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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Back in the Driver's Seat

Just wanted to post a quick update to my last post. I picked up my ActiveE yesterday and so far so good. Today was a very hot day and I was able to charge without any GFCI faults on my public ChargePoint charger. That's the one that was giving me the GFCI faults on hot days, and today being well in the 90's would have definitely given me a fault if I hadn't had it in for service.

So hopefully BMW has figured this one out and will correct the problem the rest of the ActiveE fleet as they go in for service. More importantly, they make sure the i3 and i8 don't also have these GFCI faults.

As you might imagine, I'm very happy to be back to driving on sunshine! :)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I've Got Gas

Not a happy camper
The ActiveE is a trial lease test program and it's the lessees obligation to bring in the car every 3 months or 5,000 miles for regular service. BMW needs to download the data the car has been recording, as well as check it thoroughly to make sure everything is working properly. After 4 years in BMW's e-mobility test programs I also know there are going to be technical issues from time to time. Still, even with knowing this is part of the agreement, when my car is in for service, all I want is to get it back as fast as possible. Everything else, even the great gas cars in BMW's new car lineup is just a disappointment after driving electric for this long.

It's not like I get bad vehicles as loaners. JMK BMW always gives me a highly desirable car that is practically new. For the past week now I've been driving a very low mileage 2013 328i with x-Drive since bringing my ActiveE in for my regular 5k service. It's fast, luxurious, spacious and pretty fuel efficient considering its power and size. Trouble is, I'm miserable with it. I've driven it about 700 miles and spent over $100 on gas. If I had my ActiveE it would have cost me about $35 in electric to drive the same 700 miles. However it's not about the money. I just really hate going to gas stations any more. Plus, as nice as it drives for a gas car it's not nearly as smooth, quiet and enjoyable to drive as my ActiveE - and it's not even close.

Having i3's lined up for loaners at BMW i dealers would be a good move
I've discussed this before here and I've talked with many of the other ActiveE lessees about wanting an electric vehicle for my loaner car while my EV is being serviced. I really hope BMW gets this and makes providing loaner i3's one of the requirements for dealerships that want to be certified i brand dealers. By dedicating a few i3's as loaners BMW can keep their electric vehicle customers happy and they can also expose some of their gas customers to e-mobility by letting them also use an i3 as a loaner when their gas car is in for service. Obviously the dealer would need to discuss the range with the client and make sure they aren't going to need to drive very far while they had it, but I'm sure that in many cases an i3 loaner would work fine for many of their customers. Just getting people to try an electric car is half the battle. Letting them have an i3 for the day while their gas BMW is getting a brake job or a tune up will definitely get many them thinking about buying an electric car.

Another advantage of electric loaners is it will eliminate the need for dealers to obsess over the fuel level of the car when they give it to you. Besides looking over the car for damage before they give it to you, what do they make sure you understand and sign that you agree to do? Dealers always make sure you see the gas level when you take the loaner and tell you that it's your obligation to bring it back with at least that much gas or you'll be charged some exorbitant amount of money per gallon. With an EV loaner, instead of getting a lecture about the gas level, you'll most likely to hear: "Bring it back with any state of charge you like, don't worry about it". Unlike gasoline it's so inexpensive to charge the car so why bother asking people to recharge it? I would assume BMW i dealers will be equipped with a DC quick charger so they can recharge the car in short order anyway.

So back to my situation. Normally the regular service only takes a day but I'm also having some work done which is why they have had it for a week now. Lately I've experienced a few GFCI faults which suspended my charging session on my public ChargePoint charger. This same issue plagued many of the ActiveE's last summer and both ChargePoint and BMW put out a software update meant to deal with the issue and it seemed to temporarily work but now the issue has starting back up again. I'm not the only person to have these issues lately either. I've spoken with a number of other ActiveE drivers(on both coasts) that are beginning to see GFCI faults also the past few weeks. It's no coincidence that this is starting to happen to us all at once now because the problem also began to happen last year around this time, just as it started to get hot outside. It's important to note this issue doesn't occur with EVSE's from all manufacturers. For example it doesn't happen when charging on AeroVironment or Blink chargers, so I would imagine the issue has to do with the communication between the car and the EVSE, and how they both interpret the J1772 protocol. For some reason the ChargePoint equipment is determining the information it's getting from the car is "out of spec" but equipment from other manufacturers determines it's within spec so it continues to charge. During charging the components in the KLE(the onboard charger) heat up as all electronic components do when current is running through them, but in this case the car senses there is a problem and shuts off the charger. You can easily restart the charging session if you happen to be there with the car, but that's not usually the case when you are charging at a public charger. We didn't have any issues the past 6 months or so, but now that the ambient temperature is heating up the issue is resurfacing - and I suspect it will only get worse as we move into the summer. Hopefully BMW can once and for all end the GFCI fault issue sometime soon. I'm actually surprised they haven't fixed it yet since BMW and ChargePoint both know of the problem and have worked together on it. In fact BMW i Ventures recently invested in the ChargePoint network so these two companies are no stranger to each other.

