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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Heat Is On!

My ActiveE is back where it belongs - charging in my garage, after being in for service for six days
I'm back in the saddle again. After six days of driving a BMW 128ix loaner while my ActiveE was in the shop to have the heater fixed I'm happy to report the heat is on and I'm back to driving on electrons.

I've written this before but it still surprises me how much I miss the car while it's in for service. In the past when I've had my gas cars being serviced I always kinda liked driving the loaner car for a few days. It gave me an opportunity to drive a car that I never had before and perhaps consider buying one in the future. I remember one time I had my Mercedes ML430 in for service and was given an E430 Sport to drive and almost bought afterwards one because I liked is so much. However when you're driving an electric car and you get a gas loaner, you really don't care what they give you, you just want your electric car back!

Range Anxiety - Gasoline Style!
That's not just me talking either. Many of the BMW ActiveE drivers have complained that they are "forced" to drive a gas BMW and would much rather drive a loaner ActiveE while their car is being serviced. I'd previously never heard of anyone demanding to have the same type of loaner car when their's in for service.  But electric vehicle drivers do. Once you've had the pleasure of driving electric, even premium automobiles like a BMW 5 series just doesn't feel the same anymore. You notice the loud noise of the engine, the herky-jerky transmission shifting and the vibrations right up through the steering wheel. Compared to the quiet, smooth driving experience of the ActiveE it just feels primitive. Nissan has had the same requests when LEAF owners have the car in for service too and many Nissan dealers have been meeting that request with LEAF loaners.

I hope BMW is listening to their customers and figures out a way to offer their i3 customers loaner i3's while their car is being serviced. That would definitely be part of the "premium electric driving experience" that I expect from BMW. I know it's not easy because they have to get their dealerships on board and here in the US, the dealerships are independently owned and the manufacturer has limited power over them with matters like what kind of loaner cars they provide. I'm not even sure BMW can force their dealers to offer any loaner if the dealer doesn't want to, but that would be a very bad decision and would certainly hurt any dealership if they decided they wouldn't provide loaner cars to their clients. However I'm sure some savvy dealerships will certainly realize this is a great perk and offer i3's as loaner cars and they will end up selling more i3's then their competitors I can guarantee it. In fact I will certainly have this conversation with my current dealer, JMK BMW before I buy my i3 and hopefully I can convince them that it is a smart business decision to do so.

My car charging up at JMK BMW
Speaking of JMK BMW, I'd like to give them a shout out because of the exceptional service they provide me. My client adviser Manny Antunes and my service adviser Hilario Soares are always right on top of things and give me great service whenever I visit the dealership. I'm very happy I chose to get my ActiveE from JMK even though it's not the closest dealer to my home. As always my car was 100% charged and thoroughly cleaned when I picked it up. Thanks guys!

Saturday, January 26, 2013


We had the coldest streak in a couple of years this week. Unfortunately the cabin heater in my ActiveE decided it was no longer going to work on the coldest night!
When an electric car owner pulls up to a public charging station and finds a gas car parked there blocking the access to the plug we call it being "iced". ICE is an acronym for Internal Combustion Engine, which is what powers a gas car. This week I was iced in a couple of ways, however not by a blocked charger.

4 degrees Fahrenheit. Not fun. 
First, it's been cold. Make that REAL cold. Now maybe not REAL cold for the folks who live in Fargo, North Dakota or Manitoba, Canada, but for us here in New Jersey when we get into single digit temperatures, it's REAL cold. It was so cold, the heating system in my restaurant was struggling to keep the front dining room warm and I had to get some portable heaters just to take the chill out of the air and make it comfortable for the patrons. Then, as I was driving home from work on the coldest night of the week, suddenly I felt the cabin of the ActiveE getting cold so I turned up the heat a bit and it only got colder. Well, the cabin heater decided it no longer wanted to work so pretty quickly the car went from comfortable to really cold. 

The seat heaters do work well!
Luckily the seat heaters were still working and after a few minutes they had my body nice and warm even thought the air temperature in the cabin must have been under 40 degrees. I got home and plugged in and hoped that the next day everything would work and I'd just write it off as one of the ActiveE's quirks. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. The heater didn't work the next day either so I bundled up, put on gloves and brought along a blanket to throw over my lap (a little trick carried over from my MINI-E days). Even though it was really cold again - about 10 degrees, I was pretty comfortable with the seat heaters and dressed up warmly. I knew I wouldn't be able to take the car to my dealer that day because I had a really busy schedule all day. The next day I did bring the car to JMK BMW in Springfield, NJ and they gave me a nice blue 328ix as a loaner.

