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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

3-2-1-LAUNCH!.... Err, Not So Much

Reading the ActiveE's owners manual I came across something interesting on page 50, the "Launch Mode". 

I admit, I had visions of long smoking burnouts and blowing away some ICE cars off the line to prompt a "What does that thing have in it?" question when they catch up to me at the next traffic light.

However it was not to be.

You can activate the launch mode by deactivating the Dynamic Stability Control which is the top button below the center display unit in between the two air vents. You then basically "power brake" by flooring the accelerator while depressing the friction brake. When you release the brake, the car should "launch" forward in a blaze of glory as all the torque from the electric motor is suddenly released as the rear wheels break free of their grip on the pavement and spin furiously forward. A little checkered flag icon appears on the display and I'm thinking this is going to be a Tesla-like experience. How cool is this that BMW put this on the car? It's like they are encouraging us to drag race!

Nope. When I released the friction brake the car behaved pretty much the same as it usually does. Don't get me wrong, the ActiveE does have a lot of torque and (especially in low speeds) is a lot of fun to drive as it offers plenty of power to have fun. It's just that when you include a feature that's called "launch mode" and it lights up a checkered flag icon, I think it's reasonable to assume you're ready for the races, and it just isn't so.

Just like the MINI-E, BMW has tuned down the torque available from a standstill and at very low speeds. This is because the car, with its 184 lb/ft of torque would spin the tires like crazy if they didn't do that and it would also put a tremendous amount of stress on the gearbox. For this reason, you don't get 100% of the car's power until you are going about 10mph. I had hoped that the launch mode would make all of the power available from a standstill, too bad it doesn't. Perhaps because this is a test car and it's BMW's responsibility to maintain and repair them they won't let us do a "proper launch". For what it's worth, I'd like to see the launch mode on the i3 put 100% of the power to the rear wheels from a standstill. Otherwise like the ActiveE, all we'll have is a "failure to launch".

Monday, February 27, 2012

Just Out Crusin'

It was a beautiful day this past Saturday and I was fully charged as always in the morning so my wife and I hopped into the ActiveE and went for a leisurely drive around Northern New Jersey. 

Driving around the winding roads of rural New Jersey the ActiveE is such a pleasure to pilot. The instant torque of the electric motor and the aggressive regenerative braking really make driving very enjoyable. The car carves up the curves without touching the friction brakes, as the regen allows me to gradually slow the car down coming into turns simply by lifting the accelerator pedal a bit.

Without even realizing it, and without really going "anywhere" we had driven over 80 miles and managed to visit some areas that we've never seen before. Another thing I love about driving in remote rural areas is how peaceful and quiet it is as I drive along. Sometimes I even turn off the radio and listen to the "silence" for a while. The ActiveE is extremely quiet, and the cabin is much better insulated from road noise than the MINI-E was. You can hear the whine of the regen, but barely hear the electric motor during acceleration. You really need to experience electric drive to appreciate it because it's very different than driving a gas car. There's no engine vibration, no audible feedback when you accelerate and no jerking and shifting gears. It's just a smooth linear acceleration, kind of like being pulled along by a string. Words just don't do it justice, but now that the ActiveE program is open and every day more and more people pick up their shiny new electric BMW's, more and more people are getting hooked on electric drive, even if they don't quite know that just yet. Just give them a little time...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

We Are The 99%

BMW called the MINI-E lessees "Pioneers". I didn't really like it at first, kind of found it to be a bit hokey, but after living with the car for a while, dealing with its issues, re-learning everything I knew about how to live with, refuel and drive an automobile, I warmed up to the Pioneer name and eventually embraced it. Just as I got used to the Pioneer thing, the MINI-E program ended.  Now that I'm driving the ActiveE, the next step in BMW e-mobility, BMW has decided to call the drivers "Electronauts". Again, I'm finding it a bit hard to embrace and maybe in time I will, just as I did before. Some people in the program have referred to the ActiveE lessees as the "700 Club". Not because we are affiliated with any particular religious group that uses that name, but because there will be 700 ActiveEs leased here in the US. I figured with all these names being thrown around, I'll throw one out there too, the "99%ers".

Now before anyone thinks I'm connecting the ActiveE to the Tea Party or the people that have been occupying areas all over the country, I'm not. I'm calling us the 99%ers because it seems the car won't charge past 99%! Every day when I start my journey, the car begins not at 100%, but at 99% and sometimes even at 98%. I have talked to others driving the ActiveE and they have said they are experiencing the same thing. At first I thought it had something to do with preconditioning the car but that's not the case. Now that it's warmed up a little, I haven't been using the preconditioning and I still get the same thing. Occasionally when it finishes charging, I will see it momentarily hit 100%, but before I can even roll one foot forward it drops to 99%. I'm sure this is some kind of software program that prevents the car from over charging and it just needs to be tweaked a bit to allow just a bit more charging before it shuts off the charger.

