Monday, October 17, 2016

The Flawed Volkswagen Dieselgate Settlement & How to Fix it


While I typically keep a narrow focus on the content of this blog, that being to obsessively cover the BMW i3 electric car, occasionally I'll post something if I feel it has particular importance to the electric vehicle industry as a whole. Such is the case with this entry. For those of you unfamiliar with the Volkswagen "Clean Diesel" scandal, it basically amounts to the fact that Volkswagen cheated the emission testing in place and flooded the market with highly-polluting vehicles that were improperly called "Clean Diesel".

As a result, the Volkswagen Group was fined a record amount of money and forced to buy back or fix nearly half a million cars in the US which were operating in conflict with US emission laws. As part of the penalty, Volkswagen was ordered to pay a 2 billion dollar penalty, which would be used to fund zero emission infrastructure, and improve access to ZEVs.

On face value, the proposed Dieselgate settlement initially seemed like it might provide the monumental boost to public electric vehicle charging infrastructure that many have been waiting for. The Volkswagen Group has agreed to pay $14.7 billion for intentionally deceiving the public, and selling “Clean Diesel” vehicles that emit up to 40 times the legal limit of certain pollutants. There are three parts to the settlement:

Buybacks and financial settlements to owners of 466,000 affected vehicles: $10.0 billion

• Compensation for the illegal cars' environmental impact: $2.7 billion

• Fund new infrastructure and access for zero-emission vehicles: $2.0 billion

However, as the October 18th court date approaches at which time U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer is set to decide whether to grant final approval to the settlement, the details of the infrastructure part of the settlement are, to say the least, concerning.

As it stands now, the Volkswagen Group will have little oversight as to how they spend the 2 billion dollars earmarked for infrastructure and improving access to ZEVs. (CARB will be reviewing and approving the California projects and the EPA will be doing the same for the rest of the country) I question why Volkswagen will have ANY discretion as to how the penalty funds are spent, let alone near complete control over it. Volkswagen isn’t in the electric vehicle infrastructure business. In fact, they are barely in the electric vehicle business as it is today. The only OEM that I’d actually trust to do infrastructure implementation properly would be Tesla, because their business model depends on it, and they’ve been doing it very successfully for half a decade already.

What if Volkswagen decides to start their own EV infrastructure company and use the funds to pay their own subsidiary to manufacture and install the equipment? (*EDIT: I've since read the full proposed transcript and I don't believe they could actually do this, so that's one good thing) We could end up with substandard equipment, and a network that has poor customer service, inadequate repairs and outrageous pricing models. Even if they were to do it right, and the company was successful, why should Volkswagen benefit from the penalty? What if they offered free charging for the first couple years so they could put all the competition out of business and then raised the prices to unreasonable levels? Indeed, you could do a lot of damage with 2 billion dollars and this settlement doesn’t provide any safeguards against that in its current form.
A ChargePoint DC Fast charger rapidly filling up my BMW i3s battery
Last week ChargePoint asked the courts to intervene, and Judge Breyer accepted the plea. It’s ChargePoint’s position that the way the settlement is currently constructed, Volkswagen is “solely responsible for every aspect of selecting the National (ZEV) investments…including timing and locations”. Among concerns that Volkswagen isn’t experienced enough in the electric vehicle infrastructure business to have sole discretion over sure a large fund, Chargepoint is also concerned that Volkswagen will have too much say over the future of electric vehicle charging. Since the amount of funds available in the fund is so great, Volkswagen could dictate the fate of many of the existing companies and decelerate advancements, often fostered by fair competition: “If the settling defendants become the sole source for electric vehicle infrastructure, it will stifle innovation in industries designed to support electric vehicle recharging.”

I have to agree with Chargepoint on this issue. I don’t believe it’s in the best interest of the electric vehicle industry to allow Volkswagen to have sole discretion over how to spend these funds.

Personally I’m not rooting for ChargePoint over Car Charging Group, or for EVGo over Greenlots, etc. I believe the market will sort that out, and eventually the stronger networks which provide the best equipment and customer service will emerge as the dominant forces. However, the enormity of this settlement could have the opposite effect, and allow VW to crush the competition before the natural evolution and survival of the fittest has time to take effect. If the stronger companies of today aren’t even allowed to bid on projects funded by this penalty, they could end up dying before they have the chance to flourish and provide the marketplace with superior products and services.

I’d like to see an independent council appointed to oversee the infrastructure fund implementation, so as to not skew the marketplace. There should be appointees from various industry stakeholders, EV advocacy groups, like Plug in America, The Sierra Club, Clean Cities Coalitions, etc. Let the council decide how the money is spent and always offer open, competitive bidding taking in consideration more factors than simply the lowest bid. The council will be much more effective than Volkswagen could ever be, and we'll probably get more robust equipment and better customer service as a result.

