THE CAR Has Fallen At the rear of in the Electric Automobile Race

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MUNICH — Eight years ago, BMW was one of the first major automakers to offer a battery-powered car: The i3 broke ground using its lightweight carbon-fiber human body and aluminum chassis.

But lately, the German company, known for its sporty luxury cars and “ultimate driving machines, ” has fallen behind in the global race to build up the next generation of electric vehicles.

Unlike General Motors or Volvo , BMW has not set a date to bury the internal combustion engine. Unlike Volkswagen , it has not begun attempting to sell a full line of vehicles designed from the bottom up to run on batteries. As other auto executives wax optimistic about an electric future, Oliver Zipse , the BMW chief executive, has criticized plans by the European Union to ban gasoline and diesel engines by 2035.

“I’m just a little concerned about BMW, ” said Peter Wells, director of the middle for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School in Wales. When it comes to investing in a full lineup of electric vehicles, that he said, “they have already been quite ambivalent. ”

The perception that BMW is an electric vehicle laggard helps explain why investors have begun to sour on the company’s shares, which fell even after the company reported a healthy quarterly net profit this month of 4. 8 billion euros, or $5. 7 billion. BMW shares have tumbled 18 per cent since early June.

At BMW headquarters in Munich, company executives say they will prove the critics wrong in coming months. In the fall, BMW will begin selling a battery-powered sport utility vehicle, the iX , in Europe; it’ll arrive in the United States early next year. The iX will be the first BMW since the i3 designed around battery, rather than being a conversion of a gasoline or diesel car.

Laetitia Vancon for The brand new York Times

“Maybe you didn’t see that much, but we’ve been working hard, ” Adrian van Hooydonk, design director at BMW, said during an interview at BMW World, the company’s showcase in Munich.

BMW executives say the iX manifests a commitment to electric propulsion that falls short of rivals only on the degree of braggadocio. They cite the dedicated research center in Munich where BMW is developing its own battery technology. They explain that BMW is engineering a collection of specialized components that will underpin a family of electric vehicles beginning in 2025, which in their view is when the market will take off.

BMW exemplifies the difficult calculations that established carmakers must make since the industry shifts to electric power. It takes four to five years to design a fresh car, to equip a factory to construct it and to organize a network of suppliers. Auto company executives have to make billion-dollar bets predicated on their best estimates of what car buyers will want half a decade from now, and of what kind of technology will be available.

No-one really knows what type of electric vehicles will prove popular because the market expands beyond early adopters, who tend to be affluent and environmentally conscious. Will they want car designs that signal some slack with the past? Or will they want electric cars that look and perform just like the gasoline models they’re used to?

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

It’s too early to inform. Sales of electrified vehicles are growing fast, but remain less than 4 per cent of the total market in the United States. The market is dominated by Tesla, which is building a factory in Berlin . Tesla’s Model 3 may be the best-selling electric car in western Europe, where plug-in vehicles accounted for 17 percent of new car sales in the first half of the entire year, or one million vehicles, according to Schmidt Automotive Research in Berlin.

The i3, which BMW began producing in 2013, was a lesson in the perils of visiting market too early. The carbon-fiber body mounted atop an aluminum chassis won design awards and was an engineering feat, but it was high priced to produce. Not many everyone was willing to pay a lot more than $40, 000 for what was essentially a hatchback that could travel only about 80 miles on a charge. Later models have improved batteries and certainly will go more than 150 miles between charges.

BMW continues to produce the i3 and has sold about 210, 000 since 2013, but ended sales in the United States in July. BMW executives reject the idea that the i3 was a mistake, saying they learned valuable lessons about electric vehicle technology, such as making more efficient motors. “This wouldn’t exist minus the i3, ” Frank Weber, the BMW board member in charge of development, said as he steered a maroon iX on the streets around company headquarters in Munich.

BMW waited eight years to offer a follow-up to the i3 because executives realized they needed a car able to go more than 600 kilometers, or 370 miles, on a charge, Mr. van Hooydonk said. “With the iX, we have that now, ” that he said.

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Unlike Volkswagen and Daimler , which are building their own battery factories with partners, BMW is buying batteries from suppliers like Northvolt of Sweden and CATL of China. BMW, like its rivals, can also be developing its own technology. At a research center in Munich, the automaker is looking for chemical recipes that will be safer, lighter and store more energy per kilogram. Suppliers will build batteries based on BMW specifications.

The center’s labs are equipped with electron microscopes that allow BMW scientists to observe what goes on to the molecules inside battery cells as they are repeatedly charged and discharged. There’s a fireproof room where BMW can work on ways to prevent batteries from overheating.

BMW is even giving its suppliers advice on how to manufacture more efficiently. On a table at the investigation center lay three objects that appeared to be precision, machined egg beaters. They were section of a test to see which most effectively mixed the graphite slurry which will later be painted on a thin layer of copper and dried to make electrodes — critical parts of a battery.

“We’re challenging the suppliers, ” Martin Schuster, a vice president at BMW responsible for battery development, said within a tour of the study center. “Otherwise, we get what they’ve on the shelf. ”

Right after the iX gets to European dealers in the fall, BMW will begin selling the i4 , a high-performance battery-powered sedan. As a short test ride in Munich demonstrated, the i4 gets the kind of head-banging acceleration that electric power can deliver. But the i4 shares components with BMW models with gasoline engines, an attribute that has attracted critics.

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Until 2025, BMW’s strategy will be to sell electric batteries as an option on all its main models. Initially, most electric BMWs is going to be adaptations of their internal combustion cousins.

Analysts are skeptical that such conversions will be able to compete with cars that are designed from scratch to be electric and can fully exploit the advantages of electric batteries. Electric cars have smaller motors and transmissions than old-fashioned vehicles, potentially freeing up space for passengers and cargo.

“BMW is taking a conventional car and turning it into a power vehicle, ” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, founder of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany. “There will always be compromises. ”

In 2025, BMW plans to start building vehicles on a platform — a collection of components that may be shared by numerous different models — that’s optimized for battery. That is the year when many analysts think that electric vehicles can be less expensive to buy than gasoline models, and sales will take off.

If so, BMW’s timing could show to be perfect.

To date, though, the market has moved more quickly than predictions. In Europe, sales of electric vehicles have boomed during the pandemic. In america, the Biden administration gave electric vehicles a push this month when it unveiled an idea to raise sales of electric vehicles to 50 percent of new cars by 2030.

Even BMW’s critics aren’t counting it out. “They’re fantastic engineers, ” Mr. Wells of Cardiff Business School said. “They can do it when they want. ”

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