Monday, June 23, 2014

After 2,000 Miles Part Two: Dislikes

I have to say that overall I am very pleased with my i3. It's living up to what I had hoped it would be, and after a month of ownership I'm convinced it was the right electric vehicle choice for me. However that doesn't mean it's perfect. In fact it's far from perfect, but so is every other car out there. As much as I really love my i3, I can probably list a couple dozen things that I would have done differently. Listed below are some of the top things that I'm not particularly fond of.

I took this picture from an i3 display at the LA Auto Show. Somehow 100 miles turned into 82 miles once the production i3 was revealed.
The Range. So let's just get this out of the way now. I'm disappointed that BMW didn't deliver a real "100 mile" electric vehicle as they had been promising. The 81 mile EPA range on the BEV i3 and the 72 mile rating for the REx, falls a little short in my opinion. If the BEV i3 had an EPA range of 95 miles per charge or greater then I wouldn't have ordered the REx, and I think a lot of others share that opinion. I hope I'm wrong, but I believe this is going to hold back BEV i3 sales significantly. I think 82 miles falls just short of what many US customers will find acceptable for a premium electric vehicle.
Looks like the battery is 3 & 3/16th's out of 4 bars full. Wonderful.

No Proper State of Charge Gauge. When I first found out that the i3 wouldn't display the state of charge in numeric form, I was dumbfounded. Instead, the i3 state of charge display is just four bars that slowly erode as the range diminishes, and it displays the predicted amount of miles the car "thinks" you can travel. In other words, a Guess O Meter. When Nissan initially offered the LEAF, this is basically the same way they displayed the state of charge. Their customers complained so much, that after a couple years Nissan finally realized they made a mistake and added a proper state of charge display. I dedicated an entire blog post to this back in December of last year when it was revealed that the i3 wouldn't display the SOC. Still to this day I am in denial and refuse to believe it's not coming in a future software update. There is absolutely no logical reason for omitting it. It was simply a mistake on BMW's part and like Nissan they will indeed realize that and add it to the display at some point. I'm not saying they need to eliminate the bar system they have, just give us both and let the customer decide which they prefer to rely on.

Like the MINI-E before it, the ActiveE had a clear state of charge and battery temperature display. It's puzzling why both of these important features were omitted on the i3.

No Battery Temperature Readout. Like the state of charge gauge but to a lessor degree, this is a little puzzling. Maybe the majority of i3 owners might not really care what their battery temperature is, but I do and I know quite a few others who do too. It's further puzzling because both of BMW's beta test cars that I drove, the MINI-E and the ActiveE, had battery temperature displays. I like to see how well the thermal management system is performing, how hot the battery may have gotten while baking in the direct sun of a parking lot for a few hours, or how cold the cells are after parking outside overnight in the dead of winter. Knowing the battery temperature helps me know what to expect of the car performance-wise and can also help me to keep the cells from getting too hot in certain circumstances. The car knows the battery temperature, just provide that somewhere on a screen buried in iDrive somewhere and I guarantee many i3 owners will appreciate it.
When you are in "Glide Mode" the white bar is in the position it is shown here. As you use power the bar moves to the right (ePower) and if you are recuperating energy with regenerative braking, the bar moves to the left (Charge) of center.

Glide Position Difficult to Achieve and Maintain. BMW describes the i3's glide feature as such: "The BMW i3’s accelerator has a distinct “neutral” position; i.e. rather than switching straight to energy recuperation when the driver eases off the accelerator, the electric motor uses zero torque control to decouple from the drivetrain and deploy only the available kinetic energy for propulsion. In this mode, the BMW i3 glides along using virtually no energy at all." I've only had the car for a month, but it seems more difficult to find the glide (or coasting) position and then hold it, than it was on the ActiveE. A few years ago I was talking with a BMW engineer about this and I suggested there be a switch to turn off regen completely if the driver wished. I would prefer to do this on long, high speed highway driving where I want to coast as much as possible. I was told that they probably wouldn't offer such a switch to disable it because they would be worried the driver would forget they deactivated the regen, and possibly have an accident because they expected  it to engage later on. I still think this would be a good solution for maximizing efficiency by coasting at higher speeds.  

The kenaf deck in direct sunlight
You can see the reflection of the dash

Windshield Glare. The majority of the top deck of the dashboard is made of compressed kenaf fibers. The use of this material has garnered some criticism because some people think it looks cheap, and not worthy of being in a car made by a premium automaker. I actually like the look of it but what I don't like is that in direct sunlight I can see the reflection of the entire dashboard up on the windshield. After a few weeks I'm getting used to it and it isn't as annoying as it was when I first noticed it, but it definitely isn't ideal. The shiny kenaf surface does cast a pretty clear reflection on bright, sunny days.

No AM Radio. I like to listen to AM talk radio and I am a Mets fan (unfortunately). Mets games are only broadcast on AM so I was disappointed to find out that i3 doesn't have an AM radio. BMW spokesman Dave Buchko recently told Jim Motavalli the reasoning for excluding the AM radio was primarily due to interference from the electric motor: “We learned from our experience with MINI E and BMW ActiveE that the electric motor causes interference with the AM signal. Rather than frustrate customers with inferior reception, the decision was made to leave it off. HD Radio is standard on the i3 and through multi-casting, many traditional AM stations in key markets are available on secondary and tertiary HD signals.” I admit the AM radio in the MINI-E had really bad interference, so much so that I rarely listened to it, but it wasn't bad on the ActiveE. Other electric cars have AM radios and they don't seem to be all that bad. This is a little bit of a head-scratcher to me. I'm learning to live without it, but why should I have to?

