Friday, April 24, 2015

EV Charger Sharing Made Easy

EV Charging Hangers are a simple, low-cost solution to a nagging problem for some electric vehicle owners
As recent as six years ago, there were probably less than 3,000 highway-capable electric cars on public roads in the US. Since 2010, over 300,000 fully electric and plug in hybrid electric vehicles have been bought or leased in America.

During that time, the number of public charging stations has increased dramatically and we now have tens of thousands of public charging stations across the country. It's a good start, but there is a long way to go before there are enough charging locations to service the ever-growing electric vehicle market. On average, each month more than 10,000 plug in electric vehicles are sold, increasing the disparity between plug in vehicles, and public charging locations.

It's good news that the vast majority of EVs don't need to use public charging, at least regularly. However for those that do, finding an available and working public charging station can sometimes be a challenge. Then there are the times when you pull up to a charging station in desperate need of a charge, only to find that there is a car already plugged in. You immediately start wondering, "Does that car REALLY need to charge like I do, or are they just opportunity charging to top off the battery?" The urge is there to just unplug the other car and plug yours in, especially when that other car is a PHEV. If it's a PHEV, it really doesn't need to charge, since it can operate just fine on gas. But they were there first, and it's not right to unplug (or even touch) another vehicle without permission, even if they don't "need" the juice like you might.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and recognizing this to be an issue led some electric vehicle owners to begin employing "charger sharing" techniques. This actually dates back to the old GM EV-1 days in California. Owners would leave notes on their dashboard stating a time when it was OK to unplug their car. Others would simply write, "I'm opportunity charging; unplug me if you need to." For the most part this worked pretty well, but that was when there were a few hundred electric cars to service and it was easier to self-police with such a small number of cars on the road. Now, with hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles it's more complicated, and many EV owners haven't even thought of the concept of charger sharing.

One electric vehicle owner, Jack Brown, has indeed thought about this, quite a lot in fact. Jack came up with the idea of connector hangers which an EV owner could use to let others know whether or not they can unplug their vehicle and share the charger. After a few revisions, a two sided hanger was developed which the owner hangs on the J1772 connector and offers instructions on whether or not another EV owner can unplug their car if they need to. One side states "OK TO UNPLUG" with instructions on when it's OK, and the other side says "DO NOT UNPLUG." On the "OK TO UNPLUG" side, you can write the time when your car will be charged enough to allow someone else to use the EVSE, and even leave your phone number so the other person can text or call you if necessary. Jack sells them through his site You can buy them individually or in a ten pack. They are reusable with dry erase markers which just wipe off clean.

From Take Charge and Go Website:

Electric vehicles are becoming more popular and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find an available public EV charging space. Good etiquette by the user community is vital as the infrastructure catches up with demand.

Take Charge and Go EV Charging Hangers are an excellent way to indicate to other Electric Vehicle drivers know how long you will be charging and to share proper etiquette. Simply plug your car in with the hanger on the charging port or dashboard of your car and let others know when you can share the spot.

The charging hanger is made from durable 120# recycled Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified recycled paper card stock

  • The hangers are printed on both sides to indicate whether you are necessity charging (RED – DO NOT UNPLUG) or opportunity charging (GREEN – OK TO UNPLUG)
  • The color coding makes it easy for fellow EV drivers to tell if they can share the plug

  • A keyhole cutout provides a sufficient fit for most J-1772 charging handles. A slip-on cutline is provided for easier installation and removal while charging

  • The red DO NOT UNPLUG side has space to write what time you should be done charging with a dry erase marker or a post it note

  • Both sides have a space to leave contact information and provides tips for good etiquette
    • Never park in a charging space if you are not charging
    • When charging in public, limit your charge, don’t charge to your limit. Move on so others have the opportunity to to charge
    • Never unplug another car without permission

  • A QR code and website link are provided for additional information about public EV charging and different car brands charging indicators

  • Hangers are UV coated provide protection from the elements and work well with permanent and dry erase markers and post-it notes to leave information

  • Designed and Made in the U.S.A.
The hangers are currently available in a ten pack for $19.99
If purchased individually they currently cost $2.49, and a ten pack is $19.99. They seem to be made well with a durable coating. I believe they will last a long time even when used in the rain and snow. However there is still one issue with charger sharing. Some new electric cars have chargeports that lock the connector to the vehicle while charging, preventing charger sharing. I do understand the reasoning for this, but I believe it's a flawed feature if the owner cannot override it when they choose to. There should be a setting in the car that allows the owner to unlock the connector from the car while charging if they wish to. This is a perfect example of OEMs not listening to the customer. I totally understand why an engineering team would have never even thought of charger sharing, so it's easy to understand why some EVs don't allow connector unlock. However it's time the OEMs start listening to the EV community and employ the features unique to electric vehicles that improve the EV ownership experience.

