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The electric race is on

Competition to deliver high-end all-electric vehicles is intense. Premium marques such as BMW aim to have 25 hybrid and fully-electric vehicle models by 2023. As is common in new markets, the first generation of all-electric luxury vehicles are likely to set a high watermark in terms of price; before the technology, particularly that of battery packs, establishes and becomes more affordable.

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As a result, the race is on, both metaphorically and literally. Brands such as BMW use motorsport to showcase the performance of their cars and as a test bed for new technologies. BMW i Motorsport entered Formula E, the all-electric single-seater racing series, in 2018. It was the motorsport’s fifth season, and BMW chose to enter at this point because it was the first time the event would be raced with one car and one battery charge, which BMW felt was the right technological message.

Mr Jens Marquardt, BMW Group Motorsport Director, says racing is “a good environment to keep your company moving and also to keep development alive.” He believes racing presents the perfect opportunity to really push the boundaries – something that is not possible within the parameters of a normal product development lifecycle.

Before joining Formula E, BMW had not participated in any single-seater category for almost ten years. From 2009, Formula One no longer accorded with the company’s sustainability ethos. Compared to the ‘super high-tech’ Formula One, Mr Marquardt believes that Formula E has more technological relevance.

The challenge, then, is to transfer the knowledge gained from the controlled environment of the race track, onto the public roads. “This experience informs the group’s strategy around, for example, performance-level efficiency, weight, power density. For instance, the high-voltage software that does all the electric motor control is the same base software as is used in the i3. Whatever we learn here finds its way back into road cars.”

[Racing is] a good environment to keep your company moving and also to keep development alive.

Jens Marquardt, BMW Group Motorsport Director

Cost and infrastructure
The running costs of electric vehicles are markedly lower than internal combustion engine vehicles. Maintenance and repairs will also be dramatically cheaper and less frequent. Up to half of car maintenance is attributable to the internal combustion engine, which contains hundreds of moving parts, whereas solid state systems and electric motors typically have fewer than ten.

Electric cars are pollution-free, so their environmental impact is really embedded elsewhere, in their cost of production (especially batteries) and how the electricity needed to recharge them is sourced. But they remain expensive because of still-low volumes, albeit governments often subsidise them.

The main barrier to faster take-up is battery technology, which limits the distance electric cars can go between charges, dubbed ‘range anxiety’. 200-300 kilometres is the current maximum, depending on how the car is driven.

There is also the lack of a physical charging infrastructure outside of major cities. For this, governments must invest, possibly alongside the private sector.

At present, in most countries, the percentage of electric cars on the road is very small, typically lower than 0.5%. China is relatively more advanced, with 1%; California benefits from sunshine and, perhaps, a ‘Tesla effect’, with 2%, while oil-rich Norway is an absolute outlier, with 10% plug-in electric vehicles already on the road, due to long-standing and powerful government incentives and subsidies. BMW will soon be in a position to have every car in every region of the world available with whatever powertrain for any model. Mr Marquardt believes this is important because consumer choice will be dependent, to an extent, upon the local charging infrastructure. “Idaho in America has probably a bit of a harder access to charging infrastructure than it might be in Amsterdam in Europe, or in Shanghai in China, so requirements will be different all over the world.” BMW is well advanced in these plans: it will have 13 battery-only models by 2023.

What about the future of the car industry at large? Manufacturers are still wringing efficiencies out of the combustion engine, including better fuel use and lower emissions. Hybrids provide a best-of-both-worlds intermediate technology. But the real threat to manufacturers may lie with urbanisation. In congested cities fewer people may want cars; more pedestrian zones and fewer parking spots already make city ownership less practicable in Europe.

Mr Marquardt anticipates different modes of mobility depending on where people live. “I grew up in a small village in the Black Forest where you will always have people that will need or want individual mobility. At the same time, there will be mega cities where you definitely have very good public transport systems where autonomous vehicles will be available.”

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