Grooves like this in the pavement can be felt more in the i3 than in other cars. I believe it's because of the vehicles light weight combined with its narrow tires.
The Thin Tires Can Get Caught in Pavement Grooves. When roads are paved, unless they are narrow secondary or tertiary roads, they are usually done in multiple strips. This also allows the street to remain open with one lane of traffic flow at a time during the paving process. The problem is, the line where the two sections of the new pavement meet has tiny gaps and over time the road degrades with the help of water and ice and a groove develops. The i3's tires are so thin that they are effected by these grooves and uneven pavement more so than most cars that are heavier and have wider tires. It doesn't present a safety problem; the car doesn't lose any control, you just have to be cognizant of this and make sure you have a grip on the steering wheel when one wheel dips into pavement grooves - which is a good idea in any event. I also believe the very sensitive steering of the i3 adds to this sensation that the grooves are trying to steer the car for you. The i3 has very tight and sensitive steering. You only need to slightly lean in one direction or the other to make a turn, and it is something that takes a week or so to get used to. It has by far the most sensitive steering I have ever experienced on any car. The turning radius is also a freakishly-short 32.3 feet.
The Key FOB will open the front trunk, but not the rear hatch.

Key FOB Doesn't Open the Hatch. This is a minor complaint, and since my i3 has comfort access I can open the locked hatch just by grabbing the hatch handle as long as I have the key in my pocket. I would still prefer to have a button on the FOB that remotely opens the hatch. There is a button that opens the front trunk, which I will rarely ever need to open, I don't know why BMW didn't use that button for the rear hatch, or just add a button and have one for both.

Regen Braking is Less Aggressive. Before I start complaining, let me say that I've driven just about every modern electric vehicle and plug-in-hybrid and I believe the i3 has absolutely the very best regenerative braking system on the market. Telsa probably comes in second and the Volt, when driven in low mode, is right behind the Model S. BMW dialed back the regen on the i3 a bit, probably in the vicinity of about 10% when compared to the ActiveE. People who never drove the ActiveE or MINI-E won't understand what I'm complaining about because the i3's regenerative braking is still strong and very smooth. It can bring the car to a stop without using the friction brakes faster than any regenerative braking system on any other EV will. Still, I liked it stronger like it was on the ActiveE and MINI-E. I guess regenerative braking is like coffee. Some will prefer the Blonde Roast with cream while others want the Dark Roast served black. Give me my regen as strong as possible please. I recommended to BMW that they offer different regen settings and let the customer decide how strong they like it, but that didn't come to pass on the i3. It's still very good, and integrates seamlessly when decelerating, I would just prefer it a bit stronger.

When the car is locked the connector will not release, even when charging is finished

Locking Connector. While charging, the connector is locked to the car as long as the vehicle is locked. The connector cannot be released unless you unlock the doors, even when the charging session is complete. I've found this very annoying and so have many other i3 owners. The ability to lock the connector to the car should be configurable in iDrive, giving the owner options like "Unlock when charge is complete" and "Do not lock connector". Allow the owner to decide what works best for them. Many people like to share chargers, especially in EV-friendly California. These people will leave a note on their dashboard telling others it's OK to unplug them and use the EVSE once they have finished charging or after a specific time. The locking connector prevents any charger sharing unless you leave your vehicle unlocked, which is not a viable option in most circumstances. I can understand this locking feature would be necessary in Europe because the charging cables are not tethered to the EVSE like they are here in the US and this prevents theft. It seems BMW may have built the i3 for the European charging process and didn't consider the inconvenience it would cause for US customers. This is another feature I believe we'll see changed in a software update at some point in the future.

When I navigate this bend in the road by my house, the regenerative braking disengages. Since the road is also downgrade I find I have to use the friction brakes to keep from accelerating down the  hill. I didn't have to do that in the past while driving my MINI-E or ActiveE as both would allow the regenerative braking system to hold back the car during turns like this.

Regen Braking Disengages During Hard Turns. I'm a little surprised with the second complaint I have with the regenerative braking. While negotiating turns, the regen sometimes disengages which will give the sensation that the car is actually speeding up. Of course it isn't (unless you are going downhill), but when you are in full regen and it suddenly disengages, it does feel like the car is accelerating when if fact it just isn't being slowed down by the regenerative braking. During the MINI-E and ActiveE programs, I personally spoke to dozens of people who contacted me asking if my car ever suddenly surged ahead. What was happening with those cars was different though. If the regenerative braking system was operating and the car hit a pothole or a bump that caused the wheels to lose traction, the traction control would disengage the regen in an attempt to prevent the loss of control. When this happened, it would give the driver the sensation of sudden acceleration, especially when driving downhill. This was unsettling if you didn't understand what was happening and typically when this happened the owner would take the car to the dealer for service. The dealer would look it over and find nothing wrong and give it back to them. Frustrated, many of the drivers then contacted me to ask if anyone else had complained of this sudden acceleration problem. After explaining what was actually happening to them they understood what was going on. I would also caution them to always have their foot ready to press the friction brake when they were using regen to slow the car down, especially if they were approaching the car in front of them as they were decelerating.

