What you see above is the carbon fiber frame that underpins the BMW i3. This lightweight material will allow the plug-in vehicle to set itself apart from the competition in a lot of ways (weight, most importantly, but also space and rigidity), but what we didn't expect was that the newfangled bits will help keep repair and insurance costs down. It may sound counterintuitive, but that's what Manuel Sattig, the communications manager for BMW i, told AutoblogGreen recently. It does make sense but, like so much else in this new, plug-in vehicle universe, it requires a new way of thinking.
There is a plan to bring carbon fiber to the rest of the BMW fleet.
When BMW started Project i in 2007, the company began with a figurative plain sheet of paper. There were some rules, of course. "Every idea, every technology, every revolution or new material that we came up with for BMW i eventually had to enable the rest of the BMW Group," Sattig said. "Which means, yes, there is a plan to bring carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) to the rest of our fleet." The extent to which BMW will integrate carbon fiber into other model ranges is still being evaluated, and Sattig said BMW is first and foremost focused on launching the i3 and i8 and figuring out how, exactly, carbon fiber works in a series production vehicle. Still, dreams are big, and Sattig called CFRP, "the lightweight material of the future for the entire company."
Along with the curb weight, CFRP is going to change the insurance and repair equations for the i vehicles. The material itself is expensive – no question – but Sattig said the complete picture ends up with a lower price tag. "When we evaluated carbon fiber, we started doing the safety, crash and repair concepts right from the beginning because just deciding on carbon fiber and then, when we're done, looking at [the details] would be a huge risk," he said. "Carbon fiber is, of course, a new material. Our dealers need to be trained for that specific repair system. But, if you look at the i3, if the car has a small bit of damage, someone hits you at a traffic light or bumps into you in a parking garage, you don't hit carbon fiber, you mostly damage the exterior plastic parts. They can very easily be replaced because you click out the damaged part and replace it with a new one. If you have a stronger accident, then, of course, carbon fiber will be damaged. The interesting thing is that carbon fiber is not deforming, so the damage only happens locally and it breaks only at that specific area."
The reduced repair time balances out the higher material cost.
This is the magic that will lower costs. Sattig said the passenger cell of the i3 is made out of 30-35 different components that can be cut it out and a new one glued in. The reduced repair time balances out the higher material cost, Sattig said, which means that, if the CFRP is damaged, the price is on the same level as a conventional car. With the cheaper plastic shell in the mix, the overall repair costs are lower. "That's our repair concept," he said. "We shared that with NHTSA and the comparable agency in Europe and the insurance industry and ... they decided to come up with a very low insurance system."
You can watch those CFRP segments get put together in the detailed BMW i3 production videos here, especially in video #3.