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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.