2014 BMW i3 Hill hold

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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  • CDspeed

    I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head, but that’s what I expect from the best EV site on the Internet. I live in South Florida, the ocean is one of things that has inspired me to go green, I have my own charger in my own garage, and public chargers when needed are in nice places, clean and easy to use. And my i3 is pure electric, I at no point ever considered getting the REx, going electric to me ment never using a drop of gas.

    • John InHim

      Gas can also be as efficiency as electric one day, then ?nfor some the REx are better choice, pure E is a luxury till today

    • Israel Navas Duran

      Then don’t get on a plane ever more.

      • CDspeed

        I’m guessing you meant, any more, and I meant never using a drop of gas, in my car, especially since I intended to buy a pure electric car when I purchased my i3.

  • Chris O

    Agreed, for now plug-ins are not going to work very well if you can’t plug in at home. Case in point: 70 % of the people who won the electric car license lottery in Beijing didn’t actually get one mostly because they had no realistic way of getting it charged.nnnFor streetparkers a batteryswap system could really be the answer.

    • just someone old

      In LA, at Hawthorne Supercharger, several onstreetparkers get together, and make the charging-hour an happy-hournBut this is ofcourse only possible due to the reliabilty and number of superchargers available

  • Pixelbase Electric

    I absolutely agree. We’re in our second month of i3 REx ownership and live 6-7 miles outside 3 large towns and cities. Our 32Amps home charger is more than enough and the 65-80 mile electric range of the i3 perfect for our daily commutes and errands. I never understood the mega city argument for the points mentioned. Unless you have underground parking with a charging station you’re snookered. nnI also thought the charging network article was spot on. Regulation could help to improve and bring about a more reliable charging infrastructure.

  • Dio Dio

    …on the same topic I’d like to add that by driving my BMW M3, I am contributing to saving the planet ud83cudf0d because MORE BHP = LESS RPMS = QUICKER E.T.A = LESS TIME ON ROAD. !!! u263a ///M. (by the way, treehuggers should look into how car rechargeable batteries are made and how many resources are involved…)

  • BenBrownEA

    I grew up in a rural community and keep ties there. I now live in one of the 4th largest cities in the state. From my observations if you have been taught an ethos, either by mentoring or experience, of earthcare, you will care about the environment more. I have family friends who are 4th generation farmers who chase after the big business paradigm and have seen renewables as a threat from the evil empire. I also know farmers who are constantly trying to lessen their impact on the environment. Both farm groups though perk their ears up when you say saves money! ;)nnnAs to BMW adoptees… charging access Does make a difference. That is true for BMW’s as it is for i-MiEV’s. If you can’t charge at home or publicly it simply doesn’t work. I live in the downtown area, but we happen to have a driveway, with a 120 outlet reachable. Were I to live in an apartment without 120 access I’d be absolutely dependent on our local solar Charge Point charging station which has around 11 spots to charge at. nnnAs it is about 70% of my charging is at the public solar station, so I can avoid sourcing from the dirtiest coal in the nation which powers our local energy provider. …wish I could do better… (several community members are talking about collaborating on another solar station, but the odds are up in the air.)nn***Last point perhaps is the most important… I forgot to mention earlier… the current solar station is a collaboration between several partners, including one at the site itself. When anything goes wrong we can either talk to them or Charge Point and get the problem fixed within 24 hours.

  • johnbl

    It just makes you wonder how these automotive knuckleheads manage to maket anything!

    • D. Harrower

      Almost a century of having no alternative will do that.

  • Alfred Balitzer

    I own an i3 REx and live in Southern California in my own home. I charge my car from my garage. If I had to charge from a source external to my home, I would not have purchased the i3. Convenience and ease of keeping the vehicle charged is a big part of ownership when it comes to EVs. nnnThe majority of Americans live West of the Mississippi. The big cities of the Eastern seaboard are losing population, largely to the Southwest and Southeast. These cities no longer describe the lifestyles and driving habits of most Americans. Most Americans live in suburbs and exurbs and are dependent on cars for intrasuburban transportation. The Megacity is a demographers term, used frequently by the U.S. Census but does not describe the lifestyle and work habits of most Americans. The idea of a central city or urban environment does not exist for those of us who are suburban or exurban dwellers. Quite a few people from my neck of the woods do indeed commute to downtown Los Angeles for work, but they quickly retreat to their suburban lifestyles at the end of the day–looking towards that day when they don’t have to make that drive anymore. nnnThe diversity of life in the suburbs is substantial. The idea of a megacity as a collective term obfuscates more than it reveals. As can be seen from sales to date, the i3 will sell where people live in areas with single family residences where they can charge their vehicles unhindered by others in their own garages, driving their cars from burb to burb for work, shopping and recreation. Marketing for the i3 would be more successful if it emphasized the current reality of where Americans live and work rather than a fictional urban existence.

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