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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's sNOw Problem!

I got a call from an ActiveE driver today who had concerns about driving his ActiveE in the snow. Since he got his car last spring he didn't have the chance to drive it in the snow so today would be the first time with a storm bearing down on the Northeast.

His questions were mostly about what to expect as far as range. As my previous post went into detail about, it's really not possible to give someone a definitive answer on it. Will he be stuck in traffic for three hours in the storm? Will the snow be an inch deep or will his car have to push its tires through 6 inches of frozen, range robbing resistance? If you suspect you may have a problem, my advice is don't take a chance - it's just not worth it. These snowy conditions do make an interesting argument for getting the optional range extender on the i3 though. It's there just in case you need it and if nothing else it provides piece of mind in adverse weather conditions.

However with reasonable preparation and not pushing your range limit, driving the ActiveE in the snow is really no problem at all. I've driven mine in a few snowstorms now and here are my suggestions for safe winter ActiveE driving:

First, and this applies to all cars not just electrics, is make sure you have good rubber between you and the road/snow/ice. This is the single most important thing you can do to improve your safety when driving on snow covered roads. Get winter tires if you live in areas where you'll be driving on snow and ice covered roads, they make a huge difference and also make sure they are properly inflated. BMW sells a winter tire for the ActiveE, though I'm not sure what brand it is. The part number is 36-11-2-295-628 and any dealer can get them for you. I also recommend Bridgestone Blizzak LM-25 RFT (run flats), and Nokian Hakka winter tires (excellent in snow but are not run flats). The ActiveE tires are 205/55 R16 and you can expect to pay between $160 and $175 each for a good winter tire.

Use Eco Pro mode when driving in the snow at all times. Eco Pro mode reduces the power to the wheels and while it's not a good thing for drag racing, it is a good thing for driving in the snow and ice. Less torque will keep the tires from slipping and keep the traction control from constantly needing to intervene. 

Use the preconditioning feature whenever possible. This won't help your traction, but it will help extend your range and you may just need those extra 3-5 miles to make it to your driveway one day. It's better to have a warm battery and a fully charged car before you begin your journey rather than have the thermal management system draw from your battery to warm things up.

Keep extension cords in the car, the longer the better. In the winter I keep 150 feet of 12 gauge extension cords in the car at all times. 150 feet is enough to reach the street from most houses. If worse came to worse I would ring a strangers doorbell and ask if I could plug my car in. As embarrassing as that may be, I'd feel worse if I had to also ask for an extension cord. At the very minimum keep a 100 foot extension cord in the trunk just in case. If you find yourself in need of an emergency charge, first try to find a food establishment. They will most likely allow you to plug in and you can at least sit inside in the warmth and grab a bite to eat to kill time. While it wasn't snowing at the time, I had to do this once already and found a Burger King that was happy to allow me to plug in.

I know this should be self evident, but drive slowly! If you don't go too fast you can use the regenerative braking to do most all of your slowing down. I've found the regen to be very effective for driving on snowy roads. The regen slows the car down in a very controlled manner, even better than when using the friction brakes. The traction control and the regenerative braking system seems to communicate well with one another. I've done testing where I drove my ActiveE down a steep, ice covered hill and abruptly pulled my foot off the accelerator so the car would go into full regen in an attempt to try to make the wheels lose traction and skid but they didn't. Instead the car gradually slowed down like it is supposed to and never lost traction. I could feel the traction control working though, as it worked with applying and disengaging the regen to keep the tires from skidding.

It's perfectly safe to charge in the rain or snow
Finally, and I've had people ask me this in the past, yes you can charge the car in the snow. Modern electric cars like the ActiveE are designed to charge in the rain or snow with without any safety concerns. You should obviously use common sense though. If you see a connector is soaking wet or the charging pins in the connector is filled with frozen ice do your best to clean it out and dry it off before you use it. This shouldn't be an issue if the connector head was properly returned to its holder before you used it, but I've seen the connectors laying on the ground in front of charging stations plenty of times. If the connector isn't returned to its proper holster it can be exposed to the elements and you should check it before you plug it into your car.    

So make sure you have good tires, use Eco Pro mode and preconditioning to help extend your range, keep a long extension cord handy just in case and drive slowly. Following these tips you should have no problem driving your ActiveE through the winter in all but the worst storms!

BTW, this is my 100th post on this blog! I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read it and especially those who have commented. Your interest is what keeps me posting! Have a Happy New Year and let's all hope for an electric 2013!  

Monday, December 17, 2012

EV Range: It's a Moving Target

This sign hanging at the BMW i Born Electric tour in New York City clearly states the i3 concept has a 100 mile range while BMW also states it has an "80 to a 100 mile" range in other places
Electric vehicle range is misquoted, misinterpreted, misrepresented and most importantly misunderstood. I've been driving electric for over 3 1/2 years now and I field all kinds of questions about EVs from curious motorists, friends, relatives and patrons of my restaurant in Montclair, NJ. However the one question I get from everyone is: "How far can it go?"

My answer depends on how much time I have to spend explaining it to them, or how interested I really think they are. If it's very casual and I think they are just kicking the tires, I'll usually tell them my ActiveE can go "about 100 miles" between charges. If I have time and I think they really want to know more details, I'll go into how there are many factors that go into how far you can go like your speed, driving style, ambient temperature, etc. I'll tell them I've driven as far as 110 miles on a charge, but I've also had cold winter days where I can't even make 70 miles. I'll then go into the whole EPA rating system and compare it to how manufacturers advertise gas mileage that the owner seldom can attain.