My 328ix loaner
So now I'm back to driving on gas until the heater gets repaired or replaced. Hopefully it won't be too long, but the ActiveE parts aren't normally stocked items and can take a while for the dealer to get. In gas cars the waste heat from the engine is used for cabin heating. That's why it takes a while for the heat to initially come on when you get into a cold car. The engine needs to warm up first before it can provide you with heat. In electric cars there is no engine to capture the waste heat from so they have to have an actual electric heater. The advantage of that is it comes on blowing hot air as soon as you get in the car. You don't have to wait for anything to warm up. However these heaters are typically not very energy efficient and by using them you do cut into the range of the car because they do consume a considerable amount of energy. The electric seat heaters use much less energy that the cabin heaters do which is why it makes sense to use them instead of the cabin heater as much as possible and why heated seats are usually standard equipment on electric cars.

So now I'm driving an ICE, in the snow and ice, after a week of colder-than-ice weather. I guess this is all there is to say...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

One Year Wrap Up

You can see the solar array on my roof in background. It produces about 10MWh's of electricity per year . 
Getting the keys to the first ActiveE
A year ago today I was at BMW's North American headquarters accepting the keys from BMW president Ludwig Willisch. In doing so I became the very first customer to lease or buy a fully electric BMW in company history, which was quite an honor. BMW selected me because I was one of the MINI-E pioneers, and because I was vocal supporter of BMW's electric mobility program. Still, there were plenty of others they could have chosen, like Todd Crook, Peder Norby, Don Young or any number of people that were dedicated MINI-E pioneers so it was really quite an honor.

The ActiveE has really lived up to my expectations. It is really a huge step forward from the MINI-E in just about every regard. Shortly after I got the car I called it an electric tank because it feels so solid when you are driving, and even after 35,000 miles it feels exactly the same. I'm sure that's partly because of the superior build quality that all BMW products share, but I also think the fact that it doesn't have an internal combustion engine vibrating the chassis constantly, causing rattles, squeaks and loosening fittings every time the motor is running has also contributed to the solid feel the car has maintained. 35,000 miles means I averaged 96 miles per day, every day of the year. There were plenty of days that I didn't drive the car at all so I probably averaged about 115 miles per day on the days I did drive it. That might surprise some people because it's more than the car can do on a single charge but by plugging in during the day to top off it's actually no problem to drive it 150 to 200 miles on the same day, and I did that quite often.  Driving that much isn't preferred, but the premium driving experience of the electric ActiveE makes my time in the car much easier.
35,156 miles in 366 days

As I did with the MINI-E, I've recorded data from every day I've had the car, and have 784 entries from this year of driving. By doing so I can really see range trends based on my driving speed and ambient temperature as well as detecting when the range degrades due to battery capacity loss. There hasn't been much capacity loss to measure yet, perhaps 2% or 3% at most. Ambient temperature is really the biggest range thief. Even with the sophisticated thermal management system the ActiveE has, the cold still cuts into the range, and it cuts deeply. I frequently complained about how poorly the MINI-E would perform in the cold weather and I was really hoping the thermal management of the ActiveE would make a huge difference to help the car offer a more consistent cold weather range. Don't get me wrong, it definitely helps and the ActiveE does perform much better than the MINI-E did in the cold, but it still suffers as much as a 35% loss of range in the cold winter days. There are even isolated days where I've measured as much as a 40% range loss. That's something that will certainly be of concern for customers of electric cars, and the manufacturers need to fully explain this to them during the sales process. The figures below are my monthly average range and observed driving temperature:

Month   Temp.   Range(Ave miles per charge)
January     34         79
February   38         83
March       48         90
April         55         95
May          66         96
June         73         98
July          80         94
August      79         94
Sept.        65         92
October     54         87
Nov.          45         78
Dec.          37         73
Jan(2013)  36         72

My consumption rate is way down in the cold
If the average temperatures seem a little lower than you might think it's because I frequently drive late at night. I drive home at night after my restaurant closes so the temperatures are cooler than they are during daylight hours. Also, you might notice that my range was noticeably better in January and February of last year which might lead you to believe the reason is because of battery capacity loss. The real reason behind that is when I first got the car last year, I was really trying to drive efficiently to see how much I could squeeze out of every recharge. I  had a lot of future ActiveE drivers asking me how far I could go per charge, so at the time I was driving much more efficiently than I normally do so I could report back to them how well the car was doing. Now that I'm settled in with the car, I drive it like I would any other car, which isn't really the most efficient driving style. I'm frequently driving 80-85mph on the highway and stomping on the accelerator to take off quickly every opportunity I have. The car is fun to drive, so I'm going to have fun with it. That's what's going to sell electric cars, they are fun! Once people get a chance to drive them and experience the great driving experience they offer then they will want to buy one also.

