SA is vi­tal to car maker’s global strat­egy

IN­TER­VIEW/ Mark Smyth spoke to BMW board mem­ber Ian Robert­son on the com­pany’s game plan go­ing for­ward

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

Gen­eral Mo­tors might not see any rea­son to re­main in SA, but ac­cord­ing to Ian Robert­son, board mem­ber for sales and mar­ket­ing at BMW, the op­po­site is true for the Mu­nich­based com­pany.

Chat­ting to him on the banks of Lake Como, it was clear that the com­pany is as com­mit­ted as ever to SA. On the sub­ject of Gen­eral Mo­tors’ with­drawal from SA, Robert­son says diplo­mat­i­cally: “That’s their strat­egy. We’re dif­fer­ent.”

Be­ing dif­fer­ent means in­vest­ing bil­lions of rand in the com­pany’s plant at Ross­lyn, which will switch in 2018 from pro­duc­ing the 3 Se­ries sedan to man­u­fac­tur­ing the X3 SUV.

“There are huge sup­ply con­straints on X mod­els from Spar­tan­burg,” he says of the cur­rent X plant in the US. The plant is at full ca­pac­ity, par­tic­u­larly with new mod­els set to join the line-up, such as the X2 and lux­ury X7.

To al­le­vi­ate pres­sure on the US plant and in view of the de­clin­ing mar­ket for medium sedans world­wide, the de­ci­sion was taken to move some X3 pro­duc­tion to SA and China.

“We need a broader ge­o­graph­i­cal foot­print,” he says, adding that SA was al­ways a strong con­tender be­cause there is an ex­ist­ing sup­ply chain into the Ross­lyn plant.

As a for­mer boss of BMW SA and pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers SA, Robert­son was in­stru­men­tal in putting to­gether the Mo­tor In­dus­try De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme. He is proud that SA has be­come a ma­jor ex­porter and that be­tween him­self and for­mer cab­i­net min­is­ters Alec Er­win and Trevor Manuel they, along with oth­ers, carved out a fu­ture in­dus­try.

He says SA still needs to be a big­ger mar­ket but is con­fi­dent that will hap­pen even­tu­ally.

The X3 is one thing, but the Depart­ment of Trade and In­dus­try has stated it was keen to see automotive man­u­fac­tur­ers pro­duc­ing al­ter­na­tive power ve­hi­cles in the coun­try, par­tic­u­larly elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

Robert­son says that is un­likely for BMW. In 2017 the com­pany will pro­duce 100,000 elec­tric ve­hi­cles and he says pro­duc­tion needs to be closer to the mar­kets where de­mand is high. SA does not have the vol­ume, but he says the coun­try does need to de­velop its own mar­ket in this re­gard.

Robert­son also says that with­out a bat­tery in­dus­try, lo­cal pro­duc­tion would be dif­fi­cult be­cause bat­ter­ies do not travel well in the event that they have to be im­ported. There are those who hope to see SA be­come a cen­tre for the fuel cell ve­hi­cle in­dus­try, but he says bat­tery tech­nol­ogy will ad­vance faster than fuel cells due to the is­sues sur­round­ing in­fra­struc­ture. This is one of the rea­sons that BMW has part­nered with Toy­ota on its fuel cell strat­egy.

BMW has been in the mar­ket for a long time, but what about more re­cent play­ers, such as Tesla? “The in­dus­try has al­ways had new play­ers. They come and they go,” he says.

BMW in­vested in the i3 and i8 elec­tric ve­hi­cles, which was an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise. But it is al­ready pay­ing off, par­tic­u­larly as many ri­vals are three to four years away from pro­duc­ing their own so­lu­tions.

The next big thing is au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy, which Robert­son says is “more of a jour­ney than a sprint”. He says tech­nol­ogy is ad­vanc­ing but it still has a long way to go and BMW will be at the lead­ing edge of de­vel­op­ment.

One of the ma­jor hur­dles is the vast amount of data in­volved. He points out that an Air­bus A380 pro­duces about 1.5TB of data per long-haul trip; a level 2 au­ton­o­mous car pro­duces a mas­sive 4TB of data per day. All that needs to be an­a­lysed and all permutations as­sessed.

As­sess­ing au­ton­o­mous cars has re­cently been a ma­jor topic of dis­cus­sion among leg­is­la­tors and gov­ern­ments, with Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel lay­ing fun­da­men­tal ground rules for the tech­nol­ogy in her coun­try.

“Leg­is­la­tors are just wak­ing up to what is hap­pen­ing [with au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles],” says Robert­son. He ex­pects there to be re­gional leg­is­la­tion rather than any­thing global but says the tech­nol­ogy is go­ing to move much faster than the leg­is­la­tors.

“Cars will be­come more hu­man in their de­ci­sions,” he says, “but hu­mans make mis­takes.” It is this that has leg­is­la­tors wor­ried and could se­ri­ously slow down the level of ex­cite­ment over au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy as peo­ple re­alise just how com­pli­cated the mat­ter is.

For­tu­nately, what­ever di­rec­tion the in­dus­try takes, Robert­son ap­pears con­fi­dent that SA will re­tain its place in it, at least as far as BMW is con­cerned.


BMW has in­vested R6bn in its Ross­lyn plant to switch pro­duc­tion from the 3 Se­ries sedan to the X3 SUV.

Ian Robert­son, board mem­ber of BMW re­spon­si­ble for sales and mar­ket­ing, at the un­veil­ing of the 8 Se­ries con­cept.

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