Monday, July 28, 2014

This City Car is at Home in the Country

If you listen to BMW marketing, they'll have you convinced that the only place to really experience the full benefits of the i3 is to drive it in a city environment. Pretty much every description they offer for the i3 includes how it's a car made for the Megacities of the world. Take this from the BMW i website for instance: "Electric and electrifying – the BMW i3 redefines mobililty(sic): with its visionary design and innovative BMW eDrive transmission it’s the sustainably designed vehicle for everyday urban use."

I'm definitely not saying the i3 isn't perfectly capable of negotiating the urban jungle on a daily basis. In fact, city driving is where the i3 is most efficient. Driving streetlight to streetlight, using the regenerative braking to recapture much of the energy used, since you rarely drive for long without needing to slow down, is the type of driving that will allow for better overall range.  Aside from this efficiency advantage and the fact that you usually don't need drive so far (making the limited range less of a concern) and perhaps the ease of parking the i3's tiny frame on city streets, there isn't any other advantage to driving it in the city. I've now been driving electric for over five years and have piled up about 150,000 electric miles on my MINI-E, ActiveE and i3. The crazy thing is, I live in a very rural part of New Jersey where cows and horses are part of everyday life and the bright lights of New York City are over 50 miles away. Like my previous EVs, my i3 has adjusted well to life in the country, even if this isn't the life BMW had envisioned for its carbon fiber halo car.
My MINI-E was a city country car too!

However I'm not satisfied just saying it can do fine in the country and suburbs. I believe it is indeed better suited for a life outside the city limits, so please allow me to defend that statement.

For starters, the vast majority of people who live in the suburbs and in rural areas live in private residences and the exact opposite is true for those who live in cities. Living in a private residence gives you control over your electrical supply and parking arrangements, which as you know is pretty important if you drive an electric car. You simply hang a 240v EVSE in your garage or carport and your refueling issues are mostly solved. The vast majority of electric vehicle charging occurs at home, and having the ability to install a home based EVSE where you live really simplifies things. Conversely if you live in an apartment or condo in the city, establishing a location to park and charge your car can be an enormous challenge. I have had dozens of people who live in New York City reach out to me through this blog asking for help in securing a charging location because they wanted to buy an EV. It's not impossible, but it requires a lot of work and in many cases a lot of money and persistence. Some parking garages have allowed customers to install a private EVSE and separate meter so they can pay for the electric it uses. This usually costs a couple thousand dollars and requires a lot of legwork. Other garages have allowed the person to plug into an existing 120v outlet and pay a small monthly fee for the energy which is the best solution if 120v charging will offer enough energy for the persons driving needs. In any case, it's a lot harder to recharge your car if you live in the city.

Then there is the driving experience. Of course the car drives the same in any environment, however I contend you simply cannot possibly enjoy the full benefits of an electric car while driving it in the city. I can still remember a few years ago when I was driving my MINI-E home from work one night. I own a restaurant so some nights I drive home late at night after closing and the roads by my house are desolate. This particular summer night I had the windows open and the radio was not turned up too loud. I remember hearing a squeaking sound and thinking there was a problem with the radio so I lowered it a bit but when I did the noise got louder. It was then that I realized the noise was crickets. The car was so quiet, I could hear crickets as I drove along at night as clearly as if they were sitting inside the car with me. I promptly turned the radio completely off and finished my drive home to the chorus of crickets. Five years later I still roll down the windows and turn off the radio on some summer nights, and allow the crickets to serenade me on my way home. It's about as peaceful and relaxing as anything I can imagine, and I arrive home calm, relaxed and ready for bed. Open the windows of your car in New York City at any time, day or night and you'll hear horns beeping, people yelling, sirens blaring and car engines racing. You simply cannot appreciate the quietness of an electric car in the city as much as you can in the country because there are so many other loud noises occurring constantly around you that are overwhelming your peaceful retreat to silence. In the country, crickets are about as loud as it gets.

Finally there's the energy savings. City dwellers don't drive much because everything is close so they won't realize the fuel savings as much as those who need to drive farther. I said above that I have driven 150,000 miles in the past five years with my EVs. If I had done that with a car that averaged 30 miles per gallon (which is much more efficient than the average car), I would have spent around $18,500 for gasoline. Instead my electric cars used only about $8,000 in electricity so I've pocketed about $10,500 in fuel savings. A typical person who lives in the city would have driven much less than I have and their energy savings would also be much less accordingly. In fact, most people I know who live in the city don't even own a car, as it is too expensive and just not necessary because of the extensive public transportation system.

So all that's left to discuss is the range. I suppose the main reason BMW and other manufacturers have pointed to EVs as being better suited for urban environments is because they have limited range and require longer refueling time than their internal combustion counterparts. This is a valid point and one that will prevent many people who live in rural areas where destinations tend to be farther apart from considering an EV. I'm certainly not saying that everybody today is ready to go electric or that the current electric offerings would suit the needs of everybody, but I do believe the vast majority of people could definitely integrate one into their life if they want to. The "if they wanted to" is the operative term here because going electric does require some degree of planning and range awareness. You can't just hop in the car and drive without knowing roughly how far you'll be going and the location of possible charge points just in case you need them. That is, unless you have an EV with an extraordinary range (ala Model S) or one with a range extender like my i3 REx has. By setting up charging stations in various locations along the routes that I frequently drive, I've effectively built out my own private network, but I understand the average person will not be willing or able to do that. Having the range extender there "just in case" has completely removed any concern about whether or not I can make any destination and offers that secondary level of support that many considering an electric vehicle are seeking. My previous electric cars were definitely fine for me and my life in the country. The range extender on the i3 only makes it that much better and will allow others in rural areas who may not have been as "adventurous" as I was to go electric. With long range pure EVs like the Tesla Model S and smaller battery, range-extended options like the i3 REx, the electric "Country Car" has definitely arrived.