BMW has indeed improved the whole traction control/regenerative braking system communication and the i3 performs much better than the MINI-E or ActiveE did when the tires lose traction during regenerative braking. However it now disengages during cornering, and neither of its predecessors ever did this. I can tell by how it's working that it isn't a flaw in my system, it was intentionally designed to do this, perhaps to prevent the thin tires from losing traction while negotiating hard turns. Again, it's not a problem as long as you know it's going to happen and you are ready to use the friction brakes if necessary. I've found it mostly happens while I'm taking a highway off-ramp that circles down under the highway overpass. It seems the speed I'm traveling combined with the sharp, constant turn is too much and the traction control preemptively disengages the regen in an attempt to prevent the loss of traction. I believe this is something the dealers need to communicate to the customer. It can be a safety issue if new i3 owners aren't prepared for it. Just like with the MINI-E and ActiveE, I'm certain there will be customers that believe there is something wrong with their car and will take it to the dealer for service. And just as I'm sure that will happen, I'm sure the service departments won't have a clue what the customers are talking about and will tell them they checked it out and car is fine. Unless the service manager happens to read this post ;)

I haven't had this happen to me, but a couple people have reported it.
Software Bugs and Various Glitches. There have been a number of various software bugs and other issues reported since the car launched here in the US about two months ago. For example, all of the i3s with the range extender option have had their check engine light (CEL) come on sporadically. Evidently there is nothing actually wrong with the engine, it's just a software bug and BMW has just released a patch to stop the light from coming on, but it's still not something you want to see on a new car. I've also heard of a couple people have their onboard charger fail, and a few others report that the car flashed a "Drivetrain Malfunction" warning. In the cases I've heard about, it just cleared itself and the owner was able to take it to the dealer to be checked and there was no problem found. Honestly I did expect there would be some initial glitches, and it's really too early to tell if these are isolated cases or if it's an indication that there are indeed going to be more problems to come. Other than the phantom CEL warning, my car has been perfect so far, but I'll be watching it closely and reporting on what I experience as well as what I hear from other i3 owners as time passes.

Minor Annoyances:
There are a few things that really don't bother me that much, but I know other i3 owners who have complained about these things:
The dangling plastic charge port cap seen here isn't really too high on my list of annoyances, but I have heard quite a few other i3 owners complain about it. I even know a couple that have cut it off.

1) Charge port plastic caps. After you open the watertight charge port door you need to remove a plastic cap before you plug the car in. It really doesn't bother me, but I agree it isn't the best solution. a spring loaded cover that flips over and snaps in place like the ActiveE had would be better. Is this really even needed though?

2) The adaptive cruise control system will sometimes disengage for no apparent reason. When it works, it's really a great feature, but it does have a tendency to disengage by itself. It seems like driving in the rain, in direct sunlight and going under overpasses give it the most trouble. I have used it a couple dozen times now and it has disengaged four times by itself. Not a big issue, but one that BMW will hopefully improve.

3) The "Door Ajar" warning light is very sensitive. If you don't close the doors pretty hard, the door ajar warning light will come on while you are driving. The doors aren't in any danger of opening, I just think the warning trigger is just too sensitive.

4) BMW advertises that for home charging "a maximum charging power of 7.4 kW can be reached".  I have yet to be able to crack 7kW's and usually see my charge rate at around 6.7 kW to 6.9 kW. Sure, this is a minor complaint, but my supply is more than adequate to accommodate at least 7.2 kW, so why won't the car pull it? I've talked to other i3 owners about this also, and 6.9 kW is about the most anybody has seen the car pull.

5) No programmable button on the key FOB to initiate battery and cabin preconditioning. The European i3s have this feature, but for some reason it was left off the US i3s. You can still initiate cabin and battery preconditioning via the smartphone app, but having it on the key FOB is easier. Some people (you know who you are!) have told me it was a deal breaker and wouldn't buy an i3 without it.    

I'm sure I'll come up with more dislikes as time goes on, and I'll continue to post them here. Even considering everything I've detailed here, I'm thoroughly enjoying my i3. I drove it a total of 162 miles today and less than 2 miles was with the REx running. The range extender allows me to really push the range limit without worrying if I'll make my destination. Oh yeah, that reminds me of one more complaint. I want the ability to turn the range extender off if I know I'll make my destination. Twice so far the range extender turned on when I was less than a 1/4 mile from my house and once it turned on while I was pulling up my driveway! I believe the European i3s do allow the operator to turn it off manually, so that's just another feature (sunroof, programmable key FOB, REx hold mode) that we don't get here in the States. Yeah, I know... first world problems. :)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

After 2,000 Miles: The Likes

Now that I've had my i3 for nearly a month, I'm starting to get a good feel for what I like and what I don't. My initial thought was to do one post with both the likes and dislikes at this point, but after assembling the lists, I realized I wouldn't be able to spend enough time on each topic if I did it that way. Therefore I decided I'd do two consecutive posts, with one for the likes and one for the dislikes. I'm tackling the easy one first, the likes:

Adaptive Cruise Control With Stop & Go: This feature is really useful. It's kind of like locking in on the vehicle in front of you with a tractor beam and letting it pull you along. I've found it great for both low speed and high speed driving and the car will even come to a complete stop and accelerate again once the car in front of you does. The only things that aren't perfect is I've found it sometimes leaves too large of a gap in between you and the car you are chasing (for safety reasons I guess) but that allows people to easily cut in front of you if they want to. Also, some times it disengages for no apparent reason and when it does that, the car goes into full regenerative braking mode, since you don't have your foot on the accelerator. It seems to do it more in the rain and also when approaching overpasses. Both could possible confuse the camera-based system. That is not an ideal situation by any means, and something I hope BMW will address with a software update in the future. If the adaptive cruise control does disengage by itself, the car should temporally suspend the regenerative braking until the driver touches either the brake or the accelerator themselves. 
This display appears when the adaptive cruise control system automatically disengages

Seating Position: Like many things in any "likes & dislikes" list, this is highly subjective. The seating position in the i3 is very high, and really "un-sports car like". It's actually like sitting in a mini SUV. I like this position and really like the outward vision you get in the car, with lots of glass surfaces and an absolutely huge windshield. The only thing I had to get used to was that you cannot see the nose of the car at all. The hood drops off so prominently, it's impossible to see it from inside the car. After a week or two I was past that though, and feel totally comfortable with not being able to see the nose at all.
The high seating position and the abundance of glass allow for a great outward view

