Benoit Jacob has been Head of Design for BMW i, the new BMW sub-brand, since 2010. His approach to design has been a resolute pursuit of sustainability which goes far beyond customary automotive design work. It’s a challenge the unconventional Frenchman embraces, since he sees himself as a kind of “special design unit”. His path to this point was predestined; for Benoit Jacob there has never been anything else but cars, and he was aged just ten when he made up his mind to be a car designer. Today this laid-back creative talent is distinguished by an inexhaustible curiosity, a fascination with masterpieces of engineering, and a consuming passion for his work.
1. What makes you believe electric vehicles are the future of urban mobility?
Changes in public attitudes and awareness are challenging many of the basic premises about personal mobility. Infrastructure changes, shortage of space and environmental pollution are leading to a growing desire among many people to show greater social responsibility and to adopt a more considered and sustainable lifestyle. The future will also see stricter legislation on air pollution. For example, the EU has committed to reducing its emissions of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming by 20 percent by 2020 over 1990 levels. Electric vehicles provide a way of continuing to enjoy mobility into the future with a good conscience and in compliance with legal requirements.
2. Why are BMW’s i series models different from other electric vehicles?
Rather than simply developing an electrified version of an existing vehicle, our aim was to create an all-new electric vehicle concept with an all-new architecture – uncompromisingly sustainable and closely focused on the demands of electric mobility. For example, a navigation system was developed specifically for BMW i that ensures drivers have all the essential information for driving an EV at their fingertips at all times. It not only delivers a range prediction even before starting the journey – taking into account all the relevant variables like battery state of charge, driving style and current traffic conditions – but also displays all the possible charging points along the route or at the destination. At the same time our focus is not just on electric drive but on holistic solutions. Electric drive is integrated into wider mobility solutions, or packages, which can be customised to the needs of the individual user. Among other things, these packages allow BMW i drivers to temporarily switch to a conventional BMW vehicle at any time, say while on holiday.
3. How important are design and aesthetic issues in forward-thinking vehicles like the i3 and i8?
Very important. After all, market research shows that design is the number one purchase driver for our customers. Design must reflect the character of the vehicle. It should make a promise – which the vehicle must then deliver on. For example, the external proportions of the BMW i3 already communicate the message that this vehicle offers a quick way of getting around in an urban environment. The vehicle is compact, and its very short overhangs give it an extremely agile appearance. The surfaces are cleanly defined, generating a futuristic effect and at the same time epitomising typical BMW precision. Moving on to the BMW i8, this is a very emotion-charged vehicle which redefines the concept of sporty performance. From the side, the extremely pronounced wedge shape, sleek lines and low silhouette are charged with dynamism. Our priority was to create a real, tangible sense of aerodynamic prowess, sporty performance and environmental responsibility, all rolled into one. When you look at the BMW i8, you can see that we have taken the aerodynamic aspect to great lengths. This extends right the way through to the way air is channelled through the tail lights – an idea that emerged from the wind tunnel. Also, the aerodynamic quality of both BMW i models is further improved with the typical BMW i “streamflow” design and the use of “air curtains”.
4. The i8 is advertised as the first sports car with the consumption and emission values of a compact car. How can you guarantee driving pleasure comparable to other sports cars?
The BMW i8 plug-in hybrid is the first of a new generation of sports cars. No other BMW model has a lower centre of gravity or is so perfectly balanced. Its combined maximum output of 362 hp and 0-100 km/h acceleration time of 4.4 seconds put it on a par with conventional, petrol-only sports cars. With its low silhouette, extremely wide and low front profile, sleek lines and spectacular scissor doors, the BMW i8 is a benchmark in modern, sustainable high-performance sports car design. Inside, all passengers sit very low down in the vehicle, and the narrow, lightweight seats provide firm support and top-class comfort even when going through corners at high speed – for which the i8 has ample power on tap.
5. Why is home charging even more convenient than with other electric vehicles? Is it feasible in most countries?
With the BMW i Wallbox, we developed a home charging station that provides a faster charging rate, resulting in shorter charging times. Adding the perfect complementary design touch, the BMW i Wallbox can be used worldwide mounted on any garage or outside wall equipped with a heavy-duty power outlet. The Wallbox offers much faster charging speeds than a domestic power socket, and takes less than five hours to achieve an 80 percent charge. The Wallbox is installed by our BMW i specialist team, which also takes care of maintenance. And bearing in mind that BMW i is all about seamlessly sustainable electric mobility, it is also possible – in Germany, for example – for customers to opt for a specially customised green energy package (in Germany supplied by Naturstrom AG) that allows them to operate their electric vehicle as a fully zero-carbon solution.
6. Can the i series be considered a new statement of premium? In which regard?
Yes, definitely. At BMW i we use the term “next premium” to refer to a new, next-generation form of luxury that also includes sustainable materials and a sustainable production process. Sustainability is a theme that runs right through every aspect of BMW i’s operations, from development and production to the design of trim and equipment. This is why we use naturally tanned leather, open-pore wood and a wide range of high-grade recycled materials. This is not an entirely new approach, but what BMW i is doing is for the first time is putting these materials centre stage. That’s something you are immediately aware of when you sit in a BMW i. The pared-down forms, the natural materials and the overall sensation of lightness and airiness create the same sort of relaxing effect you might experience in a wellness studio. As a result, spending time in this car is enjoyable even when you find yourself stuck in slow-moving city traffic.
7. Let’s talk about safety. Which devices were of necessity added specially for the i series?
Obviously, integrating the lithium-ion battery is always a big challenge when it comes to the safety of an EV. We put the battery in the best-protected position – under the floor of the vehicle. Statistically, this is the area of the vehicle that experiences the least impact force in an accident. The low mounting position also makes for an optimally positioned, low centre of gravity, which makes the vehicle very resistant to rollover – and also very agile. This is just one reason why the BMW i models consistently achieve best scores in safety tests – just like all other models of the BMW Group.
8. Apart from the propulsion method, what other innovations were added to the i series?
The LifeDrive vehicle architecture is an innovation we developed specifically for BMW i. It comprises two separate modules: the CFRP Life module, or passenger cell, and the Drive module, which incorporates the powertrain and chassis components, crash functions and high-voltage battery. When these two separate modules are put together, the result is typical BMW i driveability – dynamic, agile and safe. A further highlight is instrumentation. Nowhere are driving range information and navigation as important as in an electric car. This is why we have placed the onboard computer and the navigation monitor right at the heart of the action – in the centre of the vehicle.