  1. Agree totally. I live in a single family home in the suburbs. My work commute is 30 miles each way on highway. I will save a ton of gas because of how much I drive each year, and I have the 240V 30A charger already installed in the carport (i3 is on order). Have am getting the REX for backup btw.

  2. We aren't quite country, more like Vermont's "Ruralburbia" - where suburbia meets rural. My wife has had a Volt for 2 years and that works great for the back and forth of errands and kid chauffeuring. I was initially worried about the city car positioning but think realized the car should work for me 99% of the time and we have a SUV for the other 1%.

    The electrician is at the house right now installing a 7kw EVSE for the REx that should arrive this week!

  3. Nice writeup, fully agree the car is not just for the city, it is best in the suburbs. About those tire punctures, the car may be fine on those roads but narrow high pressure tires on gravel might not... You mentioned a blog on tires coming, that would also interest a lot of people...

  4. Excellent point Tom. As usual you come up with an interesting angle to discuss. How about the fact that you have a solar array? Did you factor that in with your electricity expense calculations? If so I would have expected you to have come out even more ahead in savings.

    Walt in Aberdeen

  5. WOW!
    Way to go Tom, Julie and I feel the same way.

    1. Tom, you hit the nail on the head. BMW markets the i3 as if it is speaking to a European audience. In the 1960s, urban planners and President Johnson spoke of "megalopolis", a single large city of urban dwellers stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C. Americans, happily, have a way of defying the brightest urban planners. They vote in many ways including with their pockets books and their wheels. By the 1970s America was becoming a nation of suburbs, not a nation of cities. Most Americans today live in the suburbs or exurbs and use when ever they use the "central city" or the "big city" (megacity is a foreign term to most Americans) for commerce and/or entertainment and then escape to the burbs. BMW would sell a lot more i3s in my view if they marketed them in the U.S. as a suburban car that joins the city with the suburbs with even the exurbs--a strong demographic trend. Of course we have a few big cities, but on the whole life in the big city is not the American life style or statistically how American's choose to live. I live in Southern California where we have suburban sprawl and no real sense of a central city. Tom, you made a really good case. I hope BMW North America is listening.

  6. My guess: most Dutch i3 owners in are, au contraire BMW marketing, burbdwellers or (like us) rural residents as well...

    For the exact reasons you mention. For example: there are cities in NL that don't allow applying for a public charging point near your home unless you have an EV, but to be able to use your EV you have to have a charging point... Catch 22. And then you have to wait, sometimes 3-12 months without guarantee that the point will be realised. And in the end, it will be a public point, so no guarantee you are able to charge every night.

    Regards, Steven

  7. Valid points.
    However, one big problem is that the REx is not really suitable for highway driving. Having driven a REx for 2 days now, it can struggle to maintain a speed over 60 mph. In and around NYC, that's not enough to keep up with traffic, nor is it in most cities. At some point it couldn't exceed 50 mph…

    So yes, the i3 does work in the suburbs, but you cannot rely on the REx for highway driving.

    1. If your REx cannot maintain a speed over 60 mph then bring it in for service, it's not functioning properly. I've done extensive testing on the car in range extender mode and as long as I keep it under 75mph I can pretty much do anything I want to. I even drove it 60 miles continuously at 65- 70 mph and it didn't flinch.

      I will say that I was only driving up an down minor hills, not steep continuous mountain climbs which will challenge the REx. However if you are saying your car cannot maintain 60mph and you aren't driving up long (many miles) steep inclines than it isn't working as it is supposed to so have it fixed.

      I absolutely rely on it for long, highway driving at 65-75mph and it's perfectly suited for it.

    2. (my previous reply didn't get published).
      Yes, it did maintain a 65-70 mph range, but not always. On a VERY slight incline it dropped to 53 mph, which is downright dangerous on most freeways (when semi trucks are flying by you at 70+ mph).
      That was with just one person in the car, and no luggage.

      As it built more charge in the battery, it then let me accelerate back to 65-70 mph. Yes, I drove most of about 60 miles at that speed range, but not always, and that's dangerous and a big fault in an otherwise amazing car.

  8. Now, I was trying to drive it at an (actual, not indicated) 76.9 mph. Perhaps I should have set the cruise to something <75 mph, to maintain enough charge in the batt?
    It did cruise at 76.9 mph for a while, then slowed to 53 mph on that slight grade, then would fluctuate at ~60-70mph.

    Comfort vs. Eco Pro didn't seem to matter (which makes sense, since the batt is basically empty anyway)

    1. No the driving mode really won't matter much with this. Speed is everything. BMW did a poor job of communicating how to properly use the REx and there a re a LOT of people out there like you that are either a little confused over how to really use it, or unsure over just what it can do and what it can't. I have been doing my best to get this across to them and they are listening now. I am hopeful that soon, BMW will release some instructional videos about how the REx works, how to use it properly and of course it's limitations. I do believe that once people fully understand how it works, they will be able to use it to its full potential without worrying about it letting them down as it seems has happened to you.

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