However the range of an EV is much more critical than whether you get 25mpg or the advertised 30 on your gas car. Most gas car owners don't even really know the exact MPG they are getting, but ask any EV owner and they can tell you exactly what range they can get depending on the different conditions. That's why it's very important that manufacturers don't overstate how far their EV offerings can go. It won't take long for the owner to realize if the car they just bought lives up to the range the manufacturer stated. Sure every EV undergoes the EPA 5-cycle test and gets a range rating, but that only tells half the story. If the EPA range rating told the whole story then all I'd have to tell people who ask me is: "The car has a 94 mile range". While I already admitted I sometimes simplify the range and tell people "about 100 miles" without going into details, I realize that's really not being all that truthful. Prospective electric car owners need to be better prepared for the different ranges they will observe during ownership, as well as thoroughly explaining the range decline as their battery ages.

I also haven't seen anyone really address battery degradation properly yet. We all know the battery will degrade and the car's range will decrease, but how much and when? It's like the 500lb gorilla in the room that nobody wants to address. Nissan is currently having problems with 'early battery degradation' on some LEAFs sold in Arizona and other hot climate areas. They are even buying back some cars that are less than two years old. The prevailing thought is the hot temperatures in Arizona were too much for the LEAF's primitive thermal management system and the batteries were prematurely damaged. But what is 'early degradation'? What should you expect from a car that had a 100 mile EPA rating after five years and 70,000 miles? If that question isn't answered at the time of purchase then it's certain some customers will be crying foul, complaining their batteries are bad and demanding replacements after only a few years of ownership.
LEAF range estimate page 1
LEAF range estimate page 2

In my opinion nobody is currently doing a good job of properly explaining to their customers the range differences under different driving conditions as well as declining range as the battery ages. This only sets them up for problems down the road. Nissan did take a stab at it and published the range estimate guide I've posted here. However dealers don't explain this information to their prospective customers and I don't even think they included these in their sales documentation. Without a guide of what to expect customers will undoubtedly think there is something wrong with their car when they can't drive as far as they are used to when the temperatures drops or when they suddenly can't make the same round trip to the office in year four of ownership that they had been making the first three years.

I could only squeeze out about 65 miles on this cold night
How do we then effectively communicate the difference in range expectations to a person driving at highway speeds in Buffalo, NY in the winter compared to someone driving the exact same EV @ 30mph in the city of San Diego without sounding too confusing? Clearly the car driven in San Diego will have a much greater range. The manufacturers have to come up with some kind of point of sale "EV range for idiots" material and have the client advisers explain it to the customer, and personally I'd even have the customer sign a document that states they understand the range differences. There are people in the ActiveE program now who are very disappointed that the car will barely do 70 miles per charge now that it's winter and getting cold. I've had quite a few of them reach out to me already and some swear BMW reduced the range of their car at the last service visit. What BMW did do was update the software that predicts the range and remaining miles you can drive so it is a bit more conservative. Now the car displays the new, lower range prediction, and that coupled with the cold weather and the use of the heater prevents the car from going as far as it used to, but it's not because of anything BMW did. The bottom line is there is confusion and there need not be. I hope (and I believe they will) that BMW will do a much better job preparing the customer for life with an EV when they actually sell them, beginning with the i3 next year.

The i3 coupe Concept promises 80 -100 mile range. Is that for driving conditions in Southern California or Fargo, North Dakota, or both?
Speaking of the i3, BMW has been saying it will have an 80 to 100 mile range. If that turns out to be true, and 80 miles is really the low water mark in most normal circumstances then I will be very pleased. However if it can only go 60 or 65 miles in New Jersey in the winter, then I think BMW has a problem on their hands if they continue to market it as an 80 to 100 mile EV. Enough with the over-promising and under delivering that I've seen from some of the other automakers. Everybody talks about their "100 mile EV" yet nobody besides Tesla has really delivered one. If the i3 does deliver 100 miles of driving in most normal driving conditions and 80+ miles even in winter driving then I do believe it will be a big success. If it falls short of that promise then I'm not so sure. Time will tell.

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, and my EV has a true 100 mile range...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

East Coast Meets West Coast at the LA Auto Show

The Electronaut crew at the LA Auto Show!
Ever since my MINI-E days, I have always wanted to go to a California MINI-E and now ActiveE event so that I could meet the people who I regularly converse with about our cars. There were opportunities, but the timing was just never right. Then I got the email form BMW inviting me to the Electronaut-only private event at the LA Auto show where a new BMW i concept car would be shown for the first time.

Jon, Mariel, myself & Angela
At first I didn't give it much thought, figuring it wouldn't be worth flying to LA just for the day. However I then attended the New York BMW i Born Electric event where over 100 ActiveE drivers came together and saw the concept i3 & i8 as well as had the chance to talk to some of the program managers. I had such a good time that while I was there I made up my mind to fly to LA for the Auto Show event. Not so much to see the new concept car, but really to see all the West Coast Electronauts in person and spend some time sharing our thoughts on the upcoming i3 as well as the current ActiveE program.

The concept i3 Coupe
The event was on Thursday, November 29th, from 2 to 4pm. I landed in LA late Wednesday night attended the event and flew out on the red eye that night, connecting in Chicago before landing in Newark at 9:00am the next day. It was a pretty crazy 24 hours, but well worth it. BMW introduced a new variation of the i3, a coupe. Before the show there were media outlets that speculated the new car they were unveiling was actually an entirely new model that was going to be called the i4. Many people (including me) fell for the misinformation, believing the websites that claimed that this indeed was a larger car, based on the i3 platform that would seat five.