Charging Rate: One of the advantages of having a small battery in your electric vehicle is that it will charge quickly, provided it has a robust onboard charger. The i3 is supposed to be able to accept up to 32 amps @240V which would be about 7.7kW. I haven't seen my charge rate quite that high, but I do seem to be pulling about 6.9kW from my home EVSE. That's good enough to refill a fully discharged battery in about 3.5 hours, or give me roughly 25 miles of range per hour of charging. My ActiveE took about 5 hours to fully charge when it was new, and then when BMW lowered the charge rate due to onboard charger problems, it was taking nearly 7 hours to fully charge. My i3 charges in about half the time it was taking my ActiveE and that makes such a difference for someone like me that does a lot of driving.
Charging at home. The quick charge rate has allowed me to drive 120+ electric miles in the same day without the need of the REx a couple times already.

Cargo Space: For the past five years I've been driving BMW's beta test electric vehicles which were converted gas cars. Both vehicles had severely compromised cargo areas because they were conversions. I use my car to run errands for my restaurant and I'm frequently picking up various supplies. The hatchback cargo area of the i3, especially with the seats down is so much more useful than either the MINI-E or the ActiveE was and I'm so happy to finally have a real purpose built electric vehicle. The battery packaging doesn't interfere with any of the passenger or cargo space, as it's located directly beneath the passenger compartment in one large aluminum case. As much as I liked my previous EV's, the fact that they were indeed conversions did limit their utility.
Delivering a catering order
Picking up some supplies

The Interior: If the unconventional exterior styling has some people scratching their heads, just tell them to open the doors and take a seat inside. The interior is stunningly beautiful, with well laid out instruments and more space than a car of this size ever deserves to have. The tall body and wide stance allows the i3, which is more than a foot smaller than a 1-Series to have nearly as much interior space as a 3-Series. The huge 8.8" center instrumentation screen is amazingly clear, and somehow doesn't have a glare problem as I feared it may. The seats are comfortable and the armrest is adjustable so you can set it at the height you prefer. There is plenty of space to store stuff with huge door pockets, each that will hold two beverage bottles. There are two cup holders between the rear seats and two cup holders in the front with a slot for another optional cup holder. In all the car has up to nine beverage holders. I thought German engineers didn't understand the American obsession to hold drinks in the car?
The "Tera World" interior of my i3
The Efficiency: The i3 is the most efficient passenger car available in the US. So far, according to the data I'm compiling it's nearly 25% more efficient than my ActiveE was. That means I'm using 25% less energy that the ActiveE which was a pretty efficient EV in its own right. I actually did a blog post last week on the subject of efficiency which you can view here.
If you can curb your enthusiasm for the instant torque, the i3 can be an extremely efficient machine

Comfort Access: OK, so this isn't really anything related to it being an electric vehicle, but it's the first car I've owned with this feature. You just walk up to the car with the key in the pocket and it unlocks when you grab the handle. Then get inside and just press the start button and it turns on. When you leave you just touch the door handle in a particular spot and it locks. The only thing I don't like about this, which will definitely be mentioned in my "dislikes" post, is the extremely loud beep the car makes when you lock or unlock the doors. It's ear-piercingly loud and makes everyone in the general vicinity look your way. Update: It was pointed out to me in the BMW i3 Facebook group that you can disable the beep which I just did. For those wanting to do the same, it's in Settings>Doors/Key>Acuoustic sig.Lock/Unlock. I believe the base model (Mega World in the US) doesn't have the beep feature, but Giga and Tera Worlds do, and you can disable it there.

The Range Extender: I was on the fence for a long time trying to decide whether to get the REx or not. Once it became evident the BEV i3 wouldn't have a real 100 mile range that I could depend on, the REx really became a necessary decision. I'd prefer having a 100 mile EV and a good robust fast charge network, but that will take a few more years, at least here in the North East. For now, the range extender concept works perfectly for me. When I first got the car I purposely didn't charge it so I could fully test the REx performance and it worked even better than I imagined. I did about two hundred miles of driving in REx mode, mostly highway driving at 70 to 75 mph and it was perfectly capable of maintaining the charge. I still haven't had time to really test it by overworking it until it cannot sustain the charge, but I will. The good news is that I'll have to actually try to do that, because it is definitely robust enough to do anything I'll need it to, and that includes 230 mile trips to Vermont. I drive about 30,000 miles per year, and I'm guessing I'll do about 1,000 miles with the REx running. The one great thing about the REx is not having to think about where I'm going in order to make sure I can plug in if I need to drive a little farther than planned. I believe in the near future the range extender won't be necessary, but with where battery tech and charging infrastructure is today, I believe it makes sense for a lot of people and will certainly help with the adoption of electric vehicles.
The i3's range extender sits next to the electric motor above the rear axle.

Collision Warning: Collision Warning with Brake Priming Function is activated at speeds up to 35 mph. It  is able to respond to both moving and stationary vehicles ahead, as well as to pedestrians. If you are rapidly approaching a vehicle or pedestrian, it offers a audible warning and "primes" the brakes so they are ready for the moment you depress the brake pedal. BMW claims this allows for shorter stopping distances. What I really like though is the audible alert. I've only had it come on twice so far and in neither time did it actually prevent me from having a collision, but I could definitely see it doing just that under certain circumstances (like distracted driving). It's definitely a neat safety device and one that I hope all cars have some day.

