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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...  :)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What Information Do You Want Your EV To Display?

A screen shot of the concept i3 drivers display. Nice and simple but where is my SOC?
We are living in an age where there is so much information available we can suffer from information overload from time to time. We have even created the acronym "TMI" (too much information) to quickly announce the information you have been presented with is more than you care to know about the subject. 

F-16 cockpit display
Automakers struggle with this also and are constantly trying to find the right balance of information that is displayed in their cars. With on-board computers constantly monitoring thousands of functions, they could easily display so much of the car's information that the display would look like the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet. Although I'm sure a few people would like dozens of gauges and digital displays, most customers would find it overwhelming and so complicated that the information they want to see would seem buried amongst the useless technical data that few really care about. This was difficult enough with gas cars. Manufacturers have been working with the information displays on gas cars for a long time and pretty much understand what the public wants and how they like it displayed. However when it comes to EVs, I'm not so sure they quite yet understand what the prospective EV customer wants. 

I do understand the dilemma they have. Should they make the display look as much like it does on a gas car so the transition from gas to electric is easier? I think the majority of hardcore EV enthusiasts will say "No way!"  Electric cars are about the evolution of the automobile and the information displayed should also evolve.  In other words, they want more, they want as much as they can have. Then on the other hand I have spoken to people who worry they won't understand a whole bunch of new gauges like real time consumption measured in miles per kilowatt hour. Everyone understands MPG, but miles per kWh? Not so much.

Nissan LEAF drivers instrument cluster. Note the SOC bar graph on the right
After driving electric vehicles for about three and a half years now the single most important piece of information I want to see is the vehicle's state of charge or SOC and I want it shown front and center in a numerical value. Nissan made a terrible decision to display the LEAF's SOC with twelve bars like a gas gauge, each representing 8.33% of the cars stored energy(I assumed they were equal, but I've been told by LEAF owners they are not and the first few bars represent more energy than the last few- even more confusing!). Quick, tell me what percentage of the battery do you have left and how far you can go if you only have 5 of the twelve bars remaining? Most people can't without thinking and most everyone I have spoken to who has a LEAF absolutely hates the SOC bar graph. Please give us a clear numeric value for the state of charge and have it displayed all the time on the drivers instrument cluster. I don't want to have to search through options on the car's center information stack to get to it like I have to do with the ActiveE. (note: BMW gets a pass on the ActiveE because this is a conversion and they do have the SOC in a numeric display, just not on the drivers instrument cluster where it is shown using the existing gas gauge that the 1 series uses)

Multiple display settings of the Ford Focus EV
I have not yet driven a Ford Focus Electric, but what I've read about the instrumentation has been been mixed reviews. Some like the various screen views that display range and a 'brake coach' that evidently helps you use the regenerative braking to your best advantage. However most everyone seems to dislike the 'points' game that Ford is using to help the drivers learn to drive more efficiently. Evidently you start out with an estimated range, lets say 76 miles which is the EPA rating for the FFE. As you drive, if you drive efficiently and the estimated range goes up a mile you get a point and if you drive inefficiently and the estimated range goes down you lose a point. You also get butterflies for every point you earn. (yeah I'm not kidding, there is actually a butterfly display screen; what a great use of prime real estate - ugh) So while you drive you see if you are earning or losing points, like a video game. This is supposedly meant to help teach the driver to be more efficient so the car will go further. You want to go further? Slow down. Period, end of story. Of course there are other techniques like gradually accelerating instead of stepping on it from a standstill and finding routes that have less hills, but in the range game speed kills it's really that simple. Ford's use of these points and butterfly game is what I'd call finding a solution when there was really no problem to begin with. If they really wanted to have something that coached people to drive more efficiently it shouldn't include a points system and using up valuable space on the drivers information cluster with pictures of blue butterflies.

Recently Honda started leasing a converted Fit electric car to select markets in California. I happen to know a couple of the first Fit EV lessees as they were MINI-E lessees also. Peder Norby, Colby Trudeau and Matt Walton have all leased a Fit EV and all are very happy with it so far. They have posted pictures of the FIT EVs displays online and Peder sent me some pictures at my request. I do like how it displays the regained energy form regenerative braking. Neither the MINI-E nor the ActiveE display that information so I really don't know how much it's helping. I know it is, and I know the car is going further because of it, but without a gauge to let me know either how many kWhs the regen supplied to the battery pack or how many miles it's added to my trip. I have no idea how effective it is. I hope BMW doesn't drop the ball on this. I want to see this info on the i3. It's not the kind of info I need displayed all the time on a permanent gauge, but I want it there so I can view it at my discretion.

So what exactly do I want to see? Well I do want a lot of information, but I don't necessarily want it all being displayed all the time cluttering up the displays. I'd like a clean looking display with only the basic, necessary information on display all the time. Don't clutter up the displays with TMI, and please no leaves, butterflies or smiling polar bears. The other pertinent info can be called to the center stack info screen upon request. For the purpose of this post I am only talking about the information related to the electric drive, not navigation or entertainment related displays.  Here's how my displays would look if I could design them:

Main instrument cluster in front of the driver:
(This info should be shown all the time)

-Large MPH and SOC(a number, not a bar graph) display front & center.
-Battery temperature & outside temperature.
-Estimated remaining driving range.
-What mode the car is in (Normal, sport, Eco Pro, etc)
-Battery low warnings when applicable

Center stack display:
(This information could be on multiple screens, with user scrolling necessary)

-Power use/regen gained display with real time energy use and regeneration displayed in kwh's. 
-Trip information. Miles driven, consumption rate, kWh's used, kWh's regained from regen, average speed, time elapsed. 
-Historic information: All the information from trip info, combined with previous trips until it is reset. 
-Energy consumption breakdown: I'd like to know what percentage of my energy consumption broken down into three categories: how much energy was used by the electric drive motor, how much by the thermal management system, and how much by the other electrical devices like cabin heating, radio, lights etc
-Charging station locator
The ActiveE display is a 1 Series conversion just like the car. I am not a fan of the fuel-type gauge for battery state of charge. I want a numeric percentage of the battery SOC staring back at me when I drive my EV.
So that's what I want. Now let me know what you want! Please leave comments below and tell me what information you want for your ideal EV.