Interview with Dr. Thomas Becker, Vice President, Urban Mobility, BMW Group

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Ahead of his conference at Movin’On Summit 2020, our editorial team caught up with Dr. Becker on the BMW Group’s sustainability strategy, tomorrow’s automotive landscape, and how to promote human-centered mobility by giving people a real choice.

 

Before becoming Vice President, Urban Mobility, you have spent over ten years as Vice President, Government and External Affairs. How has your experience in public affairs helped you to champion sustainability within the BMW Group?

My previous responsibilities included the communication aspect of sustainability and many mobility-related topics. My role now involves defining the content and strategy of what I communicated before, so in that regard, knowledge of the stakeholder landscape and the formats in which we reach out to relevant communities is something that has strong benefits for the sustainability/mobility agenda. The BMW Group created last year a combined responsibility which looks at sustainability comprehensively, and that is what I’m currently in the process of building up.

 

BMW said it was “moving from a carmaker to a mobility company.” How is the BMW Group achieving this? What steps have you taken to get there?

We launched our first car-sharing services in Munich almost ten years ago, so we are rather far on the learning curve. We have seen the promises on which mobility services have delivered; we also know the question marks we have in many markets in many instances — the sustainability contribution of ride-hailing, for example. At the moment, BMW has defined its role as a provider of the right technology solutions for every use case. When talking about mobility, about the way people use cars and how their regulatory environment — in cities, for example — impacts them, this is a matter in which we have broader expertise.

We have also partnered with many other companies providing mobility services. Just last year, we merged with the activities of Daimler, as size and scaling play a significant role. If you look at ride-hailing, car-sharing, parking services, and charging services, working together with another carmaker allows us to bundle our forces, which is also one of the strategies that we look at continuously.

 

Is a transition to a 100% electric car fleet the actual target? If not, what is the goal?

We are focusing on the ability to provide every customer who wants the electric option what they want.

But we also acknowledge that we will have relevant markets where we are going to have customers for the combustion engine for a long time. How long? Nobody can say precisely. If you look at the EU, over 80% of the cars we sell in Norway have a plug. In other markets, further south and east, only maybe 2 or 3%. Looking at the EU, roughly this means that by 2020, 20% of vehicles will be xEVs; by 2025, close to 30%; and so on. These average figures would have to mean that in the fast-moving markets — take Denmark or the Netherlands — we are going to be at very high rates relatively soon.

We may also see parts of European cities where you can only drive the electric way. But even in Europe, we will see places where none of that will be the case. Therefore, we invest in the ability to be flexible, to be able to cope with different scenarios and to supply the diverse needs of different customers in the most efficient way. That is why we target having platforms that can have a fully electric drivetrain, a plug-in hybrid, or an ICE (internal combustion engine). The first car which has this characteristic is the X3: we are launching this year the fully electric X3, we already have a plug-in hybrid version, and we have diesel and petrol cars. That is how we think that for a foreseeable transition period — not for 2050, but 2030 or 2025 — we are well prepared for a phase of huge uncertainty.

 

What do you think the ideal place for the car is within the city? Shared cars? No cars?

We are going to see all of that in different mixed ratios. Certain places following the traditional European city structures have an old town that goes back 1000 years or so, which was certainly not made for the car. Would it be necessary or even desirable to go to every place by car? Not really. With the right kind of combination of parking and short-range mobility, you do not have to be able to go into every corner of the city, and we think that modern technology so widely opens the options — for intermodal planning, for routing, for getting from A to B more predictably — that the old thinking that mobility is either public or private is crumbling away.

Also, the contribution of sharing and hailing is not being disputed anymore. Municipalities now want to understand under which conditions this will make traffic more fluid and reduce emissions. Therefore it is about developing the right kind of collaboration setup between the various options.

Another important element of a future-proof strategy is pricing. It is no longer a problem to put a price tag on the scarce resource of public space. You can also differentiate much more finely than ever, according to the kind of emission your car has, what drivetrain it has, what time of the day you travel, where you travel, so you can allocate access to public infrastructure in a much smarter and fairer way than we ever could in the past. That is why we advocate pursuing those approaches. This includes addressing properly the question of social equity. Just putting the same huge price sticker on every driver means “blunt force” and is the result of the technology constraints of the past. With digital means, you can e.g., differentiate accurately between a commuter depending on his or her way to work, and for example, a service operator using public space to make money.

 

One of the main challenges for cities to adopt electric options is public infrastructure, such as the availability of electricity and charging stations. How do companies such as BMW help push the needle forward?

There are several approaches: We help the customer with the infrastructure right at their home. We support them in putting the right kind of charging infrastructure into their garages, into their homes. You reach the limit of that if you have multiple entities — namely in our cities. In many markets, you still have legal obstacles, where you need the agreement of each co-owner of an apartment building before even one of the inhabitants can get a charging device. We have been urging legislators very strongly here in Germany, and also in other places to overcome that obstacle.

We are also part of IONITY, a conglomerate of carmakers that rolls out fast-charging infrastructure along the main motorways to support the ability for electric vehicles to travel long distances. In the past years, we have been playing the role of initiator in a few markets — for example, as part of consortia — where we have been contributing to the installation of public charging.

Another aspect that needs to be addressed is the source of electricity. In the San Francisco Bay Area, together with PG&E as the electric utility partner, we have been piloting rather successfully an approach where the overnight charging of a car is synchronized with the availability of renewables, in order to avoid an overload or mismatch between availability and charging. Of course, the field of sector coupling is vast. Still, there are down to earth options that can benefit the customer, as well as clearly deliver the message that with driving electrically, you have a sustainable mobility chain where you do not just shift the combustion engine in the car to a much bigger combustion engine in a power plant. That is an area where collaboration with many other players is still needed and we want to contribute.

 

What does human-centered mobility mean to you? And what does it look like?

 

It is relatively simple: our CEO calls it the “power of choice.” It means that the customer can choose from the entire spectrum of drivetrains. It means enabling our product to serve efficiently, whether it’s used by a mobility service, on a private basis, or as part of a corporate fleet. Again, it’s a lot about flexibility, listening to the customer, and following the changes in the environment that impact our customers’ choices, which will be huge, hard to predict, and most likely not consistent globally but somewhat fragmented.

 

What is inspiring you in mobility today?

We see rapid change – change like never before. Looking at the sustainability agenda we had just a few years ago, it was all about “how” companies do what they do, energy efficiency, resource use, being totally safe, protection of the environment, working conditions, etc. What we now see is that the perspective is broadening in our industry. It is about “What” we do and why. Therefore we have a much broader obligation as a company to guarantee the full integrity of our value chain. It’s striking that in the European debate, almost nobody outside expert circles publicly debated where the cobalt that goes into smartphones comes from. However, as soon as cobalt ended up in cars, it became a big thing – and rightly so. We are doing a lot — for example, sourcing cobalt from Australia and Morocco rather than Congo — to really be able to tell a customer that if they purchase a premium car at a premium price, they can be sure that there was no child labor involved. These things have rightly become an increasingly important aspect of sustainability.

The other point is that, beyond implementing the Paris Agreement and delivering on CO2- reduction, today is not about how you make a car, but how you use it. Our role in the mobility system has become a central element of the sustainability conversation we are part of, and this has many overlaps: If you take electric cars, they are strongly looked at under the supply chain perspective. But because they are a significant contribution to lowering the CO2 emissions, and they require a completely different infrastructure and supporting environment, that is also what makes things amazingly interesting at the moment.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.