BMW ActiveE concept – Click above for high-res image gallery

Anyone who knows cars knows that BMW is a maker of expensive prestige automobiles designed and developed with enthusiasts in mind. While a lot of folks probably buy BMWs more for image than driving dynamics – things like smile-inducing performance, handling, steering and braking – we can't hold that against the company. The dynamics are there for anyone who has the skills to use them.

For the last few years, BMW has been pushing the idea of EfficientDynamics, to emphasize the greener side of the brand. But what exactly is EfficientDynamics (yes, one word)?

I recently joined a group of auto scribes attending a unique "One Day University" at BMW's Woodcliff Lake, NJ, U.S. Engineering Center. It was designed to answer that question and many others about how this proud German automaker known for performance and handling is aggressively preparing its vehicles (and customers) to thrive in a far more fuel-efficient and environmentally conscious world.

Available classes ranged from "Automakers' Role in Reducing Emissions" to "How Culture, Society and Lifestyle Will Drive the Success of Alternative Fuel Vehicles," and there were tech sessions on the new 550i Gran Turismo model, BMW diesel technology, a new 6-cylinder gas engine and BMW motorcycles boasting the same DNA as 4-wheeled Bimmers. Available for driving was a variety of BMW models including small diesel-powered European 1 Series, a pair of electric Mini Es and one new (smaller than Phantom) Rolls Royce Ghost. Read on to see what we learned in school.


Because most sessions were concurrent with others, we had to be selective. The two that most caught my attention were "BMW EfficientDynamics" and "Mini E Field Trial."

BMW's ongoing EfficientDynamics (ED) effort began in 1998 with studies on how it could "continue to be successful in times of climate change, tougher fuel-economy legislation, skyrocketing oil prices and a growing environmental awareness in the broad public." What followed was a bold decision to develop technologies that would somehow succeed in combining as much as 25 percent better efficiency with increased performance.

As we know, improving fuel economy historically has gone hand-in-hand with reducing performance, though automakers recently have founds ways to improve efficiency while maintaining performance. BMW's mission would be to improve both at the same time.

While ED features are found in every BMW today, Performance Manager Axel Rose pointed out that the first model line to get the full treatment was the already fuel-frugal subcompact 1 Series. In the four model years from 2004 to 2007, the 1 Series' fuel efficiency improved 23 percent – thanks to features such as an electric water pump, electric steering, a decoupled A/C compressor, a pressure-regulated fuel pump, auto start-stop, brake energy regeneration and low-friction tires – while performance has improved. The 118d diesel model, for example, boasts 21 percent better fuel economy and a 17 percent boost in engine output.

BMW engineers (and, to be fair, their competitive counterparts worldwide) look very closely at every fraction of energy available from a vehicle's tank of fuel (or an electric vehicle's battery) that does not get to the wheels – heat energy lost through the cooling and exhaust systems and during braking, drivetrain friction, aero drag on the body, rolling resistance of the tires, even electrical system losses – and reduce them in every possible way.

An interesting "bang for the buck" bar-chart showed the relative effectiveness of each efficiency feature vs. its cost. Rated highest was a shift-point indicator, that little dash light (recycled from the '70s) that comes on to suggest when to shift a manual transmission. Next were aerodynamics and low-friction tires, followed by "transmission optimization" and brake energy regeneration. At the bottom, regretfully, were high-cost hybrids and EVs.

Because they offer the smallest fuel-efficiency benefit vs. cost compared to the full range of ED technologies applicable to conventional vehicles, Rose explained, "if we are going to do a mild hybrid or a full hybrid, we must do it for a small number of customers. [For that reason], hybrids did not have the highest priority for us through the last 10 years. Smaller, more fuel-efficient mass-market cars came first." In the case of the Mini E, he said, its efficiency is high, but its cost is also high and its range low, and there is no luggage space.

Rose also discussed the efficiency features of BMW's two new-for-2009 "ActiveHybrid" models – the full hybrid X6 (which uses the very effective but expensive 2-mode hybrid system co-developed with General Motors, Daimler and Chrysler) and the mild hybrid 7 Series sedan. Then he previewed technologies under development for potential future application, including route-based "predictive heat management" (pre-programming engine temperature management to be lower for better torque at lower speeds and higher for reduced friction at higher speeds), thermal recuperation of heat energy from the coolant and exhaust and even NASA-style thermoelectric generators that convert waste heat directly to electrical energy.

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid – Click above for high-res image gallery

He added that the first application of brake energy recuperation on a U.S. model is featured on the very nice new 550i Gran Turismo that we drove to and from the event. Transparent in function, it is reportedly good for a one-to-two-percent efficiency boost...not a lot – but a lot of "not a lots" can add up to a significant amount.

I later drove some of the demonstration vehicles, including a manual-shift 1 Series turbo-diesel hatchback that I found not at all slow and surprisingly likeable. Too bad U.S. emissions laws treat diesels no differently than gas engines, making high-volume affordable diesels a near impossibility. (Volkswagen and Audi offers some excellent ones today, but those will likely go away as U.S. emissions requirements continue to toughen in the next few years.)

I also drove a Mini E for the first time. As expected, it was quick and fun, but I found the heavy regenerative braking drag annoying every time I lifted my foot. I know that's good for range, but there should be a way to dial it down or turn it off when range is not an issue. Driving it fairly aggressively on a 4.6-mile city/suburban loop, I managed to use up seven miles of range.

Next time, I'll report what BMW told us it had learned partway its U.S. Mini E Field Trial.

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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