My i3 is one of those cars that doesn't allow the connector to be removed unless the doors are unlocked. However BMW has listened to their customers, and will soon be rolling out an update that will unlock the connector once the charging session is complete. This is good, but it's really only halfway to the proper solution in my opinion. I want manual control of whether my connector is locked to the car. It should be a setting in iDrive with a box that I check or uncheck if I want the connector locked to the car or not. They can even make the default setting locked if they are concerned someone will forget they unlocked it one day and end up with an uncharged car because someone unplugged them without permission. Unlock after charging is complete is a step in the right direction, but I'll continue to lobby BMW to finish the job and offer owners full control over their chargeport.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Are Megacities Ready For The Megacity Car?

During the i3's development, BMW often used a large city as a backdrop for the concept i3 photo shoots. 
Megacity: A metropolitan area with a total population in excess of ten million people.

BMW has all along told us that the i3 was designed for urban transport, a glimpse at the future of personal mobility in the megacities of the world. Heck, the code name for it was even "The Megacity Car."  However now that the i3 has been available for over a year, BMW is realizing that the Megacity car is selling better outside the city limits.

I've never really accepted that the i3 would do well in the megacity markets, at least in the US, and I've voiced that opinion on many occasions. Having lived with electric cars for the past six years, I've had the experience of driving and charging in the both suburbs and in the city, so I'm intimately aware of the challenges of public charging. I live about 50 miles from New York City and go there frequently. Driving my electric cars to and around the city isn't a problem, however charging it there is. There just aren't enough places to charge your car there to make living with an EV in New York City palatable. There are public parking garages and a few lots that have EVSEs, but finding one that works is one problem. Then, if you're lucky enough to find a lot that has one which is working, you often have to fight with the attendant to make sure they plug you in once you've left your car there.
My car was unplugged after only about 45 minutes of charging. It was sitting right where I left it so they didn't need to move it, someone there just decided to unplug me. With only 28% state of charge, I needed the range extender to get me home. This is a typical EV charging experience in NYC
The last three times I've gone to the City I had nothing but problems getting my car charged. In fact, two of those times I had to drive home using my range extender because the car wasn't charged. Just last week I went to the New York Auto Show and parked at the 9th Avenue Edison Park Fast lot because it had a ChargePoint charging station. When I pulled in I told the attendant I needed to charge for a minimum of three hours and he seemed to understand what I was saying. He said "Oh this is electric? No problem I'll plug you in." I even gave the guy a $5 tip up front with the hopes that he'd take care of me. As I was walking to the Javits Center a few minutes later I checked my BMW i Remote app and saw my car was charging so I figured I was good. I left the car with only 10% state of charge and wanted to be at at least 90% for the trip home, and that would take about three hours of charging. No problem because I planned to be at the show for about six hours. As I was walking back to my car later that day I checked my app just to make sure I was charged and to my surprise I saw I was only at 28% SOC and the car wasn't charging. When I arrived I asked why my car wasn't charged and the attendant only said, "We charged it."  I figured maybe they had to move it for some reason, or maybe another EV came that needed to charge but no, someone just decided to unplug it after about 45 minutes of charging. The car was still parked in front of the EVSE, it wasn't blocking anyone so it hadn't been moved, it was just unplugged hours ago for no apparent reason.
This time in New York I was able to charge up at an underground parking garage, but only after 45 minuted on the phone with ChargePoint trying to get this unprovisioned station operational.
This has happened before to me in New York City, so I wasn't really surprised. I've even had the attendant promise to plug me in and never do it. I now either wait to watch them plug it in or check my app as I'm walking away to make sure someone plugs it in. Luckily I had the REx to bail me out or I'd have been in a real jam, as I needed to be somewhere else in about an hour.
Electric range insufficient. Not what you want to see when you return to your car after leaving it in a public parking lot to charge. Luckily I had the range extender to fall back on. 
I could go on and on about previous difficulties I've had trying to charge in the city, but I think I'll dedicate an entire post to that sometime soon. The point here is charging an EV in the city is difficult at best. Yes, if you live there it is possible to make arrangements with the garage where you keep your car, and install an EVSE for your personal use, but many of the garages don't have the additional electrical capacity for a dedicated 40 amp circuit even if you're willing to pay for the installation and the electric, so the owners are stuck plugging into a simple 120v outlet and slow charging all of the time. Beam Charging network in New York has stations in various parking garages and offers a $98 per month unlimited charging plan, but you still have to find accessible stations and pay the regular parking fee which can be very expensive. It's definitely doable, but not very convenient or inexpensive.