Jacob Harb & Oliver Walter address the crowd
Presentations were made by Jacob Harb, the new Manager of Electric Vehicle Sales & Strategy for North America and Oliver Walter, Project Manager for BMW i. They spoke for about a half hour and then took questions from the Electronaut group. Many of the people I spoke to there were impressed with the i3 coupe and even said they prefer it over the Concept i3 four door. While I did like the new Coupe, I am definitely more interested in the four door. I also think some people that said they prefer the coupe did so because the coupe is closer to production ready than the four door i3 concept which was introduced over a year ago is. The Coupe has seemingly production ready doors that aren't made of glass like the four door i3 and the interior is very close to what I expect the production i3 to be. You could actually see yourself driving this car whereas the four door concept i3 is all glass and just a show car that looks a little too futuristic for some people's liking. Once the production version of it is out I think many of the people who said the prefer the coupe may change their mind. The accessibility to the back seating area is much better with the addition of the suicide-style doors, and I don't think they take away from the styling at all, especially without external door handles.

Murat and his ActiveE
I stayed at a hotel right outside the airport which was about an hour away from the show and I didn't arrange for transportation to and from the Convention Center before I got there. It wasn't a problem though. I posted on the ActiveE Facebook page that I needed to get back and forth and within minutes I has a few offers from fellow Electronauts. I ended up taking Murat Kazanci up on the offer and he took me to the show and dropped me back off. Murat works very close to the airport and was going also so it wasn't really much out of his way to swing by the hotel and pick me up. I got a bonus on the ride home and he took me to his office to check out the personal light sport aircraft his company is making. It was pretty awesome and you can see it yourself here. It was great meeting Murat and I really appreciated him taking the time to pick me up and take me back to my hotel. 

Listening to the presentation
There really wasn't much new information about the i3. Jacob did talk a little about the range extender option and also fielded some questions about the availability of DC quick charge on the i3, but BMW just isn't ready to give out much technical details yet. That's understandable because the car is still about 10 months from launch and BMW has a specific timeline on what and when the details will be divulged and there is plenty of time for that. I know some of us are anxious to get more information, but it's still early and there is no need to show your cards to the competition just yet. I suspect sometime in March or April we well get everything there is to know about the car. There were a few people that wanted to know what BMW has learned form the motor spline issue our cars have had and how that will guarantee there isn't a similar issue on the i3. I know Jacob spoke to some about this, but I wasn't close by and didn't hear the answer. That's a legitimate question. The ActiveEs have had this problem for a while now and while there is a fix being applied, some that haven't had the modification are still breaking down. I think it would benefit BMW if at some point they tell us what they learned and assured us that wouldn't be a problem going forward.

Todd, Oliver, Tom, me, Adam, Mariel & Jacob

Although it was a lot of traveling for basically one day it was well worth it. Meeting dozens of the West Coast MINI-E and ActiveE drivers in person after communicating with them online for a long time now was great, and I could have hung out all day if we were allowed to. I also had the chance to speak with Jacob Harb and Oliver Walter from BMW i for a while. Jacob and I have had previous conversations, but this was the first time I've met Oliver so it was a good opportunity to introduce myself and chat for a while. Just like the New York Born Electric Tour event, this was a great opportunity to meet the others in the program, talk to some program managers and learn a bit about what the i3 is going to be like. I really enjoyed myself and I hope BMW hosts more events like this for the ActiveE lessees as we approach the launch of the i brand. It really helps the people involved in these field trials feel appreciated.

George, Peder, Mariel & Tomoo
The absolutely fabulous dashboard layout of the concept i3 coupe. I hope BMW doesn't change much, it's perfect as is!
George Batek Snapped this cool picture of me talking to Todd Crook through the windshield of the car.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

BMW i Born Electric Tour Visits New York

Occasionally I'll do a post on my BMW i3 blog that is related to the ActiveE and cross reference it here. This is one of those occasions! Last week the BMW i Born Electric tour visited New York and of course I was there - twice actually! For the recap and some pictures, follow this link: BMW i Does New York.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Disaster Relief

"NO GAS" signs like this were all over. Most stations even blocked their entrances with cones and yellow caution tape to let motorists know they were closed.
It's now nine days after Hurricane Sandy battered New Jersey and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately the storm was so severe and destructive that signs of improvement are only beginning to appear in many areas. Since the storm barreled through the area last Monday, many areas of New Jersey are without power, telephone, internet access and so many cell phone towers were damaged that even the cell phone service is spotty, especially the data connectivity. It's simply a mess.

I'm fine and so is my family, which is the most important thing. Unfortunately there are a lot of people here who weren't as lucky. Just a few miles from my house a tree fell on a car as a local family tried to make it home during the storm and both parents were killed. This was the worst storm we have ever faced and it has changed the physical landscape of the Jersey shore forever. Entire communities and beaches were literally washed away and will most likely never be rebuilt.

My 16kW home generator
A few years ago I installed a whole home natural gas generator for extreme conditions like this. I live in a rural area with a lot of trees and occasionally get power outages for a few hours or so but I always worried about 'the big one' that would knock out the grid for a long time and unfortunately it hit. So personally I'm doing OK. I have even had some friends and employees stay at our house for a while because without power they have no heat and it's been very cold lately, especially at night. As the power slowly gets restored to different areas there are fewer and fewer house guests now. My area is still without power and the latest update said the earliest it will be restored would be sometime Sunday, making the outage two full weeks.

Dozens of people stood on line for gas at every station
It's hard to tell, but this line is a 1/2 mile long
The generator has been a life saver and I highly recommend anyone who can afford to install one to do just that. Having power at home is taken for granted until it's taken away. Another thing taken for granted is the accessibility of gasoline, something else that was taken away from the people in the area. Without electricity to pump the gas, most area stations were closed. The few open stations quickly ran out of gas and couldn't get resupplied because the local refineries were also closed from damage and lack of power. Within a day lines at gas stations were over a mile long with hundreds of cars waiting in line. People with gas cans also descended upon the stations in need of gasoline for their portable generators. It became so bad every gas station that was open had to have a strong police presence there to control the crowds and keep an orderly line. The lines were so long the cars would block intersections and driveways. People didn't want to allow any space for cars to pass through fearing other cars would cut in front of them and it was causing traffic jams near every open gas station. This stressed the already overworked police force dealing with all the other emergencies.

