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How the Chevy Volt Became a BMW

Stocks in this article: GM

Now we know why former Volt-boss Weber has been in hiding for the last year. BMW has released preliminary information about its i8 model, anticipated to hit showrooms by the first half of 2014.

And guess what? BMW's bet on the future looks a lot like the Chevrolet Volt. Surprise!

Before you spit up that hot coffee and start writing me a nasty response, let me clarify: The BMW i8 is not a perfect copy of the Volt. There are some differences. I am not suggesting certain patent infringement. Let me point out the two major differences between the Chevy Volt drivetrain architecture and that of the BMW i8:

1. BMW has moved the Volt's generator from the front of the car, to the back.

2. BMW has added an electric traction motor in order to enable all-wheel drive, similar to the Tesla (TSLA) Model X prototype unveiled on Feb. 9.

But really, when you consider all the alternative architectures BMW could have chosen, the BMW i8 is very similar to the Volt. Just consider the Volt's revolutionary on-axis placement of the gasoline generator with the generator-motor and the main traction motor. On the Volt, that package sits up front. On the BMW i8, it sits in the rear. BMW has not released information about whether the on-axis design is substantially identical to the Volt's -- or not. In GM's case, it didn't release this information either, until just before production started, so that it could file all the patents.

It is the power-combining of that on-axis placement on the Volt that yielded GM supposedly over 200 patents. How would BMW get around those patents?

For a more detailed description of the patented genius of the Volt powertrain, see this 36 minute video featuring Volt chief powertrain engineer Pamela Fletcher taken in October 2010, shortly after GM filed its patents.

Once you have watched that video, just imagine moving that powertrain from the front wheels to the rear wheels, and then adding an electric traction motor between the front wheels, and you have . . . a BMW i8! It's a distinction without a difference, as we say.

Furthermore, the BMW i8's battery looks to be almost the same shape as in the Volt -- and for that matter the Fisker Karma. It's placed in the center tunnel, which is where it is best protected from a crash perspective. By the way, that Henrik Fisker guy -- he was a top BMW designer, but long before he founded his own car company.

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