The Future of the Automobile? Part 4 – Five Months In

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This is the 4th – and last – in a series discussing my experience driving the all-electric all electric BMW ActiveE.


Steady State Impressions

thecar-mileage.jpgHard to believe it has been 5 months since I picked up my BMW ActiveE. Even harder than you might expect, since I only have 1,614 miles on the odometer – which mean that I have driven only a little more than 1,000 miles (the car was a dealer demo model when I got it).

I guess that’s what happens when you commute 7 miles round trip per day, and can’t take the car on really long trips.

At this point, I have a really good feel for how the car operates. Let me provide the following summary:

  • The car remains a total delight to drive. It is quiet and smooth. I have heard other drivers of electric cars say that they will never go back to a gasoline engine, and I fully understand why. It is just much pleasanter to drive an electric – which is hard to explain to someone who has not driven one. I would prefer the acceleration and handling of my gasoline-powered BMW, but that can easily be achieved with an all-electric (see more on the Tesla S below).
  • Last time I reported that I was seeing signs of 95 miles plus range. Alas, after the failure I experienced with the drive train and reported in my previous thecar-chargestatus.jpg log (exactly 603 miles ago), I have never seen that expected range again on the mileage gauge. Other than a brief tease of 88 miles, I am back to generally seeing a potential range of 82-83 miles (and under 80 when the AC is on). This is disappointing, but again something that can be addressed. 
  • Charging on 120V – a standard wall outlet – takes way too long (over 20 hours for a full charge). However, at least for charging at home, the 240V charging station is quite reasonable  5+ hours). It is now clear that electric cars charge much more quickly when the battery is closer to empty than to full. That’s actually a good thing, since it means you can “buy” extra miles faster in the early part of the charge – and may be able to get enough extra miles to continue going relatively quickly.
  • I must admit that I have not yet tried a public charging station – largely because I have not needed to, and partly because of the charging time commitment. I have an app that shows the location and status of charging stations in my area provided by the charging network that provided my home charger – and the truth is that they are usually available. But I simply do not need an extra charge to travel home to work or to meetings in downtown Boston or the near-in suburbs. (More on public charging below).
  • The strangest thing I have discovered – and can get no corroboration for from others – is that I am unable to use the (toll paying) transponder in this car. It works just fine in my other car – and I have discovered that if I hold it way outside the window of the EV it will work ) most of the time)- but something in the car’s electrical system interferes with the transponder. Totally weird.

How do we get to the Future?

There are clearly 2 things that are needed in order to enable Electric Vehicle’s to go mainstream – aside from the most obvious one of getting prices down. As has been addressed in the past, the road to getting prices down is to get more and more of these vehicles on the road, so I will ignore that issue for the moment.

First is getting the range up. Whether it is 82 or 98 miles on the ActiveE, it is simply not enough. BMW is reportedly planning on an optional 3 cylinder engine to provide their production i3 EV, which will use the same drivetrain as the ActiveE. That would make the car an “extended range” EV, like the Chevy Volt. That solves the range problem, but introduces a gas engine which adds cost, weight, and complexity. This is a good short-term response, but does not fully leverage the strength of a pure EV – which offers simplicity of design and operations.

There is an ability even now to address the range issue – at a cost. The Tesla S sedan with the largest battery pack is reported to go 300 miles. Frankly, that is probably enough for almost all purposes; provided there is some kind of charging infrastructure at the other end. But, at the moment, that extra mileage comes with a much higher price tag.

Which brings us to the next issue: recharging speed. Public recharging, even with the current generation of high speed recharging stations, is still too slow – and, of course, there are yet to be a sufficient number of charging stations. Tesla[1] is taking a crack at this by installing high speed (480v) charging stations along key intercity routes, but: a) it will be a while before many of the important national routes are covered; and b) even these speeds are not yet fast enough. Both of these issues can be resolved over time, but for now this represents a barrier to widespread adoption of EVs.

For those of you who are not aware, Better Place has taken a different approach; they are rolling out a network of battery swapping stations that take less than 10 minutes to replace a drained battery with a fully charged one. Better Place is currently creating their first networks in Israel and Denmark (both small countries), and then heading to a variety of other locations, including several in the US. In the Better Place model, they own the battery, and the customer has various options for purchasing “miles”. This is very similar to the propane tank rental arrangement prevalent in many parts of the US. It is an elegant model, but has major hurdles in terms of implementation. Also, at the current time, it only works with a car and battery made by Renault – but that can also be dealt with over time.

thecar-car2.jpgSpeaking of the Tesla Model S; the reviews have been nothing if not spectacular. A very recent review by Bradley Berman in the NY Times (One Big Step for Tesla, One Giant Leap for E.V.’s) described it, to paraphrase, “as channeling Aston Martin on the outside and Apple on the inside”. A July review by Dan Neil in the Wall Street Journal (I am Silent, Hear me Roar) said, and here I quote: “…. the car is dope”. (That review also said: “… the Tesla corners like it’s tethered with magic.”).

I am not going to try to compare the performance of an ActiveE ($500 per month for 2 years) with the Tesla S ($60,000 and up), despite my clear case of Tesla envy. Both cars demonstrate that EVs are delightful vehicles to drive and, with continued commitment, research and development, as well as willing early adopters, can and should play a major role in the US. But, there is still much work to be done.

[1] Other companies, including Coulomb and AeroVironment, are also rolling out charging networks across the country