Many trees fell on my block taking down all the power wires
Luckily I didn't have to deal with all the hysteria over trying to get gasoline. I was driving past all the long lines in my ActiveE, very thankful I was driving on electricity instead of gas. I even loaned my car to friends that couldn't get gas for their cars and picked up some of my employees and took them to Nauna's so we could open. Yes, I know that there were power outages and that would make it difficult for many people to charge their electric car like I could on my generator, but the thing about electricity is there are many ways to make it and it's everywhere. Even in severe power outages like we are having here, there are places to plug in like a relatives or friends house. Plus with a little planning before hand, you can make sure you have a way to make your own electricity in times of crisis.

A Volt charges at Nauna's after the storm
Somehow Nauna's didn't lose power even though most of the surrounding ares did so my public chargers were available and I had many Volts and LEAFs come by to charge. Once we improve the public charging infrastructure even in times of crises like this there will be plenty of places to plug in if your house loses power. I'm just glad I was able to let so many people charge on my chargers during this crisis. You can't make your own gas, and you are at the mercy of gas stations to deliver it to you. Electricity is different. While there is no fuel that is completely disaster proof, I believe the versatility of electricity is extremely valuable in times of crisis. Just look at how Japan used electric vehicles for disaster relief after the tsunami and you can easily see why.

News that I was driving around unfazed by the gas shortage got around and I had quite a few journalists call me and ask me for an interview or to send them pictures. Brad Berman did this excellent piece for the NY Times and I also spoke to Peter Valdes-Dapena from CNN Money, Jim Montavalli who is doing a piece for Txchnologist and John Volecker from GreenCarReports also used my story for his site.   If nothing else, perhaps some people can at least see the value an electric car can provide during these difficult times. Now if we can get the automakers to allow the cars to backfeed a home with vehicle to house technology, then an EV will be even more valuable in these times of crisis.

Here are some more random pictures I took except where credit was given:

Snapped poles are everywhere

I had to clear the trees from in front of my house to get out
Roads closed everywhere
Thousands of trees were downed

Down the shore some people had 2 feet of sand inside their house! Courtesy of the NY Daily News
I'm glad that's not my ActiveE! Courtesy of Reuters

Monday, October 22, 2012

40 Months & 100,000 EV Miles

I picked up my MINI-E on June 12th, 2009. When I handed it back to BMW on January 13th of this year it had 72,531 miles on the odometer. On that day I drove home with my ActiveE and a couple days ago I passed 27,469 miles on my ActiveE. That’s 100,000 all electric miles in a little over 40 months.

My MINI-E & my solar array
So much for “Electric cars aren’t viable” and “Electric cars are an idea whose time has not yet come”. Malarkey. I’ve driven my MINI-E and ActiveE basically every day, and they have satisfied just about all of my driving needs. I’ve proven to myself that an electric car with a 100 mile range fits perfectly into my life. I don’t worry about range anxiety, I don’t worry about it running out of charge of leaving me stranded and I certainly don’t have to worry about stopping at gas stations. The only time I need to do that now is to get a cup of coffee or some air for my tires. I just drive and live my life like I always did, only the driving part in now better!

The concept i3
It’s been a great ride so far and it’s just the beginning. The two cars I’ve been driving aren’t even production EV’s, they are test cars. The real BMW electric cars will be introduced next year with the i3 being the first EV to launch under BMW’s new ‘i’ sub brand. So as good as these cars have been it only gets better from here. I certainly plan to get an i3 as soon as they become available late next year.

Less than a year from getting my MINI-E I installed a rooftop solar array for my home. Solar is a great addition to any home, provided you have the right orientation and exposure. However when you then use the electric the array makes to power your automobile, the synergy and savings is even greater. On a good day my array will generate over 50kWh’s of electricity. That can power my ActiveE for about 175 miles of normal driving. The BMW i3 will be much more efficient than my ActiveE is (as well as faster!) and 50 kWh’s will be enough electricity to power it for about 250 miles! So let’s say I had a comparable gas car that got 25 miles per gallon. One good day of sunshine will displace 10 gallons of gas! That’s about $30 to $40 of gas at today’s prices. How about five years from now? How about ten years from now? Ten gallons may cost $100 or more. It practically cost that now in most of Europe. At $10/gallon it would then cost $40,000 to drive 100,000 miles. You could install a large solar array like I did for less than that and make your own fuel for 25 or 30 years. The best thing is the sun never raises its price – it’s always free.

