Friday, December 26, 2014

157,000 Electric Miles Later: We Are Indeed Getting There

Me & my MINI-E in 2009, my ActiveE in 2012 and my i3 in 2014. Five and a half years and over 157,000 electric miles (252,000 km), mostly powered by solar-generated electricity.

It's been a little over five years since my electric journey began. I couldn't have possibly imagined where this was going back in 2009 when I was accepted in to the MINI-E trial lease program. I knew I was interested in alternative fuel vehicles, and I knew I wanted to reduce my personal consumption of oil, but I really had no idea if I'd like driving electric or if the industry would actually be making and selling electric cars anytime soon.

Sure there were rumors that GM was going to make a plug in car that they were calling the Volt, there was a small start-up car company in California called Tesla selling an electric Lotus conversion for $105,000 and there were also a few new companies like Aptera and Phoenix Motorcars trying to bring electric cars to market, but nothing really seemed certain, and everything seemed many years away. So when I came across the online application to drive an electric MINI Cooper for a year in a small test program for BMW, I jumped at the opportunity and applied. It's now about 66 months since I took delivery of my MINI-E and between that car (73,000 mi) my ActiveE (70,000 mi) and now my i3 (14,000 mi). I've driven over 157,000 electric miles.

I admit I'm impatient and frequently wonder why it's taking "so long" for mass electric vehicle adoption. I wonder why there aren't more EVs from more manufacturers with a wider array of range options and utility. The driving experience of electric cars is simply so much better than that of an internal combustion engine car. In fact, most everybody who buys an electric car seems to agree that they want to continue driving electric from then on, and they don't ever want to go back to the ICE. However, every now and then I'll reflect on the past five years that I've been driving electric and I realize just how far we have come in that time. As I mentioned, back in 2009 the electric options were a $105,000 sports car from an unknown start-up electric car company (Tesla), apply for the MINI-E test program or build your own electric conversion. Today there are about 20 plug in cars available! Granted not all are available in every market in the US, but every couple of months or so a new plug in is introduced. So in reality plug in cars are indeed advancing pretty quickly, even if EV supporters like myself want more plug in options now.

We have indeed come a long way in a relatively short period of time. The automobile industry historically moves slowly and this shift to electrics is happening at a pretty fast pace as far as the OEMs are concerned. The typical gestation period for a totally new car is typically about five to six years, so by industry standards the plug-in revolution is indeed happening rather quickly. In 2009 and 2010 less than 2,000 plug in electric vehicles were sold in the US each year, respectively. In 2011 that number jumped up to about 17,000. In 2012 it more than doubled to over 52,000 and in 2013 there were over 97,000 US plug in sales. This year we are on a pace to sell about 120,000 plug in electric cars. That's nearly 300,000 cars with plugs sold in the US since I first started driving electric back in 2009. I know 300,000 is a very small number compared to the overall amount of vehicles sold in the US during that time, but the number keeps growing every year and with new models being introduced all of the time that trend will likely continue.

I'm more convinced than ever that plug in electric vehicles are here to stay, and that mass adoption is only a few short years away. Battery electric vehicles offer a better driving experience. They are quieter, they drive smoother, they have much less maintenance and the fuel costs much less. They are cleaner and when powered by renewable energy are completely emission free. The electricity supply is getting cleaner every year as more and more renewables are introduced and the old, outdated and worst polluting powerplants are decommissioned. The supply chain of gasoline is going in the opposite direction as it takes more and more energy to find and extract oil so gas is actually getting dirtier and more polluting all the time, even as gas cars become more energy efficient. There are so many reasons why battery electric vehicles are the future it's easy to realize that we'll get passed the challenges faced today as this disruptive technology is being impeded and questioned by the entrenched industry.