So it was no surprise when I read an article this week by Diana Kurylko of the Automotive News quoting BMW NA CEO Ludwig Willisch saying i3 sales have been weaker than expected in large cities like New York: "The strongholds in this country are parts of California, Texas and southern Florida, rather than large cities, he said" The article further says: "The big urban centers in the Northeast, especially New York City, haven't embraced the i3, Willisch said. Unlike Californians, he said, New Yorkers apparently don't have sustainability and the environment "at the top of minds." I don't think it's a lack of a desire to be sustainable as much as it's difficulty charging the car there. California has a much more mature public charging infrastructure, and most people there live in private residences, unlike New York City. Overall, BMW is pleased with US i3 sales, and they are on pace to sell about 12,000 i3s per year here, they just seem to be a little surprised where the sales are coming from. I'm certainly not surprised, and I even wrote a post about a year ago that said the i3 was better suited for suburban and country life than life in the city, and I listed the reasons why I believe that to be true.

My i3 lives about 50 miles west of New York City... and fits in perfectly
Living in the suburbs or the country means you are usually in control of your energy supply, because most people live in single family homes there. There can be issues if you live in an apartment or condo complex, but you also have the choice to move to another location close by if charging is prohibited in the complex you live in. Living in a private residence allows you to install the home charging equipment you need, so you're not relying on public charging infrastructure as much.

Accessibility to charging is paramount for daily EV life, and in New York the public charging infrastructure has a very long way to go before it becomes convenient enough for many more people to consider an EV if they live there. Life in the big city is tough enough, and fighting on a daily basis for somewhere to charge your car is probably something most New Yorkers aren't willing to deal with. However there is hope that things will get better. Last year New York City passed the "Charger Ready Bill" which requires all new construction in New York City to dedicate 20% of the new parking spaces for EV charging spaces. I actually was asked by Mayor Bloomberg's office to testify in front of the committees on buildings and transportation in favor of the bill, which I did. This law will dramatically increase the amount of public charging locations in New York City, but it will take years before the results are really seen.

So are megacities like New York ready for electric cars? Not really. Not yet, I'm afraid. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Q&A with BMW's Jose Guerrero at the New York Auto Show

Jose explaining the features of the concept i3 at the BMW i Born Electric Tour back in 2012

Having been in BMW's trial lease e-mobility program for five years, I've been able to get to know many of the program managers and engineers working at BMW i in North America. Jose Guerrero, Product Planning and Strategy Manager for BMW i, is one of only a few people at BMW of North America who has been a constant force in the program over the years. That's the nature of the auto industry though. People move around within the company, and often even leave to take on positions at competing OEMs.

So when I saw Jose's name on the list for available interviews at this year's New York Auto Show, I quickly reserved a half hour to sit down with him and talk about the i3 and the future of BMW i.

My i3's battery pack. It was removed from the car in less than an hour.
Future Battery Replacement

The first question was easy. There has been a lot of talk about recent comments by BMW's R&D chief Klaus Froehlich. Froehlich was recently interviewed by Automotive News Europe and asked if BMW would be offering a "more powerful powertrain" for the i3 or i8, and many took that as meaning better batteries once they become available. Froehlich said:  “I don’t think a retrofit makes sense. When better batteries are available, we could then offer models with a longer range or with the same range but at a lower price" and "replacing the batteries is very complex because they are integrated and bonded into the chassis." This didn't make sense to me because I know that any certified BMW i service center can drop the i3's battery and replace one or more of the eight battery modules and put the car back together in a couple of hours. In fact, I've personally seen it done on my car in less than a day. What would prevent BMW from upgrading these modules with higher energy-density cells once they are available in a few years? Here's what Jose had to say about that:
The underside of my i3 with the battery pack removed.