Energy independence, BMW style!
There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome for mass adoption. Lack of public charging infrastructure, the high cost of lithium ion batteries, The limited range and long charging time of most of today’s ‘affordable’ electric cars. However the biggest hurdle I believe we face today is something that fellow MINI-E and ActiveE driver Peder Norby likes to say, and that is: “The inertia of the status quo, is a powerful foe of progress”. For over 100 years we have been using gasoline to power our automobiles. We have built out a vast network of gasoline refueling stations and people are conditioned to drive for a few days and then fill up and drive for a few days, fill up and repeat the cycle again and again. Even though nobody actually likes buying gas, for some reason they are initially very reluctant to consider something that will allow them to never need to do it again. Plugging in your car to refuel it disrupts the process that they are comfortable with(even if they don’t like it) and whether or not it’s better isn’t the point; it’s different and that’s the problem. Most people don’t like change and will automatically say something like “Oh, that’s not for me” when they are asked about how they feel about electric cars. I know this all too well because I have spent over three years now talking to hundreds, maybe even thousands of people about electric cars. Just about everybody I speak to initially has a very negative view about how a plug car would fit into their life. However after talking to them for a while (at least the ones that are willing to listen) I can see them warm up to the possibility of owning an EV. It doesn’t take much to get them interested once I tell them that I’ve been living with an electric car for three years now and never go to gas stations anymore. I have done this so often that I can tell by the look in their faces the moment they go from “What’s this guy trying to feed me” to “Hey, maybe he’s onto something” I know at that point I’ve overcome the inertia of the status quo in that persons mind and now they are open to really think about plug in cars.
Past & present. I took my MINI-E to check out an ActiveE before I got mine
It didn’t take 100,000 miles to convince me I prefer driving electric. However it’s also important to note that after 100,000 miles I haven’t changed my mind. After the newness of driving an alternative fuel vehicle wore off I didn’t come to my senses and realize I was just kidding myself and that gas cars are indeed better. In fact as time goes on I am more and more convinced that electric drive is superior and it is an inevitable evolution of the automobile. Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Houston, We Have a Problem

Nissan's infamous Polar Bear commercial
Even the most enthusiastic electric vehicle supporters have a hard time staying positive when the monthly sales figures for current electric vehicle offerings are announced. They haven't been good. In fact other than the Chevy Volt which is a plug in hybrid and not a pure electric car, EV sales have been pretty dismal indeed.

This has lead many pundits, especially the ones that lean to the right, to announce the electric car is a flop. "See" they say, "Nobody wants these plug in toys. The tree huggers were wrong!". However I believe you need to look into what is really going on here, rather then assume there isn't demand.

First, the current electric vehicle offerings aren't really that appealing. Other than the Tesla Model S which just launched recently, what EV out there would really get your adrenalin up? Let's look at what the list of electric vehicles currently available in the US:

The Nissan Catfish
The Nissan LEAF: The LEAF was the first mass produced all electric vehicle sold since the latest electric car movement came about and has sold the most all electric cars in the US, totaling about 15,000 units from launch through September of this year (~10,000 in 2011 and 5,212 so far in 2012). The LEAF was touted by Nissan to have a 100 mile range but in reality fell well short of the promise. The EPA rating came in at 73 miles per charge and most LEAF owners say that's just about right, in most conditions. Most conditions doesn't include the winter though. When it gets cold, the LEAF's primitive passive thermal management system really can't effectively keep the batteries warm and the range really suffers. I have a couple friends here in NJ that have LEAF's and they tell me they can barely get 55-60 miles per charge out of it from December to March. That drastically reduces the cars utility. Couple that with the very slow 3.3kW onboard charger and it's no wonder Nissan isn't moving them. Then there's the styling. I know styling is subjective, but I believe the vast majority of people think it's not an attractive car, and many say the front end looks like a catfish! Ask yourself this, if the LEAF looked the way it does and it was a gas car would it be selling well? I'm not so sure. In my opinion, the fact that Nissan over promising and under delivered on range, used a weak onboard charger and made questionable styling decisions are the real reasons the LEAF isn't selling as well as expected. Plus, it's only going to get worse for Nissan now that some LEAF's in hot weather areas are reporting significant premature battery degradation. Nissan's decision to not develop and implement an active thermal management system for the LEAF is starting to look like a serious mistake. All of the other cars mentioned here employ an active thermal management system, although the Mitsubishi i actively cools and heats with air which is less desirable than a liquid based system.

The Ford Focus EV:
Go to Ford's website to build your Focus. You are immediately shown that the gas Focus starts at $16,200 while the electric Focus starts at $39,200. The cars look the same and the electric one is $23,000 more! Is that how you sell electric cars?

Ford just started selling the converted Focus three months ago and through August had only sold 167 of them. They haven't been available everywhere in the US though and that has restricted sales, but clearly there hasn't been much of a demand for them. The base MSRP is $39,200 which is part of the problem. It's over $10,000 more than a fully loaded Focus ST so even after the Federal tax credit it's still about $3,000 more and has less options included. The EPA range rating is 76 miles so it's slightly better than a LEAF, but it does have active thermal management so the battery should perform better in weather extremes and last longer. It can also charge at a respectable 6.6kW's. Overall it's not a bad package if 70 to 80 miles is enough for you, I think most believe it isn't. What is really disappointing is Ford is doing little to nothing to promote it. I have yet to see a commercial, or anything letting know the car even exists. A friend of mine went to a dealer in Clifton, NJ a couple months ago to inquire about it and they had no idea when they would get them or even IF they would get them. He was told he may have to order it sight unseen if he really wanted one because they probably wouldn't be stocking them. I later found out that Ford is now only selling them by order, so they will not be stocked at dealerships. Surprised they aren't selling? I'm not.

The Mitsubishi i: Through August this year Mitsubishi has only sold 403 i's. The i is a very small car, with only a 47-kilowatt motor. It's not very peppy, has a top speed of only 81mph and has an EPA range of 62 miles per charge. In the cold weather, I've heard stories of people only getting 40 or 45 miles per charge, so the i is really a short range city car with very limited utility. Brad Berman of recently wrote of the i "The limited driving range, cargo space, and generally cheap feel of the materials doesn’t seem to be worth the price tag of nearly $30,000" and I agree with that statement. Surprised the i isn't selling? I'm not.