These are the kinds of things the ActiveE program is there for. Finding and correcting any issue the cars may have before BMW sells the i3 is what it's all about. I really don't mind these problems at all, in fact I expected them. As long as BMW identifies and fixes them so future i brand customers don't have to deal with any of this. I would also hope at some point BMW talks to the ActiveE participants to explain what they learned from our cars and how the problems we have experienced will not happen to i3 and i8 customers. The ActiveE group in large has been great about extended service visits and time without their car, but many also have expressed the desire to hear BMW tell us how our participation has helped and why these issues won't occur should they decide to buy an i3 or i8 when their ActiveE lease is up. In fact getting a thorough explanation may actually make the difference in whether or not they buy an i3 or i8.

The ActiveE's trunk would never fit all this
Well hopefully I'll be reporting that I'm back on electrons sometime soon. However the scarcity of parts for the ActiveE sometimes causes service visits to be longer than they would normally be for a regular production car. It hasn't been all that bad though, the 328i I have is actually a really nice car in spite of the expensive smelly stuff I have to pour into it every 3 or 4 days. After a few days I've finally gotten used to the start/stop technology it has and the trunk is actually a big plus for me as I frequently need to pick up supplies for my restaurant. The ActiveE's trunk is hardly useful at all for hauling stuff. The gas 1-Series has a small trunk to begin with, but the ActiveE's is much smaller because the e-motor and charging electronics intrude into the trunk space. That's just another example of why BMW will not sell converted gas cars as electric vehicles and will purpose build their EV's from a clean sheet of paper. You can't convert a gas car to electric and not make compromises, and compromises on a new BMW i electric car just wouldn't be acceptable.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A City Car At Home In The Country

Old world new new technology: The Stillwater General Store is still the Post Office for Stillwater and has the residents PO Boxes inside. It also used to be the towns only gas station.
A typical day in NYC
BMW will tell you their electric cars are best for city use, where short trips and low speeds allow a car with about 100 miles of range to perform the duties needed by most city dwellers. I agree to an extent with that because people that live in big cities usually don't travel very far from their residence to go to places like work, shopping and entertainment venues. But...

Parked at the Delaware Water Gap
I live in a rural community in Northwest New Jersey and have been driving BMW's Electric MINI-E and ActiveE now for four years and during that time I've driven in all kinds of environments. I have a good mixture of highway, city and rural road driving nearly every day and take the car to New York City all the time. Sure it performs very well in the stop and go traffic of Manhattan. Driving stoplight to stoplight and using the regen to do most of your braking does help extend the cars range. However the quietness and smooth driving experience nearly gets lost in the intense environment of the city. With all the horns beeping, sirens blaring, whistles blowing and construction crews drilling, there is so much noise the car's silence gets drowned out! Plus there's potholes that can swallow you up and steel construction plates on nearly every street that you are constantly driving over so you can't even really enjoy the smooth, vibration-less electric drive.

That's way I love driving my EV's on the rural roads of Northern New Jersey. It's just you, the trees and the road. In this environment you can really appreciate the smooth, quiet driving experience. On some nights I leave work very late at night and once I get close to home I'm the only car on the road. If it's warm enough I love to turn the radio off and open the windows because all I can hear are the crickets as I quietly roll down the roads towards my house. It's so relaxing that it helps relieve any the stress I may have built up during the day and puts me in a good state of mind. On weekends my wife and I like to just get in the car and drive West towards Pennsylvania. We've cruised through the Delaware Water Gap a few times and stumbled upon some cool places in many of the small rural communities of New Jersey near the Pennsylvania border.

My MINI-E was a great "country car" also
Driving an EV on rural roads with no other cars around is just fantastic. When you roll the windows down you don't have any noise pollution like what you hear in the city. It's just the faint sound of your tires rolling on the pavement and whatever nature has in store for you. It could be some birds chirping or the noise of the water in a stream rushing over the rocks, but whatever you hear, it beats the sound of pistons pumping and mufflers rattling, I can assure you of that. So the automakers can say they know what's the best use for electric cars all they want, it doesn't mean we have to listen, right?
Another view of the Stillwater General Store

Monday, May 6, 2013

Here Comes The Sun...

