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. 


  1. Very important points. Generally, the charging infrastructure is insufficient in most places in the USA. I would also add that one place I would like to see charging stations would be "out in the boonies", must the opposite of the megacity. What do I mean by this? Charging stations at county, state, national parks, campsites, hiking trailheads, skiing areas, etc., etc. AND a charging infrastructure that gets me to and from these outdoor recreational areas. In Colorado, a great outdoors state, basically there is only a charging corridor along I-70, and even that's limited. I guarantee charging corridors to outdoor areas here, and elsewhere would get used -- and, no, please do not just build these along the interstates.

  2. I don't think every megacity is like New York - the London charging infrastructure isn't perfect, but it's way better than you described there and the incoming "ultra low emissions zone" in 2020 will make EVs far more attractive. But it STILL has the fundamental problem that people living in cities often have no access to a regular parking spot adjacent to their property. Suburbs are the biggest market, no question.

  3. Tom, as usual, you are spot on. America is not a nation of cities. It is a nation of suburbs where most Americans live and work. it is very different from Europe. Even Europe's small towns and cities are very much different from our suburbs. Except for New York City and a couple of others, our cities are spread out without a real urban center, such as Los Angeles, Miami and Houston. We did us the term, "megacities" which was popular in the 1960s to describe the living arrangements of Americans from Boston to Washington, D.C. It was actually a political term to redefine American federalism, setting states aside for a direct federal--urban connection. Like all constructs of social scientists, reality overwhelmed theory as Americans moved from cities to the suburbs in the 1970s and 80s. "Metropolitan Areas" is a statistical term used by the U.S. Census to describe cities and adjoining suburbs, but short of this, the idea of a Megacity Car does not suit the American landscape. It is a perfect car for suburban life--for the roads and freeways connecting the burbs for work, shopping and recreation. It is also a perfect commuter car for those who drive daily to cities large and small for work and other activities but who retreat at night to the burbs where their lives are centered. I bought the i3 for exactly these activities--suburban driving and driving into the "city" twice a week for work or doctor's visits. The term, "megacity" had no bearing on my reason for buying the i3--indeed, it was discouraging since I don't view myself as living in the city--nor as a descriptive for the American market for i3s.

  4. I live in LA and our megacity extends into the "suburbs" which are not all that different than the downtown areas. It is the "freeways" everywhere here that connect us and so one can drive 50 miles into LA, but from and through urban areas the whole way. One thing confused me about your experience is that you had to have a person at the parking garage plug you in. You cannot just drive into the spot and plug in? Here in LA I have never seen a parking attendant mess with the cars.

  5. Tom, The problem isn't the infrastructure, but rather the PEOPLE that are supposed to be doing THEIR JOB. YOU should have reported them to the management. There are plenty of people looking for work that I'm sure would find it no problem to plug in a car. Of course you're not fond or convinced electric cars are viable now. Let me guess your personal car is a Honda, correct?

    1. what's wrong with honda, retard?

  6. Anonymous: Did you read this post? Tom drives an i3 and has been driving electric cars for nearly a decade! He's probably more convinced of the viability of electric cars than 99% of the population. His wife does drive an ICE but if I remember correctly it's a Chevy.

    Good post as always, Tom

  7. Forgive me, I though you were just another reviewer, and yes, I am new around here, Although I too have been driving electrics for near long as you. I still take issue with what you wrote. For people trying to decide if they want to go electric, articles like this scare them from doing so. It makes it sound like a huge problem, and maybe it is in your area. I really think the problems needed to be addressed by you, to management to get these knuckleheads to plug it in and leave it plugged in until fully charged. Educating them is what's needed, but reporting on a problem and not doing anything about it, is just as bad or worse than the actual problem.

    Electric cars (and hopefully soon trucks) are the future, and the more common they become, hopefully the smaller the issues, but please report these morons to their management.

  8. I had a similar experience parking in NYC recently. I parked my iMiEV at an Edison ParkFast location near the Botanical Garden and they plugged me in (after I explained how the chargepoint equipment worked). Then I had lunch and came back 1.5 hours later to a car that had only been charging for 15 minutes!

    The problem was that they had to move my car to park someone else and they didn't realize the charging session stopped when they did that even though they plugged me back in. So they tried to do the right thing, but because they were unfamiliar with the technology, they foiled my charging plans and I needed to wasted another hour or two charging somewhere else.

    I agree that electric cars work better in suburbs where you can plug them in at home more easily and you don't have to rely on parking attendants to charge your car.

  9. Since this is the most recent thread I can find I figured I'd start here. Im picking up my first EV, an i3, today. I plan on using this car to commute from the suburbs to NYC on a daily basis...hoping to ask Tom, or anyone that has insight, some "real world" questions about ownership and expectations. Would be happy to take this off the blog and use a personal email.

  10. It sounds like NYC is way, way, less friendly to electric cars than London.

    I have an i3 REx and I live in Oxford, and I often commute down to London (distance of 55 miles) for a few hours of meetings. The i3 is actually the BEST POSSIBLE car for this, regardless of whether you're an electric car fan. Here's why

    1. The centre of London has a congestion charging zone. You pay about £11/day. Except that ultra-low emission vehicles get 100% exempt once registered.

    2. In London there are hundreds of road side parking bays that are electric vehicle ONLY. Often all the regular bays along a road are full, but there are one or two electric spaces just waiting for me. Parking there is typically FREE whereas the regular spots are e.g. £5/hour (varies widely) and of course the electric is free (one needs a "Source London" card but it has infinite usage).

    3. The actual carparks are typically commercially run so that I must pay the same charge as other users, but often their electric charging points are associated with bays that can only be used by electric cars.

    BONUS: One of the boroughs (i.e. districts) called Westminster actually allows free parking in ANY road side space for full electric cars, regardless of whether it is a dedicated electric bay.

    All this means that I aim to get to London, have my meetings, and get back at the cost of one full electric charge (~£3), whereas even a small/efficient petrol car will pay fuel+congestion+parking that can easily add up to £50.

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