BMW USA CEO O'Donnell Apologizes For EV Remarks, But Was He Wrong?

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Electric cars are a unique slice of the automotive world. At once futuristic and yet the technology of today, wrapped in the politics of environmental consciousness and foreign oil dependency, EVs have a milieu all their own--and that extends to the way we talk about them. Especially when you're the CEO of a company that just launched a brand centered around EVs.

Thus we reach the present predicament for BMW North American chairman and CEO Jim O'Donnell. In a recent Detroit News interview, O'Donnell spoke frankly, saying EVs weren't right for 90 percent of the public at their current battery ranges, and that tax credits for electric vehicles should be repealed. That, of course, sent the EV world up in arms, and today, O'Donnell sent a letter apologizing for the remarks and acknowledging the importance of EVs and the work to develop them.

An unnecessary apology

But was O'Donnell wrong in his first statement? Should he have been pressured to apologize? We think not, in either case.

What what WHAT!?! you scream? Or perhaps not, if you don't worship at the Temple of the Electron. Our reasoning is simple, like O'Donnell's (original) statement: for most people EVs just aren't ready for primary car duties. It doesn't disparage the nascent segment to admit its current shortcomings; nor does it imply we shouldn't be working to achieve the goal of an EV that is right for everyone. It simply states the situation as it sits right now.

The only fully electric vehicle in any sort of volume production right now is the Nissan Leaf. Its range is about 100 miles. Most people in the U.S. need to drive farther than that at some point during their week or month, so the Leaf won't work for those people--as a primary or sole car. Most people can't afford a $30,000 car for commuter duty and another for longer trips. Chevrolet's Volt fixes that problem by compromising its purity somewhat, allowing owners to extend their range through gasoline. That's the whole premise behind the Volt: a limited-range EV simply won't work, all the time, for most buyers.

EV advocates are quick to point out that most daily commutes are well within the range of the Leaf, or even the all-electric range of the Volt. Well and good, but what happens when I need to visit Aunt Sally in Dubuque? Do I rent a gasoline-powered car? Do I plan on making 5 stops along the way, presuming I can find a charging station or outlet? How many days does that add to my trip?

There are exceptions to the rule: Tesla's Roadster, for example, can go up to 240 miles on a charge. That's as far as many gasoline-powered cars, making it a reasonable alternative as a primary vehicle--for those with the cash to buy it and the patience to wait for it. To date, fewer than 2,000 of the $109,000 cars have been delivered since it entered production in 2008--and it takes about 10 hours to fully recharge at a standard outlet.

So the facts of the matter make it plain: if you, like most people, need more range than the current production EV offers, they "won't work" for you, as O'Donnell said. He's right. But being right doesn't necessarily mean he's in the right, so should he have apologized?

BMW i3 spy shots

BMW i3 spy shots

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No. A remark taken out of context, or one not fully understood (or intentionally misunderstood) is not something for which one should have to apologize. Not even when the speaker is the CEO and chairman of the U.S. division of a company that's planning a whole range of electric-only vehicles. The whole point of BMW's program to date (including the MINI E and BMW ActiveE) has been to collect data on driving habits, develop its battery and drive systems, and figure out exactly what does work for people in the EV segment.

In light of BMW's testing program and O'Donnell's certain familiarity with it, his words ring not of of vindictiveness or malice, but of data and considered opinion. That data, as interpreted by the man running the show, says EVs aren't ready for "at least 90 percent and maybe more of the population." That statement was made statement made in refutation of Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn's prediction of EVs reaching 10 percent of global vehicle sales by 2020, which O'Donnell felt was too optimistic. O'Donnell isn't alone in that evaluation; our own green-car expert John Voelcker has come to similar conclusions.

Should being honest about the current state of a field his own company is working hard to improve require an apology? Would we, as enthusiasts and participants in the automotive dialogue, be better served by marketing gloss and promises for the future? By some half-truth spoken with full knowledge of the reality, but disregarding it for political or competitive advantage?

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