The one thing I keep circling back to when people ask whether or not electric vehicles will have staying power or if they are only passing fad is the owner loyalty. The vast majority of electric vehicle owners love their cars and vow to never go back to gas. People love driving electric because it's better. That's the real reason EVs are here to stay. It isn't the governmental incentives, the fact that they are cleaner, or are cheaper to operate. The real reason EVs will win in the long run is that they offer a better driving experience. People love driving them, it's really that simple. The high cost of batteries, the need for a robust fast charge infrastructure and the inertia of the status quo are all just temporary obstacles that will be solved in the coming years.

When I first got my MINI-E, my daily driver was a Toyota Tacoma pick up which I still own. I now only use it to plow my driveway and the parking lot of my restaurant and whenever I need to haul something large. I  only drive it about 1,000 miles a year. The Tacoma averages about 18 miles per gallon so let's say I never went down the electric path and simply kept driving my Tacoma this whole time. Here's a little taste of what I would have had to do:

* I would have needed to buy about 8,600 gallons of gasoline, which would have cost approximately $30,000. The electricity to power my EVs during that period cost about $8,000 if I were paying market rate. However since I mostly charge from my home solar array and have a surplus many months I figure the real out of pocket cost for me was somewhere around $2,000.

* I would have had to have done about 30 oil changes that would have cost about $1,500 and 165 quarts of oil would have needed to be recycled. There would have also been plenty of belts, filters, plugs and other normal wear items on the internal combustion engine that would have needed to be replaced.

* I would have had to stop for gas about 500 times and wasted 60 hours of my life just waiting at a gas station for my tank to fill - and they say plugging in is inconvenient!   

*I would have released at least 100,000 lbs of CO2 into our atmosphere. According to the EPA burning one gallon of gasoline releases 19.64 lbs of CO2. If all of the electricity I used to charge my car came from my solar array then I would have save over 160,000 lbs of CO2, but since I do charge at my restaurant and at some public charging stations I realize it's not possible to offer a perfectly accurate estimate. However I'm certain more than 66% of my energy comes from my solar array. 
The future looks bright indeed. I'm ready for the next 157,000 electric miles!
I'd like to thank the followers of this blog and my previous EV blogs. It's been such a great ride so far, and the support I've gotten from the people here has definitely enriched the experience. Together we really are making a difference!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

462 Mile REx Road Trip: New Jersey to Vermont

We stopped at the Big Moose Deli in New York for some coffee. It's about ten miles from the Vermont border. 
Perhaps the most discussed topic of the BMW i3 is the implementation of the range extender for the North American market. In an effort to have the vehicle qualify for the California Air Resource Board BMW set restrictions on how and when the range extender can turn on, effectively reducing the utility of the REx. These restrictions are most apparent when attempting to use the car for long journeys which include drastic increases in elevation.

This topic has been covered here and on every other EV site extensively, and recently it was announced that BMW is working on a software update that will allow, under certain conditions,  the range extender to come on much earlier than the 6.5% threshold it currently uses. I am actually beta testing that software for BMW now, having had it installed on my i3 just last week. The new software also includes some other updates that will be standard on 2015 i3s and will be uploaded to current i3 owners sometime early next year.

However this post will detail a New Jersey to Vermont road trip that I took a few weeks ago, just before I had the new software update. My in-laws live in Vermont, and I had been wanting to take this trip with the i3 ever since I got it, but I just haven't had the time. Once I knew I would be getting the new i3 software which would be adjusting how the range extender would work, I knew I needed to make the journey before I had it done, so I could perhaps compare the difference in performance the next time I go.
The Active Cruise Control is awesome. I don't think I'll buy another car that doesn't have it. 
I have taken the car on a few 200+ mile round trips, having the ability to charge up before heading home, but this would be much further, about 250 miles there and about 210 miles back home. The trip there would be longer because we were meeting at a restaurant farther into Vermont before heading back to the house. A couple of years ago I installed a Clipper Creek CS-40 at my in-laws' house, knowing that the day would eventually come when I drove an EV there, but I had never used it until now. My previous EVs (MINI-E and ActiveE) would have just been too much of a hassle to try to make this long of a trip, but the range extender is perfect for an occasional trip like this - or at least I hoped it would be.
Most of the roads in Vermont were covered in ice and snow. My new Blizzak snow tires performed very well and I definitely recommend them for i3 owners who need to drive in the snow.
The truth is, I really didn't know if such a long trip at highway speeds, which would include an overall elevation gain of nearly 1,000 feet would be doable without the car going into the dreaded reduced-power mode, where the vehicle slows down for a while so the REx can replenish the battery a bit. Also, in the final 50 miles of the journey I needed to climb 500 feet before descending 500 feet and then climb about 700 feet to our destination.