My array generated over 56 kWh's on May 1st. That's enough electricity to power my ActiveE about 200 miles in normal driving conditions.

Now that Spring has rolled in the temperature isn't the only thing that's going up; so is my solar electric production. My 8.775kW system can produce up to 60kWh's a day under ideal conditions. That's enough to power my ActiveE over 200 miles, or enough to power it about 100 miles and supply all the power my house needs for an average day. Pretty cool stuff. Powering my car and my house for the day on pure sunlight is really awesome.

Unfortunately because of where I live in the Northeast I don't get this kind of production all year. In the winter on the shortest days of the year I'll only get about 25kWh's even on clear sunny days. Plus there are days when the whole array is buried under a foot of snow so it doesn't generate anything in those conditions. However year round it averages nearly 30kWh's every day (about 10,000kWh's annually) which would be enough for roughly 100 miles of driving in the ActiveE.

The i3 with optional solar canopy from BMW
However the ActiveE isn't the most efficient EV on the road. Since it is a converted gasoline powered 1 series BMW, it had to be retrofitted with hundreds of pounds of steel reinforcements and BMW then needed to use a big battery pack (which added even more weight) just so it could have an approximate 100 mile range. By comparison, the upcoming BMW i3 has been purpose designed from scratch as an electric vehicle. That allowed BMW to create a lightweight and efficient electric vehicle while retaining the performance expected from all BMW's. The i3 will have a battery which is 30% smaller than the ActiveE yet will offer approximately the same driving range. The official EPA efficiency specifications aren't available for the i3 yet, but many expect it will go about 5 miles for every kWh of electricity consumed. Personally I average about 3.5 miles per kWh in my ActiveE in moderate whether conditions. What that means is an average day of generation for me (30kWh's) will power an i3 about 150 miles where it will only power my ActiveE a little over 100. So when I get my i3 it will use about 30% less energy and there will be more excess electricity left over to apply to my home use. That extra energy may just eliminate my electric bill entirely and bring me close to having a "Net Zero Energy Home" like fellow ActiveE driver Peder Norby has in California.

My solar powered MINI-E
I know I've said it many times here, but EV + PV is really a fantastic combination. Driving and powering your home on sunshine is really great, and certainly empowering. I can't help but believe everybody will be doing this at some time in the future, I'm just lucky to be doing it now. I have a link on the side bar of this blog that allows anyone to view my solar array production in real time if you are interested, or you can just click HERE. I think the Beatles were onto something...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Earth Day EVangelizing EVents

EVangelizing to an interested crowd at Rutgers
We had great variety of EVs at Rutgers
This is a busy time of the year for alternative energy and green transportation events. Every April around Earth Day there are dozens of local events that focus on sustainable living and transportation. I try to take my EV to as many as possible to help spread the word and talk to as many interested people as possible. The past couple weekend we had events Bergen County Community College in Paramus and Rutgers University in Piscataway. In the past my MINI-E was usually the center of attention at many of these events, since there were so few electric vehicles back then and often I was the only pure electric car there. A lot of progress has been made in the past couple years and now when I bring my ActiveE to these shows I am accompanied by Teslas, LEAFs, Volts and other plug in electric cars. I no longer feel like the only "crazy person" there telling everybody how great electric drive is! 

A nice new Model S was on hand
I'm a member of the New Jersey Chapter of the Electric Automobile Association and we are now formally organizing and listing what events are coming up so people with EVs can sign up and pledge to attend. That way we know who will be going to what event and that will hopefully help us to have EV representation at most of them, instead of just hoping people bring their cars. I firmly believe this kind of participation from real EV owners is very important to help others realize that electric vehicles are real and may be a great choice for them also. It's very effective when you look someone in the eye and tell them to throw out the misinformation they've heard about plug in vehicles and talk to someone like me that actually drives one. While I may not convert every person I talk to, I'm sure I get the majority of them at least thinking about the possibility getting an EV. The impact of having a dozen or so of us standing around our cars and talking to hundreds of people about how much we love our EV's is much more powerful than any commercial an EV manufacturer can put out to sell their cars. Fellow NJEAA members Michael Thwaite and Chris Neff have been doing these events as long as I have and so when we look out at all the EV's parked with their owners talking to people it really puts a smile on our faces and we can't help but say "Remember when it was just us here?". There is still a long way to go but progress is really being made. Exciting times are ahead!

Our display at Bergen County College had a nice variety of EVs. Photo by Chris Neff