How BMW is revving up for for an electric vehicle circular economy

EXCLUSIVE: The ongoing electrification of the transport sector looks set to open up new avenues for improved resource management and closed-loop practices for carmakers looking to push beyond regulatory compliance, BMW's environmental programmes manager has said.

BMW's corporate headquarters in Munich, where car sharing has been introduced around the city

BMW's corporate headquarters in Munich, where car sharing has been introduced around the city

Speaking exclusively to edie, BMW’s environmental programmes manager Tom Sherifi suggested that the growing representation of electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous cars in BMW’s portfolio would simultaneously streamline waste and resource management for the company, but only once the market has gained a better understanding of the new technologies that it is utilising.

“Modular design has almost been a precursor to the switchover to EVs and engines to the battery powertrain,” Sherifi said. “You don’t just need an engineering degree anymore but also an IT one to access a car’s diagnostics and they are incredibly complex computers on wheels. However, when you change over, it becomes incredibly easy to manufacture and put together.

“It’s all about testing to find new routes for things like lithium-ion batteries and carbon fibre, where not only is the material brand new in terms of market availability, but there’s also no re-processors set up at the other end to deal with that. However, it seems to change very quickly. If the market is set up for a new material then a new processor will exist at some point.

“The hardest thing is that first initial period when a brand new concept or prototype has taken off. But a harmonisation through using technology is going to have major efficiency and production effects and will really streamline things.”

Sherifi revealed that BMW is using environmental management systems as a means to map out avenues for all of the company’s waste streams. The company is using ISO 14001 to place an emphasis on supply chain management, and this standard is expected to be rolled-out globally across all of BMW’s manufacturing facilities. Alongside the ISO framework, BMW is also complying with the latest end-of-life vehicle legistration - a 2015 update requires all Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to recycle and recover 95% of their vehicles, which the German carmaker is doing.

Yet, these frameworks aren’t being viewed as tick-box exercises by BMW. Instead, they are acting as a catalyst to introduce closed-loop systems and analysis into the heart of the design process. The company has introduced a design system into its Munich facilities which sees conceptual designs analysed for up to five years before hitting production lines to ensure that materials can be easily recovered.

Battery-powered

Waste reduction at BMW goes beyond the materials actually embedded into its vehicles. While the company is still exploring the potential of carbon fibre recycling, it is also moving to reduce waste in its energy streams. Sherifi revealed that BMW’s Oxford and Swindon facilities have a combined annual energy expenditure of around £17m per annum on gas and electricity costs. Shaving off even a small percentage of this would lead to substantial savings for BMW and the electrification of its portfolio has the potential to introduce a circular solution.

BMW also recently announced the completion of a new utility-scale energy storage facility, which uses 2,600 worn EV battery modules to stabilise the grid and reduce the impact of peak demand. The new 2MW power station in Hamburg, Germany, connects battery packs from more than 100 EVs to store energy which is available within seconds. This joint project with Bosch and Vattenfall will see the latter sell the stored energy on to primary control reserve markets, along with power from other flexibly controlled facility.

BMW’s approach echoes the call from the head of circular economy at Veolia, Forbes McDougall, who has claimed that businesses are missing out on the benefits of taking a closed-loop approach to energy and heat consumption due to being too "hung-up" on waste-driven models.

For BMW, the rise in EV batteries has presented a new way for the company to lower energy costs while simultaneously breathing a second life into older vehicle components. Sherifi suggested that this movement would allow BMW to integrate with energy grids that were becoming more localised.

“It takes time, when brand new things like this turn up and we develop a strategy around that,” Sherifi added. “The batteries for the i-Cars are becoming second life storage packs for solar energy. So instead of having to break down the constituency of these technologies, if its still got a use we can use it.

“You’re taking out the associated CO2 of re-engineering those batteries or recycling them, so if it has a second life we have to absolutely utilise that. As we move towards smarter and more localised energy grids, then this will only help us get out of the strangle of the big energy companies and being addicted to oil.”

Next 100 years

And it’s not just the rise of EVs that is reshaping and streamlining BMW’s manufacturing process. The growth of EVs has paved the way for autonomous vehicles to become an integral part of future vehicle portfolios.

BMW’s autonomous strategy lends itself to the sharing economy, whereby driverless cars can pick up individuals. Yet Sherifi noted that the autonomous aspect of future vehicles allows BMW to shift cockpits and pedals around the interior and get rid of a “myriad of wires” from the vehicles. Essentially this is allowing the company to design “one cockpit for the world market”, which streamlines the design and manufacturing process further.

The “Next 100 years” BMW group strategy places a heavy emphasis on ridesharing and autonomous vehicles. The company already offers ridesharing in Munich and other cities, and is partnering-up with tech companies like IBM to enhance its understanding of autonomous innovations.

Views on the sharing economy differ between carmakers, as some of the more traditional companies struggle to view it as a market opportunity. In regards to resource management, less individually-owned cars means less production, and Sherifi believes that if companies want to stay competitive then the sharing economy may have to be incorporated into operations.

“The future may look like less production of individual cars for individuals, but companies will want to remain at the forefront of premium mobility, which can take on many forms, including a ride-sharing service,” Sherifi adds.

Matt Mace


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