Inside BMW’s Future Lab

You know BMW as a luxury automaker. But at a blocky, white facility off of Interstate 280 in Mountain View, Calif., the company is busily working on projects it hopes will keep its cars at the cutting edge of green technology. From parking lot charging stations to a shed full of lithium-ion batteries, BMW has its very own future lab, where it's plotting a future for sustainable luxury cars.

The lab master

Meet Peter Dempster, an advanced technology engineer at BMW in Mountain View. He's part of a team that's cooking up new ideas for BMW's next-gen cars. Dempster worked on the MINI E, an electric car that rolled out in 2008 and was a big hit among the company's more than 600 test-drivers. He's now using data from the MINI E project to help BMW meet the needs of a growing group of luxury consumers concerned with sustainability.

Solar tree

At BMW's Mountain View campus, the company is experimenting with using alternative energy to fuel cars. This solar tree, Dempster says, produces enough electricity (in kilowatt-hours) to power one of BMW's electric vehicles. At the campus, the electricity from the panel helps power appliances in the building. In fact, the Mountain View team is working on ways to monitor all of its electricity use. Employees can view the energy used by the building's thermostat, solar chargers, refrigerator, solar tree, and other devices via one central gateway. BMW researchers are also developing an easy-to-read interface to manage all this data. Ultimately, Dempster hopes, the company could sell that interface to customers interested in monitoring their energy consumption.

Red light, green light

Researchers are looking to figure out how to get BMW cars to communicate with stoplights. A team at Mountain View is trying to figure out which information from the stoplights to display to a driver to help improve safety and save fuel. Certain stoplight timing data -- like when a light will turn colors -- could help drivers make decisions that would improve the fuel economy of cars. Of course, Demptster says, it's important to fine-tune the formula so the display doesn't encourage drivers to gun it to beat a red.

The battery shed

In a shed in the parking lot, BMW keeps lithium-ion batteries after they've been removed from electric cars. There are all kinds of potential projects for these batteries, Dempster says. Someday, the industry could support an end-of-life lithium-ion battery market, depending on several factors, including the way we finance electric cars in the future. Right now, the shed of batteries provides energy to some of the car chargers at BMW. Usually, a fast charger accounts for 50 kilowatt-hours of demand to the Mountain View facility's typical 30 kW load, Dempster says. "So if we can use the battery instead of just charging from the grid, it's a much more cost-effective system. We're investigating that."

Power up

Many employees at BMW are already aboard the EV (electric vehicle) train. There are car-charging stations in the Mountain View parking lot for employees and visitors. "We strongly believe that workplace charging is going to really increase the demand for EVs," says Dempster. Already, the chargers have been a bit of a hit at Mountain View. Since the campus' three chargers were installed in 2012, they've been used for 584 charges and have dispensed 4,310 kilowatt-hours of power.
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