My wife and I set out early on a brisk morning with the temperature being only 15 degrees when we left. I didn't precondition the battery or cabin, and the total weight we were carrying was about 450 lbs between me, my wife and the items we were bringing up to her parents'. I topped off the gas tank the night before and left fully charged. The trip is nearly all highway and my plan was to set the cruise control for varying speeds between 70 mph and 75 mph to see how fast we could go with the REx maintaining the state of charge. I would drive the whole way there in Comfort mode and possibly use Eco Pro for the return trip.
A few blocks from our destination we came across some cows.
The combination of the very low temperatures, using the heated seats, cabin heat and  driving 75 mph meant the range extender turned on after only 48 miles. That's the earliest I had ever seen it turn on before. I had barely made it to the New York State border and I was already running on gas. So now I had a little over 200 miles to go and it would be all done on the range extender. I figured I'd need to stop three times so we searched the GPS for gas stations that were directly along the route and at the intervals we needed. I wanted to stop when we had about 10 miles of range left and we were able to pretty much get close to that on all three stops.

I needed to stop three times to fill up on the way there.
We made the first stop right about at the 100 mile mark which was about two hours into the journey. My wife laughed at how quickly the tiny gas tank filled up and we came up with the idea that she would time me on future stops to see how long it took to fill up. She would use the stopwatch app on her phone and we would start it when we exited the highway and stop it when we were back on the highway to see just how long the diversion was. We averaged a little over 2 minutes per stop and the best time was one minute, forty eight seconds. All three stops added a total of about seven minutes to the trip - not exactly much of an inconvenience.
The car looked like I was off-roading all day when we arrived. I finally got to test out the EVSE I installed at my in-laws' house over two years ago. Thankfully it worked.
For most of the trip I had the Active Cruise Control set to 70 mph, but I also spent some time with it set to 73 mph and 75 mph. As I expected, 70 mph seemed to be the sweet spot for holding the SOC. Even with inclines that lasted for a mile or two the car never went into reduced power mode. When I set it to the higher speeds it could maintain the SOC on flat ground, but the inclines had the SOC bar graph getting dangerously close to completely evaporating so I kept it at 70 whenever I was going up any kind of hill. One thing I can say, the Active Cruise Control really rocks for long drives like this. It holds the speed, slows down when the vehicle ahead reduces its speed and maintains a nice safe distance. I used it for virtually the entire trip and it is definitely worth the cost if you do a lot of highway driving.
We arrived after nearly 255 miles. About 207 of those miles was done using the range extender.
So, we made it without ever going into reduced power mode. I guess there is no need to do a comparison trip with the new software since this trip went flawlessly. The only thing I can think of doing is possibly trying the same trip with the ACC set to 75 mph the whole way to see if the new higher REx buffer allows me to maintain the faster speed. As it is now though, 70 mph is definitely the magic number for long distance REx driving. If most of the trip is on relatively flat terrain, the SOC buffer is big enough for sudden bursts of speed for passing and to sustain climbs for a few minutes and a couple of miles. Even though it worked out fine for me, I'm happy that BMW is increasing the battery buffer so longer, sustained mountain climbing will be possible without going into reduced power. I haven't had enough time with the new software to really comment on how well it works yet but I'll do that soon.
The final stats for the trip
The trip home the next day was pretty uneventful. I did precondition this time and drove the first half of the way in Eco Pro mode. It was also about ten degrees warmer. All that combined to allow us to go 15 more miles on battery than we had the day before, giving us a total of 63 miles before the range extender turned on. We arrived home with 462 miles on the trip odometer and an average consumption of 3.4 miles per kWh. I filled up with gas about 1.5 miles from my house so we left and arrived with a full tank. Including the final stop to top off we made seven stops for gas (3 going and 4 returning) and bought a total of 9.87 gallons of gas. We drove 111 miles on battery and 351 miles with the range extender running and averaged 35.5 miles per gallon. That's a little less than what I usually average for the REx, but this was a continuous 70 mph for the vast majority of both legs of the trip so I expected it to be lower than usual. If we had taken our other family car like we usually do for our Vermont trips, we would have needed 19 or 20 gallons of gas or about double what the i3 needed.
Getting ready to leave for the return trip back to NJ
In conclusion, these kinds of journeys are definitely not what the i3 REx was really developed for. The tiny 650cc motorcycle engine isn't really engineered to operate for hundreds of miles at a time and I'm sure if it was subjected to this kind of use every week it would certainly have premature mechanical issues. However using it as I do, for the occasional 10 or 20 miles here and there, or the final 3 miles on some days just to make it home plus a road trip every month or two, it's really a great alternative to spending an additional $20,000 for a battery that's triple the size of the i3's. The range extender model is a good stop-gap measure until there is a decent DC fast charge infrastructure in place, which is really the ultimate goal. BMW has some very good news with regards to DC fast charge infrastructure that they will be announcing very soon, perhaps even at NAIAS in January. They are making a significant investment in this area and I believe the EV faithful will be very happy when the news is announced.
Of course we had to return with some genuine Vermont Maple Syrup. The Maple-Walnut PB was a bonus.