Volkswagen should not have near complete control over the money they were fined. They’ve proven beyond any reasonable doubt that they cannot be trusted when it comes to clean air initiatives. There’s too much at stake here. We have an opportunity to really advance the proliferation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the US, and provide the industry with a much-needed boost. This settlement should be modified to allow competitive bidding for all projects, to follow a master plan for national electric vehicle DC fast charging, and to add proper oversight and transparency.

Monday, October 3, 2016

BMW i3 Mods: Sport Springs & LED High Beams

Side by side comparison clearly demonstrates the difference the sport springs by H&R make.
In the bottom (after) picture, the front is lowered by 1.2" and the rear by .8".
I've always loved modifying my cars. From subtle aesthetic improvements to serious performance upgrades, I've done it all. Modification isn't usually thought of with regards to electric cars though, but that's changing, and will continue to as more and more EVs come into the marketplace.
 
Many car enthusiasts share my desire to personalize their cars also. BMWs in particular have become synonymous with performance upgrades and that's going to continue with BMWs that plug in, it's just going to take a little time for aftermarket manufacturers to realize there's a market for EV modifications. Granted it won't be as easy as it's been in the past; but where's a demand, the market will create a supply.

One company that didn't wait long was H&R, makers of performance suspension components. Within a year of the BMW i3 hitting the market, H&R had a sport spring offering available. H&R describes the Sport Spring set as follows:

"Direct from Germany, H&R Springs are the highest quality sport springs available. These H&R Sport springs for your i3 work well with the factory shocks and dampening to retain much of the factory drive ability and ride. This spring set will make a subtle yet noticeable visual improvement to the i3's stance, reducing the perceived fender gap of the stock ride height. These springs transform the handling into more of what (we feel) this car should feel like -- sharp cornering with only a small sacrifice in ride quality. The ride is still very compliant and well suited for city streets, keeping the ride quality very close to the stock ride comfort. Now that's a well engineered set of springs!"










Installing the springs will take a few hours & doing an alignment afterwards is highly recommended. The picture on the right shows two of the stock springs (black), compared to two of the H&R springs in blue. 

After about a month of driving with them I'm satisfied with the upgrade. Even though H&R says they only lower the front 1.2" and the rear .8', when I first sat in the car it felt like a 2" or 3" drop. The perspective from the drivers seat is noticeably different. However the real difference is in how the car reacts in hard cornering. With its new, lower center of gravity there's less body roll and the car now zips around turns with much more authority than before. Yes, the ride is a little stiffer, but not so much so that it takes the enjoyment out of casual driving. I've been in cars that have had such a stiff suspension that they were impossible to enjoy unless you were racing, and these springs don't go nearly that far. I may have to do some parking lot autocross now to really push it and see what it can do.

The springs have also made an improvement on highway driving. The i3 has a tall, boxy shape and it can get pushed around at times by windy conditions, especially when driving at high speeds. After the spring replacement, it feels more planted on the highway, and isn't nearly as affected by winds. I suppose because of the lower stance that less air is getting under the vehicle and the lift is reduced.  The H&R springs cost me $240.00 and the installation and alignment was an additional $450.00.
There are a couple different brands offering replacement LED bulbs for the i3, but I chose these from OPT7 because I've read some positive reviews about them.
The second modification I recently made is a really simple and inexpensive one, but it's made a big difference for me. I live in a rural part of New Jersey and on most of the local roads there aren't even streetlights. There are also a lot of trees that block what little moon light there might be, so the streets are very dark at night. There's also a lot of wildlife which will think nothing of running out in front of your vehicle at any time without notice. Like most residents here, I drive with the high beams on until there's oncoming traffic but I was never satisfied with the illumination that the i3's stock halogen high beam bulbs provided. The main headlights are LED, but the high beams are halogen, yellow in color and don't illuminate as much area as I'd prefer. 

They simply plug in. The whole process should take about 15 minutes. 
So after reading the positive comments from some other i3 owners that upgraded to aftermarket LEDs for the high beams, I ordered the OPT7 FluxBeam LED Headlight Kit online for $79.99. They are simple to install, you simply remove the circular access panel in the wheel wells and replace the bulbs. For a more detailed, step by step installation instructions, click through to this post on the BMW i3 forum where member dvottero explains every detail of the process. Mind you, this should only take 15 minutes and the average person should be able to do it themselves. 
The picture on top demonstrates how much brighter the new LED bulbs are while shining on a wall that's about 20' away. The bottom picture was taken with the stock halogen bulbs.














On the road, the new LED high beams (top pictures) clearly offer a better illumination pattern as well as a brighter light directly in front of the vehicle. I can now better see if there's a deer approaching the side of the road from the trees and vegetation off to the side. It's actually an even better improvement than the pictures seem to illustrate.  
Click on the images to enlarge. 

These upgrades cost me less than $800.00 and have greatly improved the car in my opinion. They aren't quite as drastic as the nitrous oxide kit I put on my 1986 Honda CRX Si, or the sway bar and performance exhaust on my 1995 Mazda RX7, but they absolutely improve the driving experience of my i3 and were well worth the money. I'll probably keep this car for at least another 2 or 3 years so I suspect these upgrades are only the beginning.