Hill Hold: If the BMW engineers that are responsible for the hill hold on the i3 are reading this I'd like to say something: Bravo! You nailed it! Electric cars will roll freely forwards or backwards like manual transmission cars do. For the ActiveE, BMW employed the same kind of hill hold feature like they do on their conventionally-powered cars. You needed to depress the brake pedal to activate the hill hold feature, and it would release in a couple seconds. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't perfect either. The i3 won't roll backwards at all unless you put it in reverse, and you don't need to depress the brake pedal to activate the hill hold, it just does it automatically. However it will roll forward to assist in your launch, which is the way it should be. The hill hold feature doesn't time-out, and holds the vehicle as long as you need it to. This seems so natural when you drive it, and now that I've experienced it I'm wondering why no other electric vehicle manufacturer has come up with this yet. I'm sure they will copy it though.

Soft Speed Limiter: This is another feature that I believe is unique to the i3 and is pretty innovative. Perhaps the biggest range thief with electric vehicles is excessive speed. The i3 employes a unique soft speed limiter to gently remind you that you are driving fast and perhaps you should consider slowing down to extend your range. There are three driving modes in the i3: Comfort (this is what the car defaults to) Eco Pro and Eco Pro +. There is no soft speed limit in Comfort mode, but while driving in Eco Pro and Eco Pro +, the soft speed limits are at 75mph and 55mph respectively. The reasoning behind this is if you are in comfort mode, you likely have plenty of range and aren't consciously concerned with extending it. However if you selected Eco Pro or Eco Pro +, you likely are concerned with how much range you have and are making an effort to maximize it. Since driving fast is very inefficient, the car coaches you a bit and "reminds" you that you may want to slow down. Here's how it works: When you reach the speed that the soft limit is set at (75 mph  for Eco Pro and 55 mph for Eco Pro +) the car will not exceed that speed, even if you continue to depress the accelerator. In order to go faster, you need to continue to depress the accelerator further and after a couple seconds it realized that you are aware that you're passing the soft limit but wish to do so anyway, and it will indeed accelerate. It actually takes off rather quickly with an abrupt burst of speed at that point, almost as if to say "Well you asked for it!" I really like this "coaching" feature. There have been plenty of times in my other EVs that I was driving on the highway and wanted to keep my speed down a bit to conserve energy but would find myself creeping up and driving faster than I wanted to without noticing it. With this feature, you really won't pass the soft limit without really intending to, you can't do it by accident.
When you activate Eco Pro +  mode, you get this display prompting you to keep your speed under 55 mph for maximum range. This lead some people to assume it meant the car wouldn't go faster than 55 mph in this mode, which is not correct.

Acceleration: I saved the best for last. The i3 is really a blast to drive. I have the REx i3 which is about a half a second slower than the BEV and have been timing myself from 0-60 in around 7.6 seconds. It's not Tesla fast, but it is a really a quick little car and is much faster and more fun to drive than my ActiveE was. The instant power in the 10 mph to 50 mph range is amazing and feels quicker than my Porsche Boxster did when accelerating at those speeds. This is indeed a fun car to drive, and drives so much better than anyone would expect just from looking at it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

BMW i3: The Emperor of Efficiency

After a recent 62 mile round trip I finished with a 5.0 mi/kWh consumption rating. I've never achieved such a low consumption rate on any other EV that I have driven. This translates to an astounding 200 Wh's per mile!
When the EPA range and efficiency figures were announced couple months ago, the i3 became the most efficient vehicle available in America. Here in the US, the EPA uses "MPGe" as its official efficiency metric to compare the energy consumption of alternative fuel vehicles. That stands for "miles per gallon equivalent", and unfortunately most people don't really understand what it means or how that really translates to what the vehicle will cost them to operate. The consumption rate, or how many miles the car will travel on one kilowatt of electricity, (mi/kWh) is a metric that I, and many other electric vehicle owners prefer to use.

i3 BEV EPA ratings
Wikipedia describes the MPGe rating as follows:
"The ratings are based on EPA's formula, in which 33.7 kilowatt hours of electricity is equivalent to one gallon of gasoline, and the energy consumption of each vehicle during EPA's five standard drive cycle tests simulating varying driving conditions."
The BEV i3 received a combined (city and highway) MPGe rating of 124 miles and the i3 REx (like I have) achieved a combined score of  117 miles. I'm not a huge fan of this rating system because all it really does is compare the efficiency of my car to the energy in a gallon of gas. One of the problems with that though, is gasoline engines are very inefficient, and only around 25% of that energy is harnessed to propel the vehicle. The rest is simply wasted. The MPGe metric isn't completely useless though. It does offer a standard rating system to compare all electric cars side by side, and it also calculates the energy use of the vehicle including the charging losses, meaning it is a true "wall to wheels" energy rating. So for a comparison tool, it has its merits.
Two days of combined driving with no real effort to drive efficiently at all. About 60% highway @ ~70mph and 40% secondary roads, with the air conditioning on the entire time and driving in comfort mode.

I've only driven about 1,500 miles so far, but I'm seeing energy consumption figures that I have never achieved on any other electric vehicle that I have driven (And I've pretty much driven them all by now!). Overall, I'm averaging about 4.5 miles per kWh and can easily attain 5 miles per kWh if I make an effort to. Five miles per kWh translates to an extremely low 200 Watt-hours per mile! For comparison, I averaged about 3.6 miles per kWh in my ActiveE under the same driving conditions and ambient temperatures under which I have been driving my i3. I had to really try hard to average 4 miles per kWh with the ActiveE, and with the i3 I would have to intentionally try hard not to do so. Based on the EPA figures I knew it was going to be a tremendously efficient car, but seeing it first hand has been an eye opening experience.