Monday, December 8, 2014

BMW i3 PSA: No, There is Nothing Wrong With Your Battery!

As the temperatures drop, so will your range. That's life with an electric car, but there are ways to minimize the effects of the cold.
I remember back to my first year in the MINI-E program. It was 2009 and there weren't many electric vehicles on the roads, especially outside of Southern California. About five months into the MINI-E Trial Lease program there was a rush of participants bringing their cars to their MINI dealer for service, telling them something was wrong with their cars. This occurred in late October...

Suddenly, the cars couldn't go as far as we were used to, and the range drop off seemed to happen very quickly, without notice and without reason, leaving many people to assume their car was malfunctioning, and perhaps had a bad battery. Some of the people even swore the range drop coincided with their last service visit, so there had to be something done at the dealership that caused the loss of range. I had read quite a bit about electric cars before getting mine, and knew there would be some range degradation in the cold winter months of Northern New Jersey, but I really didn't know how much the range would drop. Evidently many of the other participants were completely in the dark about what to expect once the winter months arrived. Some were so put off by the range degradation, they insisted that BMW take the car back and allow them to leave the program. I remember one particular person tell me that drop in range meant they could no longer make the round trip to work every day, so the car was of no use to him for three months of the year.
48 miles was all I could muster before my range extender turned on last week. My battery is fine, it's just cold!

When the MINI-E program ended in 2012 I joined the BMW ActiveE lease program. By then some of the participants were aware of the effects the cold weather has on EV batteries since mainstream EVs like the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt had both been available for over a year. However there were still quite a few ActiveE drivers who were caught off guard by the loss of range once winter rolled around, and this became a major topic of discussion among the ActiveE discussion forums. Just as with the MINI-E drivers, many believed their car was experiencing some kind of battery problem, and couldn't believe the range would be affected so much by the cold weather.

