BMW: i3 Electric Car Popular Outside, Not Inside Cities. Here’s Why We’re Not Surprised

When BMW decided to make its mark in the electric car segment with its radical BMW i3 electric car, it did so buy designing a car from the ground-up that would be a car for the new millenium: a car which would redefine what it meant to live in one of the world’s massive megacities.

BMW’s conviction that the i3 would be a car for urban rather than suburban or rural travel was so strong in fact that for many years the i3 was referred to as the ‘BMW Megacity’ after the key market areas BMW envisioned it selling in.

BMW i3: less megacity, more suburbia?

BMW i3: less megacity, more suburbia?

Yet eighteen months after it went on sale in Europe and roughly a year after it went on sale in the U.S., BMW has admitted that the BMW i3 electric car and BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car aren’t selling in the markets that it expected them to. Instead, both variants of the super-efficient plug-in are proving popular with suburbanites and those in more rural settings.

As Automotive News (subscription requires) details, BMW’s key U.S. markets aren’t the big cities in and around the Northeast like New York City, Boston, Massachusetts or Washington, DC. Other than the state of California — where massive incentives and perks like HOV-lane access make plug-in cars a no-brainer — BMW is surprised to see some unpredicted areas enjoying high i3 sales volumes.

“The strongholds in this country are parts of California, Texas and southern Florida,” said BMW North America’s CEO Ludwig Willisch of BMW’s i3 U.S. sales charts. Meanwhile, places like New York City — where BMW had imagined the car would be super-popular — demonstrate sluggish sales. Sales are so slow in fact that Willsch said BMW is now shuffling i3 allocations from east to west coast, where some dealers in California are selling between 15 and 30 cars a month.

From its initial inception, the BMW i3 was meant to be an urban car, so why the unexpected hotspots? We think it comes down to some very simple things: finding a place to park (and charge); charging station reliability; and the lack of need for a car in the first place.

The problems of parking

As anyone who lives in a large megacity will tell you, finding parking is painful at best and impossible at worst. In the inner-city jungle of places like New York City, London or Tokyo, it’s rare to find a home with its own dedicated parking spot. It’s even rarer to find somewhere with its own, dedicated garage.

Instead, residents often find that they need to find somewhere else to park their car. Even if they happen to live in a large multi-family unit with its own dedicated garage in the basement, there’s no guarantee that the garage will be willing or able to provide electric car charging.

If you don’t have your own dedicated parking, be it in a multi-car parking garage or if you’re really lucky, your own driveway, finding a reliable place to park with a charging station is almost impossible, unless you’re willing to be extremely cunning and compromising.

Finding parking can be a pain, let alone parking with a charging point attached that isn't blocked or inoperable

Finding parking can be a pain, let alone parking with a charging point attached that isn’t blocked or inoperable

For example, while there are plenty of charging stations in Central London that are situated next to a standard street parking spot, they usually also come with a maximum allowable stay measured in a few hours. Unless you have a high-powered charging station and a car capable of charging in a few hours, there’s no way you can regularly get a reliable full charge.

Those who live in suburbia have none of those problems. Most homes have their own single or double-car garage, and those which don’t usually have some form of driveway to park a car on. Even if there’s no dedicated charging in place, it’s far easier to charge up on a cable snaked out of a window.

The reliability of public charging

As we opined last week, public charging provision around the world is in a crisis, with many public charging stations inoperable or vandalised. In some cities, the reliability of public charging is so poor that many plug-in owners have given up attempting to even try to find a charging space when visiting from further afield.

Charging station reliability is a big problem in busy cities

Charging station reliability is a big problem in busy cities

With public charging infrastructure rarely at a level anyone would call reliable — especially in large cities — it’s difficult (but not impossible) to rely on public charging as the sole way to charge up your car.

For most would-be plug-in owners however, the chore of finding a reliable place to charge may be too much to bear. We think it would be if we were in that situation.

With somewhere to plug-in at home, the need to rely on public charging is far less for those who live outside of the densely-packed urban centres of our megacities. Since most daily commutes are well within the range of a modern car like the BMW i3, finding a broken or unreliable charging station isn’t going to impact your day as much as it would if you had nowhere else to charge.

Public transit makes more sense

Combine all of the above problems, and many urbanites simply conclude that a car of any sort — electric or otherwise — is simply too much of a hassle compared to walking, bicycling or taking public transit.

When a trip across town takes ten minutes by metro or an hour by car, the choice is made even more simple, leading many who live within a busy city limits to simply hire a car when they need it using on-demand car-share schemes or more traditional car-hire methods when there’s no other choice for getting around.

Contrast that with areas further out of town, where public transit is traditionally less reliable or comprehensive, and a plug-in vehicle starts to make more sense, especially if regular trips into a busy city — where sitting in heavy traffic would traditionally burn gas — are called for.

Result? While cars like the BMW i3 are built for city life, they’re far more likely to be found in the suburbs, where ample parking and charging is available. What’s more, with urban house prices skyrocketing in recent years as former inner-city ghettos are gentrified and rental prices become impossibly high, those who do choose to live in a busy city centre find that their budgets simply won’t stretch to an electric car.

But there’s one final point we have to make, and it’s a view held by our very own Mark Chatterley. It’s that those who live outside of big cities are often more aware of the effect that climate change and pollution have on the natural world. As a consequence, he argues, people who live in a more rural setting are often more incentivised to do something to protect the world around them.

Do you agree with our analysis? Do you think electric cars like the BMW i3 are better suited to live in the city or the country? Perhaps you live in an urban environment and disagree with our suburban take on living with a plug-in car?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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