I'm sure I can push the consumption rate up to around 6 miles per kWh if I drive in Eco Pro+ mode, watch my speed and use the regenerative brakes to their full potential. But for now I'm having too much fun getting to know the car. Mashing the accelerator and feeling the instant torque every now and then is difficult to refrain from, but at some point I'll do a real efficiency test and see how low I can go. Now that I've had the car for about a month, I'm starting to get some followers message me ask what I like and don't like about it. I just want to say I have indeed been compiling a "likes and dislikes" list and I have just about enough info for a comprehensive initial review. That will most likely be the next post here so stay tuned. :)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Check Engine Light Mystery Plagues Range Extended i3s In The US

The infamous Check Engine light of the BMW i3 REx
Many people that order the range extender option on the i3 do so because they just aren't comfortable with the BEV i3's 81 mile EPA range rating. Personally I really didn't want it but my driving demands dictated that I really needed it. If the i3 had 15% to 20% more range I would not have ordered the REx and I suspect there are a lot of others that would fall into the same category as me on this. We know it's there and we aren't particularly proud of hauling around the oil, gasoline and the rest of the muck that goes with it. So the last thing we really want is to be constantly reminded that we have a gasoline engine in our shiny, new electric cars. Unfortunately that is exactly what is happening.

The day after a picked up my car the check engine light (CEL) illuminated for a few hours and then shut off. I called my dealer as soon as it went off and was told to bring it in so they could check it out. Then when it turned off I called back and was told to monitor it, but it wasn't necessary to bring it in unless it comes on again. I then dropped my car off to be wrapped so I wouldn't be driving it for a week. During that time other range extended i3s were getting delivered and just like what I observed, within a day many other people were reporting the same thing. Some took their car back to the dealership where they down landed and cleared the fault codes and released the cars. The dealers don't yet have any answers and are basically saying there is nothing wrong with the cars and the light is coming on erroneously. Some people were told that if in fact there was indeed a problem with the engine the CEL would blink, not just light up and stay on as what is happening.

Unfortunately I got a flat tire last week and needed to get towed to my dealer so it was a good time to have the CEL looked at. The service manager said they pulled the codes and reset everything but didn't see any problem. Unfortunately the light didn't go on while they had it, but I doubt that would have made any difference. I've had reports from others that did indeed bring their car in with the light on and the dealer was just as stumped as to the cause. I also find it odd that the car's Check Control reads "All systems OK" even when the light is on. This offers more evidence that there really may not be any physical problem, but perhaps just some software bug that is turning the light on.

This is how I like to see my display: No CEL!
If that's the case, then why haven't we seen this reported for the past five months or so that the i3 REx has been available in Europe? I suppose the cause could be rooted to the fact that the US i3 REx operates differently than the European version, with restrictions on how and when it operates. To complicate things even more, only weeks before the REx was to launch in the US, BMW had to restrict the size of the gas tank from 2.4 gallons to 1.9 gallons. This meant the existing built cars needed to have some kind of retrofit done post-build. Could that work have triggered some kind of software conflict which causes the CEL? That would certainly explain why BMW hadn't seen this issue before and why every i3 REx (that I know of at least) in the US has this issue.

A little black tape will do the trick!
I know for a fact the engineers at BMW of North America are working on this. Hopefully they will get it resolved soon. I expect we'll get a phone call at some time asking us to bring our cars in for a software update, but who knows, maybe there actually is a physical problem it is detecting. However at the moment, nobody from BMW or the dealers seem to be able to provide any real answers. If I don't hear anything soon, I may be forced to just fix it myself!

6/18/14 UPDATE: It seems BMW has identified the problem and is issuing a temporary fix. See the bulletin below:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

That's Tom's BMW i3!

The new look
Before the wrap


A few weeks before I took delivery of my i3, I announced that I would be getting a complete body wrap for it shortly after I took possession. I was never really in love with the color choices that BMW offered for the car and also didn't particularly like that the hood on all of the cars was gloss black, regardless of what color you chose, so I wanted to see what the car would look like monochrome and with a more bold color.

Laurel Grey looked better than I thought it would!
I do have to admit, once I started seeing the i3s in person at dealerships, the colors BMW selected did begin to look better than I expected. In fact, my Laurel Grey i3 looked so good, I had reservations about going through with the wrap after all! The Frozen Blue accents look great and the Laurel Grey is a very dark grey, which nearly eliminates the color difference of the black hood, making the car look all the same color from only a short distance.

I had it done at Designer Wraps in Millville, NJ

The infamous rear window dip
Well as you can see, I went through with the wrap and I'm really happy that I did. The bright red metallic wrap (3M Metallic Red for those interested) looks fantastic and the black trim I used on the side doors really achieved the effect that I was looking for. One of the questionable design effects on the i3 is the drastic drop in the window line in the transition from the front to the rear window. BMW said they did this to allow a better outward view from inside the vehicle, particularly for the rear passengers. Since the rear windows are fixed and cannot be opened, by making them as large as possible the rear passengers hopefully won't feel "trapped" inside. By using a black wrap overlay that extends from the corner of the front door to the bottom of the drop at the leading edge of the rear dip, I was hoping to give the appearance that the entire opening was one smooth stream-flow. It looked good on paper, but would it achieve the effect in person? Take a look and tell me what you think. I'm pleased and believe it gives the car the design effect I was hoping for.
The black line hides the dip and smooths out the flow of the window opening.