It may seem like a trivial thing, but it's really not. On days that I need to push the limits of the car I like to start out the day driving as conservatively as possible, saving every ounce of energy and preserving the state of charge from needlessly dropping faster than it has to. With the MINI-E, I used to see how far I could drive from my house before the SOC dropped to 99%, Some days I could make it nearly two miles if I really feathered the accelerator. It was a little game I played and I enjoyed it. With the ActiveE, I'm not out of the garage and it's 99% and sometimes I don't get out of my 350' long driveway before it's at 98%. It's not that the car isn't efficient, because I'm getting at least as good a range as I did with the MINI-E, and maybe better. It's that the car just doesn't allow itself to be completely 100% charged.

I know I'm nitpicking here. But seriously, the ActiveE is such a great EV I need to nitpick to come up with things that BMW needs to work on and refine for the i3 and this is one of them. The purpose of this program is to fully vet the components and software so the i3 is rock solid. So here's one for the BMW engineers/code writers to get to work on. I want the car to charge fully to 100% every time!

Until then, we are the 99%!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reunited with MINI-E #250 for a moment!

Even though I removed my side scuttle numbers as a memento, #250 was easy to identify by the bumper stickers I had stuck to the rear of the car. 

During the week I had to make a trip to BMW Headquarters because I left something there on a previous visit that I had to pick up. When I arrived I noticed one of the parking lots had a bunch of returned MINI-Es so I had to go see if I could find my old MINI-E, #250. I was surprised to see it was the first one parked in the row, so I pulled next to it and took a picture. My "Starve a terrorist. Drive electric" bumper sticker was still on the rear window, and was a dead giveaway.

During the ActiveE handover ceremony, I repeatedly asked BMW president Ludwig Willisch if I could also keep the MINI-E. I did so jokingly, well maybe only half-jokingly. The truth is I really loved that little car and didn't know if I would like the ActiveE as much, plus it's always to say goodbye to an old friend. 

Well, it's been exactly a month since I got my ActiveE, and although there have been a couple software glitches that I'm told will be addressed soon, I have to say I really haven't thought much about the MINI-E. The ActiveE is a much more complete electric car that I don't yearn for the "good old days with the MINI-E". I think part of why I feel this way is because it's the winter and the ActiveE is MUCH better in cold weather than the MINI-E was. Having the ability to precondition the cabin and warm up the battery while it's still plugged in is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary for electric cars in cold weather climates. When I leave work at 11:00pm and it's 20 degrees outside now, the interior is warm, the batteries are around 60 degrees and the car is fully charged. When I had the MINI-E the car was a frozen block of ice after sitting outside in the parking lot for 12 hours and the batteries were in the 40's. When they got that cold, the range would shrink considerably, the regenerative braking would disengage and the car would take much longer than normal to charge. Plus, I needed to run the cabin heater on high the whole way home which used even more of the battery. During the winter months I would always keep a blanket, gloves and a hat in the MINI-E so that when I drove home at night I could warm up faster. That's not necessary now.

The MINI-E really was at it's best in warmer weather, and if it were spring or summer I might be feeling a bit more nostalgic looking at it in the parking lot next to my shiny new ActiveE. But for now those seat warmers in the ActiveE feel awfully good when it's bitter cold and definitely help me to get over giving back MINI-E #250.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

New Jersey TV Segment on Me and the ActiveE!

New Jersey TV interviewed me about being the first ActiveE customer. They also stopped to chat with Michael Thwaite who is another BMW ActiveE customer and also has an awesome Tesla Roadster.

The interview happened at my home and lasted for about an hour. It aired on NJ TV on Tuesday, February 7th and was then made available online. I love doing things like this because it helps to create awareness about electric vehicles and lets people know they are viable for personal transportation and that there are regular people out there driving them everyday.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Past, Present & Future

I was taking a leisurely drive with my wife through rural north-western New Jersey and we came across this old abandoned gas station. I just had to stop for a photo-op. I couldn't let the irony of me driving by the old rusting gas pumps go without being documented!

The pumps say "Flying A" and I had never seen this gas company and assumed that the company was no longer in business. However I did a quick search and found that there are still some Flying A gas stations in business, just none here in NJ.

This confrontation of the past and present begs the question "What's the future?" Where are we going with personal transportation? Will electric vehicles be widely accepted? Will a dark horse like hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become the preferred mode of transportation, or will we just continue to burn oil until we are so perilously low on the stuff and prices skyrocket to unthinkable levels?

Me with my MINI-E & solar system
My personal experience of driving an electric car and charging it with clean, renewable energy I generate from sunlight makes me believe this method will eventually win. The battery prices for electric cars continue to drop, just as a variety of more efficient battery chemistries are well into development. Just like the batteries, solar electric systems are becoming more and more affordable every day and the panels are getting more and more efficient. Indeed the future looks bright for electric cars. It's going to take some time to break the stranglehold that oil has on us, but in my opinion it will happen. The combination of EV + PV is just too good to fail.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I'm Loving The New Features!

