken off from that standpoint, rather than gunning for Nissan-Renault’s Carlos Ghosn, who has been derided everywhere for predicting that EVs would achieve 10 percent market penetration by 2020. I wonder if he’s so wrong.

Regarding the tax credit: It is not only right but necessary for government to subsidize a new technology/industry that is strongly and manifestly in the public interest. I won’t repeat the same old arguments about oil independence, clean air, carbon reduction, and priming the industrial pump. If we don’t help this fledgling industry, prepare to see it go to Asia, where other countries will not hesitate.

Finally, O’Donnell did his own company a big disservice by basically offering personal opinions that may well affect how others view BMW’s effort to electrify—with the Activ-E (above), for instance.

You know the old saw about shooting yourself in the foot.

Did O’Donnell commit the sin he is charged with? Did he help or hurt his company?


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  1. Randy
    May 2nd, 2011 at 15:47 | #1

    Since BMW is above all else a performance car company, I doubt that anyone from BMW will ever have any real credibility when it comes to high mileage and electric vehicles. Even the Mini is considered a “sporty” car and likely doesn’t get as good mileage as other vehicles in its class. I think the hybrid is a passing fad. It’s the worst of both worlds, with high complexity (and therefore low reliability) heavy weight and high cost, without a compelling return on investment. Few hybrid owners will ever recover the extra cost of the car in fuel savings and the public know this. Not many people want to ride around in a little cracker box like the Prius in that price range when you can get larger, attractive cars like the Focus that narrow the gap with high mileage. Pure electrics are another matter, and when manufacturers can get the range up to 100+ miles and more daytime charging stations become available, I think they’ll be a great alternative to complex hybrids. I’d own one myself if the cost was more reasonble. The greater over problem is that we literally don’t have the electric infrastructure to charge tens of thousand of electric cars at once, even overnight. They really consume a lot of current while charging. That’s no problem with one or two in a neighborhood but hundreds.. uh oh. I remember working on a study we did at GM Research when we were developing the EV-1 to show the relative energy density between gasoline and electric propulsion systems. If you could charge electric vehicles at the same energy density rate as refueling a car (figure 500 miles range in about five minutes to fill your tank) the entire multi-megawatt output of the Fermi II nuclear power plant could only recharge about 18 electric cars. Gasoline is a very dense energy product, which is one reason why its lasted so long as the preferred motor fuel.

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