BMW plans EV battery dominance with new Gen6 cylindrical cell

Combustion-powered cars are all about the engines, but for electric vehicles, the batteries are the most important part. BMW has clearly taken this to heart with its next-generation battery platform, part of the electric Neue Klasse that will arrive in 2025. The BMW Gen6 battery system aims to make the company a leader in range, efficiency and cost. I heard the key details this week at BMW’s Sustainability Through Innovation Day in Munich.

The most radical change is a switch to cylindrical cells. Until now, BMW used rectangular prismatic batteries in its packages. The cells themselves will continue to use NMC chemistry and will be manufactured by existing partners CATL and EVE. The goals of the new cell are, unsurprisingly, to improve energy density, shorten charging time and allow more kWh to be packed into the same space. BMW also hopes to drastically reduce emissions from its production. But the biggest numerical improvement is in cost.

Batteries currently take up about 40% of the price of a BMW EV (according to the company, based on the cost of the i4), which is on par with the rest of the industry. With the Gen6 platform, BMW aims to cut the price of its battery packs in half, allowing its EVs to compete directly on price with its internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. In addition, the energy density is increased by 20% (more energy in the same package size), the charging time is reduced by 30% and the top BMW models with the new cells can offer 30% more range.

Range doesn’t seem to be an issue for BMW EVs as it is. The BMW i4 eDrive40 promises a very competitive 365 miles (WLTP) and even the performance-oriented M50 version has 315 miles. The WLTP range for the iX SUV runs from 257 miles for the xDrive40 to 380 miles for the xDrive50. Add 30% to those top numbers and you get 475 miles of range for a future BMW i4 eDrive40 and an incredible 494 miles for a future iX xDrive50. Anyone with home charging won’t often use public networks if they have this kind of range available.

Reviewers have noted that BMW’s cars are doing well compared to their range, but the company is pursuing further efficiencies. At the Sustainability Through Innovation Day, BMW explained that with the Gen6 platform, it will save valuable Wh in power consumption by optimizing key parts of the car. EV-specific aerodynamics will save 5 Wh/km, optimized tires another 5 Wh/km, powertrain efficiency 15 Wh/km, 4 Wh/km will come from lighter materials that save car weight, and another 4 Wh/km will be derived from improved wheel bearings and EV-specific brakes. Considering that an efficient EV can handle 4 miles per kWh or 250 Wh per mile (156 Wh/km), a total saving of 33 Wh/km will add a significant amount of range. This could unlock as much as 20% more range.

To produce the new batteries, BMW, together with its partners CATL and EVE, will build six new plants around the world, in addition to the five plants it currently operates. Two of these will be in China, two in Europe and two in the US, Mexico or Canada. Each will be able to produce up to 20 GWh of batteries per year. The 60% CO2 production reduction target is achieved by using a percentage of secondary (recycled) materials for lithium, cobalt and nickel in the batteries, as well as green energy during production. BMW is even aiming to make its battery production fully circular (something Tesla also announced at its Battery Day 2020).

The BMW Cylindrical Cells are 46mm in diameter, much like Tesla’s acclaimed 4680, but are available in two heights of 95mm and 125mm, both of which are taller than Tesla’s 80mm cells. As noted earlier, BMW will stick with NMC chemistry rather than move to the increasingly popular Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP), although this will be an option with Gen6 technology. However, the nickel content will be increased, while the cobalt content in the cathodes will be decreased, with more silicon content on the anodes. This is how the 20% increase in volumetric energy density will be achieved – in a similar way to Tesla’s 4680 cells.

BMW also plans to integrate the batteries into the installation space, which the company calls “pack to open body.” This is also similar to Tesla’s “structural batteries”. Since battery cells are naturally rigid, you can use them as part of the chassis itself. The faster charging is made possible by BMW switching to an 800V powertrain, such as Hyundai’s E-GMP. This should enable an 80% charge in less than 20 minutes from a 350 kW power supply.

While many of BMW’s announcements on Sustainability Through Innovation Day are similar to the things Elon Musk announced on Tesla’s Battery Day 2020, that’s not a bad thing. They are very valid improvements and promise huge leaps in range, cost and efficiency. Where BMW mainly goes beyond Tesla, which was also apparent in other parts of the Sustainability Through Innovation event, is the focus on the environment and circularity. The entire range of car manufacturing areas will use recycled materials, from seats to wheels.

BMW will be producing ICE vehicles for many years to come, but its intentions to take a leading role in electrification are clear. In the UK, it was already the best-selling EV brand in August 2022, beating Tesla. The company aims to have more than two million BEVs on the road by the end of 2025 and expects half of its global sales to be BEVs by 2030. It seemed that BMW had lost its way with EVs after an initially strong start with the i3. But if the company delivers on the promise of its Gen6 platform, it could become one of the dominant players in the luxury BEV market, as it has been in the ICE market for decades.