"The strategy of BMW i has always been focusing on sustainability, recycling and really maximizing the usage life of the car. I mean, first of all the car won't rust. It's made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic & aluminum so we are looking at how do we maximize the car for long usage. He didn't say it's not upgradable, but rather that at this point it doesn't seem to make sense. We really are investigating this and if it's possible, and it makes financial sense, why not? This would be in line with the BMW i philosophy. We haven't said we aren't going to do it, just that it has to make sense. A BMW i dealer can do a complete battery replacement in 3 to 5 hours so from a technical perspective it's clearly possible, we would just need to make sure it also makes financial sense. We are always getting asked, "Could you retrofit a navigation system, or Comfort Access into a car?" Yes, we could, but we'd have to rip the whole car apart. That isn't the case with better batteries once they become available, it just has to make sense. We are definitely investigating this, so if it makes sense we'll do it." Guerrero further went on to say it's conceivable Froehlich may have been misquoted or perhaps there was a translation issue because he certainly knows the batteries aren't "bonded into the chassis" as the Automotive News Europe's story indicated.

The Circuit

BMW i has recently launched a new online forum called "The Circuit". Would you like to explain why, and what exactly it is?

"We recognized these cars are different and customers will have questions that are unique to the i brand. We wanted to provide a forum where BMW i customers could communicate amongst themselves, share information and also ask BMW questions directly. There is an entire section called "Ask BMW" where customers can ask questions and get answers much faster than would have ever been possible before. It's direct access to BMW i personal that was not previously possible. We'll post information regarding technical updates, upcoming events, and all official BMW i news. It's our goal to use the forum to improve the BMW i ownership experience."

Hill Climb Assist

Late last year BMW had stated the i3 with range extender would have a software update in March which would add a new feature called "Hill Climb Assist." This was supposed to prevent sudden reduced power mode without warning while the REx was running and to make the vehicle more capable of climbing long, steep hills at highway speeds while in charge sustaining mode. Can you talk a little about this?

"This is something we are still working on. First, let me say the March 15th software update addresses part of the problem which was to provide information to help the driver avoid reduced power in these challenging driving conditions. A big gripe which the owners conveyed to us was they didn't have any warning before the vehicle reduced power. We've corrected that with a warning which comes on before the vehicle enters reduced power mode to warn the driver to alter their driving (basically that means to reduce speed) to hopefully prevent reduced power. Secondly, we've added a state of charge display so drivers can see the exact state of charge and monitor it more closely during these driving events. The the new state of charge display is also applied to the BEV i3s once they get the software update also.
An audible warning and this visual alert comes on when the state of charge drops to 3.5%, warning the driver that reduced power is possible, and giving them time to alter their driving to avoid it.  You can also see the new SOC display in the top left corner.

As for the Hill Climb Assist feature, we're still perfecting it. For the past four months we had a group of i3 REx owners beta testing Hill Climb Assist software and the feedback we got caused us to go back and redevelop it, creating an even more robust version. We are now testing a new version and once we're confident it is ready we will again give it to the beta test group for real world testing before we release it to the general i3 public. We are committed to getting this right and feedback from actual i3 owners is critical."

At this point I was shown a video of an i3 REx driving up a steep mountain climb at highway speeds in the snow. I was told this car had the new software and they were testing it in Vermont this winter on a closed road which was over 3 miles long, up steep hill at highway speeds in the snow. It should be noted that I am one of the people in the i3 REx customer beta test group which tested the previous Hill Climb Assist software. I reported back to BMW that it was insufficient, and it was my recommendation to re-engineer it before it was released to the public. I'm happy BMW agreed and look forward to testing the current version which I'm promised is more robust. I'll report on this new software once I have it on my car. It's not expected to have this new Hill Climb Assist software ready for the general public for another six months or so.
BMW i has a new North American Manager. What changes should we expect?
New Program Manager for BMW i

My last question was regarding the new Manager of Electric Vehicle for BMW of North America, Christine Fleischer. BMW i of North America hasn't had a permanent division manager since Jacob Harb left the post back in November. Prior to assuming the position at the helm of BMW i, Christine had been the BMW M & Individual Area Manager for North & South America.  I asked Jose what this means for the future of BMW i.

"Christine has now started her new role and we're all very excited. During Jacob's time here he was focused on the launch of the brand and we're now in a different phase. Now with Christine we're focusing on continuing dealer training and building sales. We're through the early adopter phase of i3 sales, and we now need to reach the early majority to continue to build sales. Dealer training is important and we'll continue to offer this specialized training so our sales force is prepared, and that's critical to maintain the sales momentum we've built. The whole team is excited to have Christine here for the next phase of BMW i."
The new North American BMW i manager, Christine Fleischer next to a 1M at the Canadian launch in 2011.
Photo courtesy of BMWBLOG