With temperatures in the low 20's, my predicted range is usually in the low 50's for a fully charged battery.
So here we are in 2014 and not much has changed. The i3 launched in May in the US, and the vast majority of owners have never owned an electric vehicle before. Many of those who live in cold weather regions are now finding out firsthand how much the range can be affected by cold weather. I am the admin in the i3 discussion forum over at and the reduction of range has been widely discussed of late. Just as with the MINI-E and ActiveE programs, there are people who are convinced that there is something wrong with their car. I suppose there could be an issue with someone's car, so I would recommend to anyone concerned to take their car in for service to have it checked out, but I'm sure most everybody is going to get a clean bill of health, and at that point they are going to have to come to grips that the reduced range is due to the temperature, and learn how to live with it.

With temperatures in the 40's, I was averaging 60 to 65 miles of range per charge.
I must say I am a little disappointed in BMW for not offering better educational information for new owners. It wouldn't have been too difficult or expensive to prepare an information card which helped new owners understand how temperatures can effect their range. I've had a couple dozen i3 owners reach out to me already for information about this, many concerned they have a problem with the car. I think BMW should make a "Battery 101" information card and hand it out to all new owners at the time of delivery with their other vehicle documents. This could cover temperature issues as well as tips to help extend the life of their battery, offer advice for long term vehicle storage and offer a brief explanation on how the battery system works. I believe owners would appreciate this kind of information. It feels a little like Groundhogs Day with the same questions about range coming up every winter. There has to be a better way to prepare the customers for this before it becomes a problem.

This range chart is used by BMW for dealer training. It should be incorporated into a retail version to hand out to the customers upon delivery. This kind of information would be very helpful to the end user and often doesn't get passed along from the client adviser. Hat tip to Eric Loveday for reminding me about this dealer document.

That said, there are techniques to help offset the effects the cold weather has on the battery. Here are some of my recommendations to help get you throughout he winter:

Precondition: Use the precondition function as much as possible. The i3 will preheat the battery and passenger cabin so you leave with a fully charged and heated battery, plus a warm cabin. By doing so, you will use less of the stored energy in the battery for these functions, which will allow that energy to be used for its main purpose, to propel the vehicle. You can set the preconditioning to begin every day at a set time so your car is ready for you. Make sure the car is plugged in while you precondition because you want to draw energy from the grid to do this, not drain down your battery.

Cabin heat: Limit the use of the cabin heater as much as possible. The BEV i3s are equipped with an advanced heat pump which is much more efficient than the resistance heater used for the REx i3s. However it still can use a fair amount of energy and will indeed cut into the range. If your i3 is equipped with heated seats I highly recommend using them as much as possible. By doing so you can use the cabin heater less which saves energy since the heated seats use less energy than cabin heater; heat pump or not. If you simply dress a little warmer and use the heated seats you can really cut down on the use of the cabin heat, and this will definitely have a positive effect on your range. If you are wondering why i3s with the range extender do not have a heat pump, there are two main reasons. First and most importantly, the actual heat pump on the BEV i3 is located where the gasoline tank is on the i3 REx, so there isn't room for it. Secondly, squeezing every mile possible out of the battery isn't quite as important with the REx i3, since you can still continue driving once you exhaust your battery. With the BEV i3, those extra 3 or 4 miles the heat pump may add might make the difference in you getting home or not on a cold night. 

Properly inflated tires: Tire pressure falls as weather turns colder. Some tire experts say that for every 10 degrees of temperature drop your tires can lose 1-2 lbs of pressure. Under-inflated tires create more road friction which will reduce efficiency. Some EV drivers I know actually add  four to five pounds of pressure to all of their tires before the winter months begin. Always make sure to check the recommended and maximum pressure for your tires, as that's different for every tire and car. 

Park inside: Whenever possible park the car in garages, especially if they are heated. If you park outside for an extended period like while you work, you should find a spot that will be in direct sunlight for as much as possible. By parking in direct sunlight you’ll have a warmer cabin and battery when you return to your car later.