One of the good things about vehicle wraps is that the wrap protects the paint underneath very well. It resists scratches and chips from small rocks and when you do take it off, the car is pretty much perfectly preserved. I'll probably leave the wrap on for about a year and when I take it off it will feel like a got another new i3. As I mentioned above I was really pleased with my Laurel Grey i3 once I finally saw it so I won't mind removing the red wrap once I tire of it. Here in the US, all of the test drive cars were either Solar Orange or Andesite Silver, so if we wanted a different color we had to order it without actually seeing the color in person. I was probably one of the very few people in the US who did see most of the other colors because I go to many of the various industry automotive shows. I saw a Laurel Grey i3 for a short time at the Geneva Motor Show a few months ago so I was able to get a quick glimpse of it in the flesh for the first time. At that point I had already ordered my Laurel Grey i3 months earlier sight unseen.  

The red grills gotta go!
While I really like the overall look, there is one thing I don't like and I am going to correct. I had the center of the BMW double kidney grills wrapped red like the rest of the car. It just didn't translate from paper to reality as well as I had expected. There's too much red in the front of the car now and I'm going to remove the red wrap inside the grills and return it to the gloss black of the stock i3.

I wrapped the lower rear bumper black
Stock i3s have a color coded rear bumper insert

Another reason I decided to get the wrap is because I write for a few online car sites, like BMWBLOG, InsideEVs, GreenCarReports and PlugInCars and I thought it would be cool to have the distinct color so the readers would immediately know that's my car when they see a picture of it, and that might inspire them to read the article (or perhaps make them quickly leave the page!). I'm sure others will get wraps and customize their i3s also, but for now if you see a custom red i3 with the black out trim on the side doors in a news story, I think it's safe to say, "That's Tom's i3." : ) Please let me know what you think of it in the comments section below.

Some pictures we took during the wrap process:

I had a leftover ///M badge from my April Fools post so I stuck it on for kicks
UPDATE: I removed the red wrap from the BMW kidney grill. It definitely looks better all black.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

8 BMW i3 Questions with Brad Berman of Plug In Cars

I was recently interviewed by Brad Berman of about my initial thoughts on my i3. The interview just went live on the site so I've bought it over here for my followers to read. Please leave your thoughts on my answers in the comments section.

Tom Moloughney, long-time EV driver and first owner of a BMW i3 with the range-extender option, answers fundamental questions about the car.

1) How is the BMW i3’s range-extending system different from the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid?

The range extender on the BMW i3 works differently than systems on plug-in hybrids (that to varying degrees sometimes power the wheels from the engine). The rear-wheel-drive i3 is the only pure series plug-in hybrid currently available. The i3’s two-cylinder range-extender engine never mechanically drives its wheels. The Fisker Karma worked this way, but that vehicle is no longer in production.

2) Under what conditions does the gas engine come on?

In the United States, the range-extender turns on when the state of charge drops below 6 percent. Unlike the European version, the operator cannot manually turn on the engine to maintain a higher level of charge. In Europe, once the state of charge drops below 75 percent, the range extender can be turned on manually.
BMW eliminated this feature on U.S. models, so the i3 would qualify for the California Air Resources Board’s BEVx designation. While BMW never announced why they chose to eliminate the hold feature in favor of getting the BEVx designation, observers believe BMW took the step in order to get more ZEV credits per REx vehicle sold.

3) How does the driving experience change after the gas engine comes on?

So far, I’ve had the opportunity to drive my i3 for about 100 miles in charge sustaining mode. I intentionally didn’t charge it for a couple days so I could fully test the functionality with the range-extender operating. The power is slightly muted. I’d say maybe 85 percent of how it feels with a full charge.
When the range-extender turns on, you cannot hear it at all from inside the car because it initially runs in the lowest of the three power levels. If you continue to drive at speeds higher than 40 miles per hour, it will kick up to the next power level and you can then hear a low hum from inside the car. If you are driving at highway speeds, it will jump up to its highest (28kW) power output, and then you can definitely hear it. It’s nothing that you can’t overcome with the radio.

The REx turns off when you slow down to less than 15 mph, unless your state-of-charge is lower than 3 percent. I’m impressed by how well the little motor can sustain the charge. I’m convinced it can do whatever I need to do, and I will have no problem driving long distances with it running.

On level ground, the car can continuously sustain speeds up to 75 mph for as long as you need to drive. You have plenty of power to pass cars at that speed, and to climb hills that are a few miles long. There really aren’t any mountains in New Jersey where I live, so I haven’t tested driving up long steep inclines, but there is definitely a point where the range extender will not be able to maintain highway speeds.
If you exceed the range extender’s capability, it will slow down to 40 mph. At that speed, it can maintain just about any climb. I will be taking my i3 on a 230-mile trip to Vermont soon. Hopefully I can do some mountain testing there when I do. I haven’t noticed any difference in the handling when the REx running.

4) What's the top speed for the i3 before, and after use of gas engine?

The i3’s top speed in electronically governed at 93 mph. It pulls strongly all the way up there, with or without the range extender running. As noted above, it’s just slightly less powerful in charge sustaining mode.

5) How did BMW make its decisions about the of the i3’s engine and gas tank?

The i3 was not initially designed to have a range-extender. BMW added the feature after the car was more than a year into development. Perhaps that had something to do with what size motor they could fit, but that is just an educated guess.

The size of the gas tank is another thing entirely. In the United States, the i3 REx has a 1.9-gallon tank, and the European version uses a 2.4-gallon tank. The 1.9-gallon tank for the US was announced only weeks before the i3 launch. The reason for the reduced size is probably tied to the BEVx designation that BMW clearly wanted the car to attain. BMW has not confirmed the reason for the reduced tank size.

One of the qualifications of the BEVx certification is the vehicle’s all-electric range must be greater than its gasoline range. Again, this is speculation, but if the i3’s electric range was certified by CARB at lower than BMW expected, that would explain the need to reduce the range when running on gasoline.
Personally, this isn’t an issue for me. I’ll be using the range-extender only on those rare days when my electric range is just slightly insufficient. It’s a good backup strategy, and allows me to not even think about those times when I’m pushing the limit of the car’s range.

