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BMW opens Beijing-based R&D facility to accelerate electric car development, digitalization

The plug-in charger for a BMW i3 electric car is pictured during the Auto China 2016 in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

German automaker BMW has opened a Beijing-based research and development center, part of its blueprint to build a complete R&D system in China focusing on electric vehicles and digitalization, as the country is encouraging car manufacturers to produce Internet-connected, battery-powered vehicles in fight for blue skies.

Located in Beijing's Shunyi district, the new R&D facility will be tasked with working out localization strategies, testing the quality of production vehicles and applying for local industrial certificates for new car models.

The production cars which will be tested by the Beijing R&D center will include BMW-branded new energy, hybrid and smart vehicles, according to a notice released by the government of Shunyi district.

In 2018, the R&D center in Beijing will run more than 70 test vehicles across China, with the testing mileage being expected to reach a record high of 5 million kilometers, said BMW in a statement published on its website.

The focus on electric cars is part of BMW's new strategy which sees new energy vehicles as a driving force of its global sales. In February, the German automaker said that it was in negotiation with a Chinese car manufacturer to build the electric version of the next-generation Mini car.

The Beijing R&D center is the second R&D facility that BMW operates in China, the world's largest automobile market.

Last year, BMW started the operation of its first R&D center in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, which has evolved from a joint R&D facility that the Munich-based company formed in partnership with Brilliance Auto. The Shenyang R&D center is responsible for the development of dynamoelectric technologies such as power assembly and batteries.

BMW has said that it will put more money into the R&D investment in China, where the company sold 590,000 cars in 2017, representing a 15 percent growth from a year earlier and accounting for 24 percent of its global sales in the same year.

BMW's Chief Financial Officer Nicolas Peter said that a high share of the 7 billion euros that the German automaker plans to spend on R&D this year will be allocated to China.

BMW's R&D team in China has expanded to more than 1,100 people, helped by the opening of the Beijing-based R&D facility, which hires some 200 researchers.

Emphasis on autonomous driving

At the same time when BMW announced the establishment of the R&D center in Beijing, the German carmaker also unveiled plans to open a Shanghai R&D facility, which will be dedicated to autonomous driving and intelligent network for smart cars.

The announcement just came after BMW was approved by the Shanghai municipal government to test the prototypes of its driverless cars on the city's designated roads, which are based on the Level 4 autonomy allowing a car to be almost totally in control all the time without any human intervention. BMW is the first foreign automaker to gain the license in China.

According to BMW, 80 prototypes of self-driving cars will be tested globally in 2018, with road tests of seven autonomous cars expected to take place in China. The company also said that it plans to start the mass production of driverless cars featured by the Level 4 automation by 2021.

The Society of Automotive Engineers divides autonomous driving technologies into six levels from Level 0 to Level 5.  A car featuring the Level 5 automation can run fully independently without any human intervention.

Klaus Fröhlich, BMW's board member in charge of R&D, said that Chinese consumers are more open-minded than those in the rest of the world in accepting new technology-driven vehicles like self-driving cars, adding that the company will conduct more road tests of autonomous cars in China, where the company's testing mileage has surpassed 30,000 kilometers as of April.

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