Slow down: Besides preconditioning and conservative use of the cabin heater, driving a little slower is perhaps the best way to extend your range. This is true regardless of the ambient temperature, but during the winter months driving a little slower can help offset the range you lose to the cold. If you do knock off a few miles per hour on the highway, make sure to move over into the right lane so you don't hold up traffic. Also, try to accelerate slowly form a standstill. Jack-rabbit launches are definitely fun with the i3 but they do consume a lot of energy. 

Charging times increase: While you're charging, the thermal management system will also be working to warm the batteries. This takes some of the energy that would have gone directly into the battery and uses it for the TMS. On really cold days I've noticed it takes my car 30 to 45 minutes longer to fully charge. Knowing this you may have to adjust the delayed charging setting on the car and allow for more time before you can unplug.

Use Eco Pro Modes: The i3 has two Eco driving modes to complement the default "Comfort" driving mode; Eco Pro and Eco Pro+. Both modes reduce power supplied to the motor and energy consuming features like the cabin heater. Most features work fine in Eco Pro mode, but Eco Pro+ restricts the power so much to them that some no longer even function. Another benefit to using Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ in the winter is by reducing the power to the motor the car accelerates slower and helps to reduce the possibility of wheel spin. I definitely recommend using Eco Pro mode whenever driving on ice or snow covered roads.

99 miles of predicted range was the most I have ever seen on my i3. This of course was months ago when the temperatures were in the low 80's. I've never actually been able to drive 99 miles before my range extender turned on though. The most I've ever driven was 90 miles once. I've learned that the Guess-o-Meter can be overly optimistic at times!

Below is an interesting chart prepared by FleetCarma. It compares the effects of the cold on the fuel efficiency of an electric car and a gasoline car. It isn't exactly what I'm discussing here today, but it helps to see how both gas cars as well as electric vehicles are effected by the cold. It's interesting to see that the cold affects the EV more, but the actually energy cost of the reduced efficiency is less on the EV. So while it may be a greater inconvenience for the electric car driver, the cold weather inefficiencies actually costs the gasoline car driver more money.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Breaking: Jacob Harb No Longer Manager of Electric Vehicles at BMW NA

Jacob Harb (left) pictured with Oliver Walter of BMW at the LA Auto Show in 2012
I've just learned that Jacob Harb is no longer the Manager of Electric Vehicles for BMW of North America. Harb has held the position for a little over two years since the position was vacated by Richard Steinberg, who left the post in August of 2012 to assume the position of CEO of BMW's new car sharing program DriveNow.

This is a bit surprising since I just talked with Jacob at the LA Auto Show a couple weeks ago where we discussed upcoming plans for BMW i. BMW hasn't announced who Harb's successor will be yet, but being close to BMW's e-mobility program I'd like to throw a couple names out there that they'll likely consider:

1) Jose Guerrero. Jose is the i3 Product Manager for North America. He knows as much about the i3 & i8 and anybody at BMW and is good in front of a camera, which is important for department heads who need to be available for interviews. 

2) Joan Bowen. Joan is BMW's EV and i Brand Marketing Manager and has been in the BMW's EV program since 2011. She may be a long shot because her expertise is in marketing but I wouldn't rule her out.

3) Rob Healey. Rob is BMW's Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Manager and was previously the technical coordinator for the MINI-E and ActiveE. Rob has been involved in BMW's e-mobility program since 2008 and knows the technical side of the business as well as anybody working for any EV manufacturer. 

4) Don Smith. Don is the BMW i Electric Vehicle Operations and Strategy manager and has been working closely with Harb for a while now. Don may have the easiest transition into the position as anybody there because he has been working directly with Harb. 

Honestly, I'd feel OK with any of the above mentioned people. I've had the opportunity to meet them all on many occasions and I know they are all very capable executives. I just hope BMW selects someone with extensive electric vehicle program experience. These cars are different, they require different strategies for marketing, sales and aftersales. It's too late in the game to start over with another top manager who doesn't have experience specific to electric cars. BMW needs a strong leader for BMW i and I really hope they choose wisely.

Once I get confirmation on the new (or interim) department head, I'll report it here.