6) Should drivers think of the gas engine as a way to extend range to 160 miles—or only as a backup to an 80-mile EV?

I’m not going to tell anyone how to use his or her car. I don’t think there is one simple answer. I believe there will be people that routinely drive their i3 REx 130 to 160 miles and more, and don’t mind filling up frequently when they need to. I can say this about filling up: with such a small tank, you pull in, fill up and pull out of a gas station in about two minutes.

There will be others that see filling up every 50 or 60 miles as too cumbersome. Perhaps the car isn’t the right choice for them. A Volt may be a better PHEV for some people that frequently need to cover hundreds of miles in a day, or live in a mostly mountainous region. For daily driving of less than 150 miles or so, it works great.

7) Given the unique i3 system, how does it affect incentives and perks like carpool access?

The i3 REx, like the Volt, Plug-in Prius and other PHEVs qualifies for California’s Green HOV access sticker, which is currently not available. The 40,000 allocated green stickers PHEVs have been exhausted. However, AB 2013 proposes to make 45,000 more stickers available, and is currently headed to the California Senate for vote.

Washington State recently announced the i3 REx would qualify as a zero emission vehicle and therefore gets exempt from sales tax there. BMW i3 sales in New Jersey were also scheduled to be tax-exempt. But just after BMW began selling the i3 in New Jersey, it was announced that the i3 with range-extender would indeed have to pay sales tax. The BEV i3 doesn’t. That essentially doubles the price of the $3,850 REx option, making it nearly an $8,000 option in New Jersey. That is likely to hurt i3 REx sales in the Garden State.

8) Is the i3 REx approach a stopgap measure, or should it be considered a long-term strategy across the EV market?

I believe other manufacturers will adopt the range-extender approach. However I believe it is a short-term measure. (Maybe 10 years?) As battery chemistry advances and energy density improves, electric vehicles will have continually better electric range.

That, combined with increased DC quick charge stations, will make the range-extender unnecessary. Tesla and Nissan are doing the lion’s share of the work getting these fast charge stations installed. It’s about time some of the other carmakers join in.

The i3 is only the first electric vehicle to emerge from the new BMW i brand. More vehicles are already far along in development. It’s my hope that BMW recognizes the need for DCQC infrastructure, and follows Tesla and Nissan. If the combo-cord fast charge standard has any chance of gaining traction in the US, it will be up to BMW to take the lead. It is the only manufacturer currently selling a serious (not a low-volume compliance-only) electric vehicle that uses the combo cord. In my opinion, the proliferation of DC quick charge is absolutely necessary if we are going to get off petroleum, and make a transition to electrified transportation. A small, efficient range-extender like the i3 will work for many people today. It's a great step until battery range grows and more quick charging is installed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Electric Vehicle Sales In The US Hit All-Time High In May!

The Introduction Of The BMW i3 Helped May Set A New Plug-In  Selling Standard (Above: First i3 REx Delivered To US shown)
The Introduction Of The BMW i3 Helped May Set A New Plug-In Selling Standard (Above: First i3 REx Delivered To US -mine!- shown)

Note: This post was written by Jay Cole and first appeared on The news was just too good not to share here! The times, they are a-changin!

Since the start of the ‘current generation’ of plug-in vehicles in the United States, no one month has ever failed to delivered an improved result over the year prior.  Ever. Including this month, that number is at 42 and counting.
More Than 3,100 Americans Hopped In The Front Seats Of A New Nissan LEAF
More Than 3,100 Americans Hopped In The Front Seats Of A New Nissan LEAF
However May still caught anyone who follows the EV selling trends off guard, as what had been expected to be a solid month turned out to be the best selling month of all-time.  Any month.  Any country.
In total just over 12,000 plug-ins where sold, compared to the previous all-time high set in August of 2013 when and estimated 11,273 moved onto American’s driveways.  Compared to May of 2013, sales improved by a massive 62% when 7,454 plug-ins were sold.

Unlike August of 2013 when the Chevrolet Volt single-handed propelled the number higher (3,351), May’s record month was a combined effort from 3 automakers – Nissan, Toyota and Ford.
All three OEMs saw new record highs for their best selling plug-ins.
  • Nissan LEAF – 3,117 (previous best – 2,529 – Dec 2013)
  • Toyota PHV – 2,692 (previous best – 2,095 – Oct 2013)
  • Ford Fusion Energi – 1,342 (previous best – 1,087 – Oct 2013)
Also adding to the totals was the BMW i3, which sold 336 copies during the month (story on that here) – the best debut month for any plug-in to date in the US.  In total 11 of the 17 mass produced plug-ins sold in America set a new yearly high.

The top five selling plug-in  manufacturers for May were:
  1. Nissan – 3,117
  2. Toyota – 2,841
  3. Ford – 2,301
  4. General Motors – 1,918
  5. Tesla – 1,000*
Other plug-ins that set new all-time highs in May:
  • smart ED – 206 (previous – 203, Apr 2014)
  • Chevrolet Spark EV – 182 (108 – Mar 2014)
  • BMW i3 – 335 (1st month)
2014 YTD Sales Chart
2014 Monthly Sales Chart For The Major Plug-In Automakers *Estimated Tesla NA Sales Numbers (Q1 Sales reported @ 6,457-3,000 Intl Delivers) *Fiat 500e data estimated for Jan/Feb
2014 Monthly Sales Chart For The Major Plug-In Automakers *Estimated Tesla NA Sales Numbers (Q1 Sales reported @ 6,457-3,000 Intl Delivers) *Fiat 500e data estimated for Jan/Feb