So while Daimler Benz cashed out its remaining 4% in the Silicon Valley automaker, pocketing US$780M in the process, they had a trick up their sleeve as a result of their association with Tesla – first dibs on cutting-edge electric vehicle technology.
That was part of the deal back in 2009 when the German automaker scooped up 10% of the company. So they had a heads up on Tesla’s breakthroughs way before CEO Elon Musk opened up the company’s patents back in June this year.
It put this to good use in a game of catch up with rival automaker Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), which released a carbon fiber clad i3 electric car. The electric B-Class hatchback looks very much its gasoline sipping cousin except for a few decals and the blue trim on the front grille and mirrors. It’s a model that is bound to go head to head with BMW’s i3.
Clearly the auto pioneer is playing it safe with this one. Not only did they use a car that they already make, they simply planted Tesla’s drive train and battery into it. Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management at the Fachhochschule der Wirtschaft in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, says that “the B-Class electric is a low-cost and low-risk solution for Daimler”.
German practicality seems to have come into play. Daimler Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche said during the launch of the B-class electric, “You can reasonably say that nobody today is making a battery-powered vehicle that’s economically viable in its own right.” That is why even if BMW’s i3 has range, size and performance similar to the Daimler’s B-Class, Zetsche says, “our effort was dramatically smaller.”
The reason for this conservatism is probably that carmakers feel EVs are a tepid market. Sales have been pulled back by high unit prices, as well as fears of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a dead battery. That is why IHS Automotive predicts that while global EV production will more than quadruple by 2020, it will just comprise 1% of the global market for cars. But then with China’s EV incentives, which McKinsey & Company says will shape the automobile market.
Now the question for now is, who will come out up front – BMW’s i3 EV or the B-Class EV? Well, the jury is still out and it is still too early to tell since the B-Class EV just started selling in July this year in the States. It’ll be offered in the European Union, the larger EV market, by November 29 this year.
Performance wise, the B-Class is no fluke. It handled well in the windy asphalt roads of Mallorca, Spain, where it was launched last October 27. Although it weighs 200 kilograms (440 pounds) more its petrol powered siblings, it accelerates quickly thanks to the Tesla drive train. It also comes with an artificial engine noise to warn pedestrians and a center display showing the range, charge level and energy flow. Now, add to that Tesla’s planned Supercharger network all around Europe, you may have a winner.
But then, the car is low key, and that may hurt its sales. BMW went out a bit with its carbon fiber body and new design, plus they offer a version that comes with a gas powered generator on-board. In other words, the i3 screams that it is environment friendly, while the B-Class leaves you guessing.
So whether you want to stick with something that’s a bit tried and tested like the Daimler B-Class EV, or opt for the BMW i3, is something that we will find out by the end of this month.