Driving electric this year cost me about $2,000 in electricity. If I was driving a BMW128i, the car the ActiveE was converted from, it would have cost me about $6,000 in gasoline. That's $333 per month of savings, and more than half my lease payment! It's easy to see how electric cars will pay for their initial higher cost over time by the fuel and maintenance savings. The problem is people often look only at the initial cost of a car, and not the total cost of ownership. I think BMW should show potential customers a graph with the total cost of ownership when they are selling the i brand cars. This will help people justify paying 20% more up front over a comparable gas car when they realize they will be getting the money back in the long run.

So one year down and one to go. It's hard to believe half my time with the ActiveE is already up. As much as I do love the car I have to admit I already looking forward to the BMW i3. Like the ActiveE was a huge improvement over the MINI-E, I'm confident the i3 will be even that much better. The i3 isn't a limited production test car like the MINI-E and ActiveE, and BMW has a lot riding on it. This is the electric car that BMW is betting will bring electric drive to their customers worldwide. It has big shoes to fill, but I'm betting BMW won't disappoint.

Another year of driving an electric car powered by sunshine. Why would I ever want to go back to this?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

EV + PV + Snow Can Equal Driving on Grid Power

The snow was just starting to slide off two days after a major storm last year.
After driving the MINI-E for a while it became very clear to me that I wanted to drive electric from that point on. That's really the main reason I'm convinced electric drive will become the preferred powertrain in automobiles; the driving experience is simply better.

I know there are many hurdles to overcome before electric vehicles dominate the roads, but the simple fact that people will prefer them to gas cars once they have the opportunity to experience them, is enough of a driving force to assure they will win in the long run. It will take some time, but eventually electric vehicles will outnumber internal combustion engine vehicles, and by a wide margin.

Once I realized I'd be driving on electric instead of gas, it was an easy decision to install solar electric on my home. I never had the opportunity to make my own fuel when I was driving gas cars, so the prospect of being able to be "fuel independent" was too much for me to pass up and within a year of driving the MINI-E, I had a 8.775kW solar array on my roof. The system generates about 10mWh's per year and powers most of my home and driving needs. I've seen many others do the exact same thing once they get their first electric car, and I'm certain that trend will continue as more and more people get turned on to electric drive.

The next morning after a snowfall
I've had no problems at all in the nearly three years I've had my array and the production has even been slightly higher than my installer predicted. The only thing that bugs me is when it snows I have to wait for the snow to melt off the panels because there is obviously no production with snow covered panels. I really shouldn't complain though because my panels seem to clear off pretty quickly unless it's a very heavy snow fall and the temperatures remain very cold after it snows. My panels seem to be on a good enough angle so that the snow does melt and slide off once it stops snowing and the sun comes out. Others aren't as lucky like a friend of mine Christof Demont-Heinrich, editor of Solar Charged Driving. Christof's panels aren't on quite as much of an angle and the snow seems to sit there for a long time and it really bothers him. He lives in Colorado where they get even more snow that I do in New Jersey, so that only exasperates his woes.

About 20 hours after the snow stopped
About a year ago his frustration over this issue motivated him to do this blog post on the subject. Christof uses a snow rake to clear his panels off but his system isn't as high off the ground as mine is. If I wanted to do the same it would be a difficult and possibly dangerous task so I fall into the "just wait till it melts" category. My roof pitch is 32 degrees while Christof's is only 19 degrees so my snow slides off much easier. Sure I'm still losing some production, and it makes me drive on "dirty grid power" but hey, nobody's perfect!

Two days after snowfall - just about clear
I would suggest discussing this with your solar installer if you live in an area that gets snow before they install the system. Perhaps they can manipulate the racking system so the panels are at a steeper angle allowing the snow to slide off easier, but I'm not sure about that so ask. Of course they would have to make sure that didn't reduce the efficiency of the panels in the first place or you could end up generating less electricity over the course of the year. I'm not an expert on this, but I'm sure your installer can offer some advice on this and it's worth inquiring about. It's not something you really think of when you are ordering the system, but when you look up at your roof in the winter and realize you aren't generating any electric for days at a time, you'll wish you asked and perhaps figured out a way to help alleviate the issue in the first place.
A roof rake can be used to clear the snow if the panels are accessible. My roof is just to high for me to mess with it safely