It's been about three weeks since I was handed the keys to my ActiveE by BMW North American President, Ludwig Willisch. I've spent a lot of the time getting used to the new features, experimenting with the pre-conditioning and delayed charge settings as well as learning how to navigate through the BMW Connect display settings.

There's a lot to learn, even the radio settings can be a challenge when you first try to set the stations to memory because you can use the radio buttons to set things other than radio stations! Now that I think I've figured out just about everything, I can report on what I like and don't. There aren't many don'ts, but I did find a couple things I'd like to change.

New features that I like:

Open Drivers Door Powers Down Car:

The car puts itself in park and powers off if you open the drivers door while the car is turned on. (notice I didn't say "running" like a gas car because EV's really don't "run", they're just powered on).  These cars are so quiet, silent actually, that when they are stopped, you can inadvertently leave it on and walk away. One time with the MINI-E I actually left the car turned on all night. It didn't use much energy so the state of charge was still fine the next morning, but I must have been distracted - probably from filling out my data logs - and I just left the key in it and went inside for the night. Another good reason for this is you could have stopped and left the car in drive and when you get out it could roll forwards or backwards if it's on an incline. Even though most electric cars like the ActiveE have what most would call an automatic transmission, it rolls like a manual transmission does when it's in neutral. Therefore if the car is in drive or reverse and no power is applied, it will roll like it is out of gear. I admit, this isn't something I thought about previously but after having it, I like it and think it should be standard on all electric vehicle for safety reasons.

Speed Warning:                                                                                                                                        

Sometimes when you are driving an electric car you need to stretch the range as much as possible to make your destination. The single best way to extend your range is very simple: slow down. I can remember many times in the MINI-E when I was driving on the highway and needed to push the car's range limit, I would suddenly look down at the speedometer and see I was going too fast and using too much energy. The MINI-E wanted to be driven fast and you could easily do 80mph without realizing it. The ActiveE is even more willing to go fast, but you have two ways to control your speed and not accidentally go too fast. First it has cruise control, amen to that. This can be used to make sure you stay at the speed you desire on long highway trips. Then there is a new feature called the speed warning and I love it. You can set the speed warning at any speed you like and if you exceed what you have set, you get an audible alert and a "Limit" icon lights up on the dash. Well done BMW! This is a great feature for an EV. It helps you drive more efficiently and can keep you from getting a speeding ticket to boot!

There are plenty of other things I really like about the car like the heated leather seats, the rock-solid feel the car has, the ultra-quiet cabin that filters out all the road noise, BMW Connect, Bluetooth, the handling and responsive throttle plus much more, but they'll be plenty of time to elaborate on other things in future posts.

As for some things I would change:

I've been spending most of the time driving in Eco Pro mode as it provides a superior range. Eco Pro mode does this by limiting the power the car sends to the motor and to the cabin heating and cooling. The heated seats don't work at all in this mode, but the cabin fan does blow nice and warm so you can stay comfortable inside when it's cold outside. I don't mind the limited power in Eco Pro mode because the car is still more than powerful enough and if I really need a burst of energy I can momentarily disengage Eco Pro mode and then turn it back on. It seems that the car has a 10-15% greater range in Eco Pro mode and that's nothing to sneeze at. The thing I dislike about it is that every time you start a new trip in the car, it defaults to "normal" mode and you have to press the Eco Pro button to engage it. I would like the car to default to Eco Pro mode and if you want a more spirited driving experience you should need to press the "sport" mode button. By defaulting to Eco Pro mode I think your overall efficiency will be much better. Even if BMW doesn't like the idea of defaulting to this mode, they should allow the owner to set which mode the car defaults to, then everybody is happy.

The other thing I'd like to see changed also involves a setting. The driver can set the car to precondition or charge at any time they like. Preconditioning is the car's ability to warm or cool the batteries and cabin while it's still plugged into the grid. Therefore, you leave for your journey with a full battery and the car is warmed up or cooled down already. In the car's settings you can choose to precondition now, or at a later time that you set. The problem is, the setting only holds once and then resets. If you leave for work at 8:00 every morning, you may want the car to precondition every morning at 7:30. The way the car is now, you have to set it every night and if you forget, no preconditioning for you! Not user friendly. The same goes for the charging. You can set the car to begin charging at any time. This is particularity useful if you have time-of-use electric rates and pay less for electricity if you charge at off peak hours. You might want your car to start charging at 1:00am to get low electric rates. The car can do it, but again you have to set it every time you want to charge. I certainly expect the preconditioning and charging settings on the upcoming BMW i3 to allow the user to set a time and lock it in because this way is to cumbersome and requires too much work.

Overall the car is all I expected and more and I really look forward to driving it for the next two years. It's really a great car and feels and drives like any other BMW. Why shouldn't it?  After all, it is the "Ultimate driving EV"