The Tesla Model S. The model S is a beast. It's fast, sexy, charges at a high rate, and has three available levels of range - all better than any other other pure EV available. The problem is, it's expensive and there are doubts that Tesla will have staying power to be around long enough to back their warranty and provide long term service. Even the least expensive Model S is $57,400, and for that you don't even get leather interior or navigation system. Add those options and it's about $65,000. I expect the 40kW S to be rated at about 130 miles of range when the official EPA rating comes out. The 60kWh option is $10,000 more and the 85kWh battery is $20,000 more. There is no mistake it's the best electric vehicle available today, but the price will keep it out of most people's garages. This is the first car Tesla has engineered and built completely in house and they have been struggling since the launch to get production numbers up. They are well behind where they had hoped to be at this point and are basically inspecting every car by hand thoroughly for fit and finish defects as they come off the assembly line. On one hand it's great to hear how meticulous they are being to make sure everything is perfect, but on the other hand they need to get orders filled and cars delivered ASAP. If they don't increase production from a couple cars a day to dozens of cars a day they are going to be in serious financial crunch soon. Tesla hasn't provided monthly sales figures like the major auto manufacturers have, but did say they had delivered only 255 cars through September 23rd. They currently have about 13,000 Model S reservations, so there has been a good demand for the car even though it is quite expensive and that's a ray of hope in the otherwise dismal EV sales figures. This is a great EV and will sell, the question is can Tesla build them fast enough and still maintain the top notch quality expected of cars in this price class? Time will tell.

Yes, It's THIS ugly!
The Chevy Volt: The Volt has been attacked by the media more than any car in history. It's been lambasted and blamed for everything that bad in America. It's been a political football and labeled the Obamacar, even though President Obama has had nothing to do with the Volt's development. Yes, the Obama administration authorized the bailout of General Motors shortly after he took office, but that would have happened no matter who won the Presidency. Had John McCain won, there's no doubt he would have done the same thing. Why then, of all the cars sold by GM is the Volt the Obamacar? Why isn't the Chevy Silverado pick up truck called the Obama car it's also made by "Government Motors"? OK, maybe because the Silverado sells very well, and they picked on the Volt because it hasn't? That can't be true. The Volt has consistently outsold the Chevy Corvette nearly every single month since it's launch and they don't call the Corvette the Obamacar. The fact that the Volt has sold as well as it has under the current conditions is a testament to the fact that it must be a good car. So far GM has sold over 24,019 volts in total. 16,348 of which this year through September with monthly sales on the rise. The volt is a plug in hybrid so it offers less electric range than the other cars mentioned here, but it does have the versatility of the gasoline range extender allowing you to drive as far as you need to, albeit on gasoline. Having the flexibility of a gasoline range extender is attractive to some perspective plug in car buyers, especially if they aren't sure an all electric car can suit their driving needs. I think PHEV's are a good 'gateway drug' to pure electric cars. I have no doubt many Volt owners will transition to pure electrics when they get their next car.

The aliens are coming for your Volt!
Marketing & Selling Electric Cars: Here's where everyone besides Tesla gets a failing grade(and they get no grade because they haven't had to even begin marketing yet). Back when General Motors made and leased the EV-1, the first modern day serious electric car made by a major OEM, they were highly criticized for not really trying to market the car. Some people claimed it was as if they wanted it to fail so they could say "Hey we tried, but nobody wanted them". They made a few commercials and they actually looked eerie, not inspiring or uplifting. Honestly, today's electric cars aren't getting much better support from marketing and sales staff. It's a joke. When Nissan launched the LEAF they aired commercials that showed a polar bear walking from the Arctic all the way to some guys driveway to hug him for buying a LEAF. I guess Nissan is telling you to buy a LEAF to save the polar bears, not because you'll actually like the car. A few months later Chevy had a Volt commercial that they aired during the Super Bowl that had animated aliens in a garage looking at a volt. The owner then came out and tried to explain to the aliens how the volt worked because they couldn't understand it. Really? Polar bears and aliens? People get paid millions of dollars to come up with this stuff. What's going on here? Do you think this gimmicky crap is what sells cars? How about a commercial with pretty girls and handsome guys having fun? How about focusing on the quiet, smooth driving experience and the instant torque of the electric motor? How about a car full of collage age kids driving past a gas station, pointing and laughing at the suckers sitting there while the pump registers $30, then $40 then $50 then $60? Let me say this loud and clear: People want to enjoy their cars, regardless of the fuel used to power them. Electric cars aren't medicine that you have to take because the planet needs you to. They are fun, fast and provide a BETTER driving experience then their gas counterparts and that's why you'll want to buy an electric car, because it's better! You get the environmental, economic and sociopolitical benefits as a bonus, but you buy the car because you enjoy it. You want to sell electric cars, start advertising them for what they are - better cars!

Now that I'm getting warmed up it's time to start really getting critical. As bad as the marketing has been, the sales process is exponentially worse. I'm going to focus on Chevrolet, Ford and Nissan because I don't really have any first hand experience with Mitsubishi and Tesla has to offer good EV customer service because all they sell are electric cars so I assume they will- they can't steer you into a less expensive gas car they have sitting in their showroom. I have even visited a couple Chevy and Nissan dealers to see how customers seeking information on their plug-in offerings were treated and I didn't come away impressed.

Ford isn't even stocking the electric Ford Focus. You have to order one, sight unseen. I haven't been to a Ford dealer to inquire about the FFE, but as I mentioned above a friend of mine did and he was very disappointed in the experience. He certainly wasn't inspired to buy one. Ford is clearly making the FFE for CARB compliance, and is not really interested in selling many of them.

In the Nissan dealers I have visited weren't too bad. They really didn't highly recommend the LEAF, but they also didn't consciously try to steer me into a different vehicle, like I experienced in some Chevy dealerships. They were like "Sure, if it's a LEAF you want we'll be happy to service you." However the client advisers really didn't know much about the it and one even told me it would pretty much go 100 miles per charge regardless of the weather as long as I drove it properly, which it certainly not true. I challenge anyone to drive a LEAF 100 miles on a charge in New Jersey in January - it's not happening - I don't even think you can do 80. Some dealers have a LEAF or two which is good to see them there, but without a couple on hand with different options and colors to choose from it's really hard to say the car has a fair chance.

