BMW carbon fibre car launch attracts rivals' attention

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Media captionSneek preview of BMW's new cars ahead of the Frankfurt motor show

Wikipedia describes futurism as "an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th Century [which] emphasised and glorified themes associated with contemporary concepts of the future, including speed, technology, youth and violence, and objects such as the car, the aeroplane and the industrial city".

Next week, at the Frankfurt motor show, BMW will be showing two futuristic vehicles that will reflect much of what the movement stood for.

The BMW i3 and the BMW i8 are both contemporary concepts of what the German carmaker envisions the future will require. Both will go into production in 2013.

The i3 is a small, electric city car that seats four, designed for tomorrow's burgeoning mega-cities.

The i8 is a fast, aggressive supercar, powered by a petrol-electric hybrid engine and set to appear in Tom Cruise's next violent Mission Impossible film.

The cars, which were first revealed at a media preview event during the summer, are very different in many ways.

But what makes them interesting is what they have in common - namely their shared technological characteristics.

Fundamental change

The i3 and the i8 are both built using new carbon fibre technology developed in the US together with a hitherto relatively unknown company at a facility in Moses Lake in Washington State.

Carbon fibre composite material has long been used by the aerospace industry, for instance in nearby Seattle where plane maker Boeing has huge factories, as well as in big budget Formula 1 racing cars.

But with few exceptions, it has not been used by mainstream automotive companies, largely because it has been deemed too expensive.

This has now changed, thanks to SGL Group's carbon fibre products, which are not only affordable but also eminently flexible in the way they are produced.

Products made in a process that weaves a cellular carbon honeycomb into carbon fibre reinforced plastic mats can easily be shaped into slim-line seats or sleek body panels, such as doors or bonnets, or even into strong structural support beams to support a vehicle's rigidity.

It is also massively rigid, as well as ultra-lightweight; 30% lighter than aluminium and half the weight of steel.

"Carbon fibre technology will fundamentally change the car industry, becoming increasingly important in the quest for lighter-weight materials to reduce fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions," the company says in a statement.

Surprise investment

No wonder, then, that a dogged fight has broken out between BMW and the owner of arch-rival Audi, Volkswagen Group.

BMW got in there first, working closely with SGL's boffins to craft car bodies based on a mixture of SGL's carbon fibre technology and its own expertise in automotive design, aerodynamics and safety.

Image caption Carbon fibre plastic mats are easily shaped into body panels or other parts

Mixed with its electric drive system technologies, developed inhouse and trialled in existing production models such as the electric Mini or the petrol-electric hybrid BMW 7-series, the result founded the basis for the creation of BMWi, a dedicated electric motoring division within the group.

Early concepts of BMWi vehicles were shown to journalists at small events towards the end of last year, with SGL presented as a partner in the SGL Automotive Fibre venture.

Within weeks, the cosy partnership was rocked by a surprise investment by Volkswagen, which bought an 8% stake in SGL in February, raising it to 10% soon afterwards.

The German multi-billionaire Susanne Klatten, a member of the Quandt family which owns just under 50% of BMW, responded by raising her stake in SGL from 22% to 30%, thus blocking any hopes VW might have had to influence the company's strategy.

Carbon rivalry

The rivalry is a clear indication that the race is on between carmakers eager to conquer emerging markets for efficient, light-weight electric cars.

Image caption Audi shares BMW's view that urban motoring markets are set to grow fast

BMW is investing heavily in city cars, pointing to how the number of cities with a population of more than 1 million people rose from 83 in 1950 to 468 in 2007 and predicting dramatic growth in the years and decades ahead.

Volkswagen Group is hot on its heels. Its luxury subsidiary Audi will unveil a carbon fibre reinforced polymer two-seater electric city car at the Frankfurt motor show.

And earlier this year VW unveiled a similarly constructed XL1 concept car, which it said could travel 503km (313 miles) on a gallon of diesel, emitting just 24g of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled.

Other carmakers are getting in on the act too, most notably Daimler - owner of Smart, Mercedes and Maybach - which in January this year formed a joint venture with Toray Industries to produce carbon fibre reinforced plastic car parts.

Moreover, increasingly carbon fibre parts are being used to make more conventional models lighter to improve their weight to power ratio.

In small city cars, this means less power is needed to propel the vehicles forward. In larger, sportier cars it means existing engines will have less weight to lug around so their speed and performance improve.

McLaren's MP4-12C sports car, for instance, is built around a highly rigid carbon fibre monocoque, which means its relatively small engine still delivers tremendous speed and acceleration.

A Lotus Evora sports car with carbon fibre interior and a composite body was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March.

And Europe's fastest production car, the Koenigsegg CCXR Edition, has a carbon fibre body.

Eventually, such hi-tech, light-weight components may also make their way into mainstream cars.

And it is then that this technological breakthrough will have a real and major impact on the overall emissions and fuel consumption of ordinary cars.

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