I have a real problem with what's going on in some Chevy dealerships. It really seems that there are a good number of dealerships that simply don't believe in the car and just don't want to sell them. Last year I convinced an acquaintance who happens to be the former Mayor of a local town, to check out the Volt. He went to a large local dealership and asked if he could see a Volt. He was abruptly greeted with "Why do you want to see one of them?" and then "Where do you plan to plug it in?" He was then shuffled over to look at a Chevy Cruze after he was told "It's basically the same car, except it's half the price and it gets nearly 40mpg" He wasn't even shown a Volt. When he stopped by the restaurant a few days later he said the salesman really discouraged him into looking further into the volt, and even told him he doesn't even know if they will continue making them! I was so pissed I went to the dealership a few days later to see how I would be treated. I had even thought about arming myself with a hidden camera to record how the Volt was being demonized from within but didn't want to get involved and any legal issue if I posted the video on YouTube. I don't know if I had the same salesman, but the approach was similar. I checked online before I went and the dealers website said they had two Volts in stock. When I got there I walked around and couldn't see any. Finally a salesman came outside to meet with me and when I asked if they had any Volts he said yes, he thinks they might have one. We walked inside to try to locate the Volt and he asked if I knew much about it and I responded "a little" but that I heard it's a good car and I like the idea of driving an electric car. He asked his manager and was told yes they do have two Volts, but they were "Out back, and blocked in by a few cars" and "If I really wanted to test drive it then it would take a little while to get them out." I said yes I wanted to and about ten minutes later they brought out a black Volt that had a nice film of dust on it. We got in to go and I noticed the battery was just about completely depleted and only had about 5 miles of range left. The salesman did the best he could to tell me about the car, but honestly he knew next to nothing. He didn't know the charge rate, he didn't know how big the battery was or what kind of batteries were used. I asked him if the batteries GM used had a problem with 'memory effect' and he stared back at me as if I gave him a tough physics equation to tackle. When the range extender came on I remarked that I heard it turn on and he said that was something else because you can't hear the engine. I have driven many volts, GM did do a good job to mute the engine noise, but you can hear it if you are paying attention. Once we got back at the dealership I was quickly shuffled to his desk and asked to fill out a form that included all my personal information. He didn't even offer to find answers to the questions he didn't know. I rejected the form and said I'd like to first talk price and availability. That's when it got interesting. I was told the Volts were selling at sticker price without the option to negotiate and that there were only a few in the area that they could trade for. However they did have other comparable models there that they could 'put me in' for much less and I could drive off the lot in it today. I thanked him for his time and left. I never imagined it would be so hard to buy a car. I visited two other Chevy dealerships to see how I was treated. One was very accommodating and seemed like they would definitely do what they could to get me the Volt I wanted. The other was close to the experience I described above. they had  little interest in helping me, and basically told me a Cruze is a much better choice(not in so many words though). The real problem is I've heard about issues like this from quite a few others. There are some dealers selling a lot of Volts and really are enthusiastic about them, while others in the same area, with the same demographics sell little to none. Why is that? Is it all training? Does it go deeper? Is it a continuation of the political stance some people have on electric cars, that they are a bad idea forced down our throats by an administration that wants to tell you what is good for you? I'm not sure, but it does seem some dealerships are OK with allowing their client advisers to 'advise' their customers look at other models.

Here's an amazing story. Mike Kelly is a Republican Congressman in Pennsylvania. He also owns a Chevy dealership(that was handed to him by his father). He refuses to sell Volts. In fact he fired an employee that works for him because he ordered one from Chevy because he was told by GM that the dealership had to stock at least one Volt. When Mr Kelly found out that he ordered the car he fired him because he refuses to stock or sell Volts, even if a customer comes in and wants one! C'mon, how does Chevy expect sell Volts if this is going on? I am actually surprised the Volt is selling as well as it is since it's under constant assault from much of the media and even has to endure friendly fire from some Chevy dealers. Read about it here.

Alysha Webb recently wrote on "Getting dealers on the Volt’s side is crucial. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entitled “Policy Priorities for Advancing the U.S. Electric Vehicle Market” recommended using dealers as marketers and advocates to boost electric vehicle sales" There are a lot of very experienced electric car owners and advocates out there, how about enlisting some of us to be part of the solution? Whatever the formula, something need to be done to get the manufacturers, the marketing departments and the dealers on the same page and supporting their plug-in offerings. I haven't seen anybody even come close to doing it right so far. Will BMW? I don't really know. I'd like to think they are smart enough to see what has been going on and realize they need to do better. When they launch the i brand next year they have an opportunity to be the first major OEM to really do it right. They can seize the public's interest (there is interest in plug-in cars) in these cars, help the consumer understand the differences, the advantages and the shortcomings of these cars. The key is to have the information accessible, and have a sales force ready to respond to the challenges unique to living with a plug in car. Most people don't know what BEV, PHEV, PEV, EREV, REx and HEV even mean, let alone the differences, and that's just the start. Where can I plug in? How much does it cost in electricity? What do I do if I run out? How will the weather effect the range? Can I charge if it's raining? How about snowing? These are the simple questions that everybody asks and there are a lot more, but surprisingly even these softballs can't be properly answered by some Chevy and Nissan salesmen. Preparing the client advisers, giving them the tools to instill confidence in their clients is paramount. If the prospective customer isn't 100% sure their adviser knows what they are talking about and can help them with every issue they may face then they aren't going to feel comfortable buying a plug-in car. It takes a leap of faith to buy your first plug in car and the customer needs to be nurtured a bit so they feel they are making the right decision.

Still surprised plug in sales haven't lived up to the hype? I don't know why you would be. Somebody, at some point is going to figure this out. Hopefully sooner than later.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Point of No Return

Plugged in and charging 120v at Buttermilk Falls Inn & Spa, in Milton, NY
Months ago when my wife told me we would be going to her cousin's wedding this September and that it was in upstate New York, I assumed we'd be taking our gas car. The reason being most of upstate NY is well out a a single charge range for the ActiveE and I really didn't think we'd want to stop on the way for a couple hours (both ways) just so we could take the ActiveE.

The portable 120v EVSE charging me up
Then one day about a month ago my wife asked me if I had wanted to take the ActiveE or her Equinox to the wedding. She said she checked with Google Maps and the Inn where it was being held was a little over 90 miles from our house so in theory it was possible to take the ActiveE. I then went to my computer and started looking at the route, the elevations and if there were any possible charging stations in case of an emergency. I found a Nissan dealer that was on the way, actually only about fifteen miles from the Inn where the ceremony was being held. So I then really started thinking about it. Next I had to call the Inn where we were staying and ask if they had any 120v outlets near the parking area where I could plug into while I was staying there. They did and told me I was welcome to plug in and charge while I was there.

The property was really beautiful
OK so the trip was doable, at least on paper. The problem was I couldn't run out on the way there under ANY circumstance. My wife was part of the ceremony and I would never have heard the end of it if she didn't make her cousin's wedding because my electric car ran out of juice. The trip was practically all highway, and 75-85mph is the average flow of traffic along this route and to make matters worse there were very little flat roads, it was all up and down hills and that really kills the range of the ActiveE. So I started to feel a little uneasy about the trip, even knowing I could stop if necessary about 82 miles in at the Nissan dealer provided they let me use their charger. Then as the day approached, I noticed the weather forecast was for rain, another obstacle as driving in the rain will also cut into your range. It wouldn't take many miles off the range, but I knew I wouldn't have many to spare so I got back on the computer and looked up a different route. I found that by leaving from my restaurant, I'd cut about 15 miles off the trip so I decided to drive to the restaurant, top off and start the journey from there.

Drafting for a bit!
Once we started out it didn't take me long to realize we would make it with power to spare. I was driving about 70mph in the slow lane and while most cars were passing me, they weren't blowing by me and I didn't feel like I was holding up traffic at all. I even hooked up behind a tractor trailer for a bit and drafted for about 20 miles.  Once I saw we were half way there and I still had about 60% state of charge I realized we were in good shape and I moved into the middle lane and started driving about 75mph. We made it there with 13% SOC remaining. I found the outlet they said I could use and I plugged in. Mission accomplished - or so I thought.

The building the outlet was on looked old and I was concerned about overloading the circuit so I set the convenience charger to charge at the lower setting. I have never charged at this setting before so I really didn't know just how slow it would charge at. I know on the high speed setting the car will charge about 4-5% per hour (as opposed to 18-20% per hour when charging on a 240v supply) so I figured I'd monitor the charging and if it was taking too long I'd set it on the high speed and hope it didn't trip the circuit breaker. The next morning I checked the car and it was only at 42%. WOW this thing charges slowly on the low 120v setting! However I still had plenty of time as I wasn't leaving till the next morning.

The tents where we held the ceremony
Then came the trouble. It started raining, well really pouring like crazy. A few hours later I checked on the car and it was no longer charging. The GFI tripped on the outlet so I reset it and it began charging again however when I checked it again an hour later it was tripped again. So now I was concerned. I still had plenty of time, but I needed to get the car up to about 85% to feel confident I'd make it back to the restaurant - going home was out of the question. All afternoon this went on and I reset the outlet about ten times. By nighttime, after the wedding, the car was only at about 55% and still tripping the GFI. I then figured I had no choice but to set it at the higher charging rate and hope I didn't trip the actual circuit breaker because I'd then have to get somebody from maintenance to reset it so I could continue charging. I set it at the high rate and went off to my room to go to sleep.

I had to keep resetting the GFCI
When I woke up in the morning I immediately went out to check it and as I walked up tot the car I could see the charging indicator light wasn't blinking so I knew either the GFI tripped or I blew the circuit breaker. I went to the outlet and saw the GFI reset button was tripped so that was good news. I reset it and the car started charging again. I opened the door and saw I was now up to 75%. Not great, but close to where I needed to get. We were still going to be there for about 5 hours so I had time provided the car continued to charge. After breakfast I checked and it was tripped again. I was now up to 81% and very close to what I needed. After checking it every half hour and resetting it two more times I was finally able to get it to the 85% I wanted before we had to leave with no time to spare.

As I rolled into the parking lot of my restaurant, the state of charge was zero. A few minutes earlier I had considered stopping at a public charger two miles away because I only had 1% left but I just drove slowly the last mile and made it. I had never relied on the 120v convenience charger to make a long trip before and I'm not sure I'd do it again unless I had plenty of time to deal with unexpected charging challenges. I've heard a lot of other ActiveE drivers complain about issues charging with the 120v portable charger also. Sometimes the car simply won't charge with it and I suspect that happens if the power delivery isn't within parameters. Perhaps the location has a low or high voltage problem and the car won't accept it. When you get past the point of no return with an EV, the point where you can't make it home without charging somewhere you need to feel comfortable that you'll be successful charging. While I do feel confident when charging on proper level 2 charging stations, I don't feel good about charging the ActiveE on 120v. I don't know if it's the car, or the portable convenience charger itself, but I would like to see improvement on this when BMW launches the i3.

Off to the next electric adventure...  :)