Tuesday, April 24, 2012

It’s half past four and I’m shifting gear

Actually I’m not, and therein lies part of the problem.  As the proud owner of an ActiveE, there are many things that I love about this car, and other things that I wish reflected it being the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’.  It’s great for everything that it was designed to be – it has a high enough charge rate so that you can charge from ‘empty’ in 4-5 hours with a 240V EVSE.  Its range is 100 miles (although some folks have approached 140 miles on a charge) which is high enough to meet typical driving needs for most people – and the number will only increase once EVSE infrastructure has increased.  And most importantly, it eliminates gas dependency (and in doing so costs a lot less per mile to drive, and significantly reduces emissions versus an ICE while using less electricity in the process).

Most of the ‘issues’ (as I see them anyway) have to do with the performance aspects of the vehicle.  And most of these are a result of it being an ICE platform that was retrofitted to be an EV.  Its handling is ok as a result of it weighing as much as an Abrams Tank.  Ok, not really, but it does weigh about as much as a Jeep Liberty.  The elevated curb weight is due to the need for structural reinforcement necessary when removing a combustion engine and adding batteries that need protection – and you can really feel the extra weight in corners and on bumpy roads.  As an EV, it’s got plenty of torque to get off the line quickly, but it would never be confused with the performance of an ICE sports coupe. 

None of these ‘issues’ give me any pause, however.  The next generation of Project i will have eliminated the performance issues as those cars will be ‘born’ electric.  Even if these performance issues weren’t addressed, after having the ActiveE for just 5 weeks I know that I will always have an EV in my driveway from this point forward.
There is one area of EVs that I will always struggle with though.  In the almost 30 years that I’ve been driving I’ve never had a daily driver that didn’t have a manual transmission.  While most Americans have been buying cars with automatic transmissions for decades, I’ve never been able to make the switch.  For me there’s something magical about connection between car and driver with manual transmissions that doesn’t exist with an automatic that adds to the sheer pleasure of driving a car.  While the ActiveE is fun to drive, I can’t help but miss shifting gears.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Confused Dog Head Tilt

Once you have an EV, people inevitably want to talk to you about it.  Your friends, your family, your neighbors and even people you’ve never met.  In general it seems that people are intrigued by EVs, but many also have a bias towards EVs.  It seems to be due to a variety of things – from perception of range, whether an EV would meet their needs, battery replacement costs to the Chevy Volt being the GOP’s whipping boy.  None seem easy to overcome (only real world EV experience or an app like BMW Evolve can likely achieve that), but I do wonder if even us EV proponents are doing EVs a disservice in regards to promoting them.  What???  How could EV proponents be part of the issue?
Most people I’ve talked to are primarily exposed to EVs via the mainstream media - when they’ve approached me, it’s their first time seeing an EV up close or speaking to an owner of an EV.  These conversations have led me to believe that the way we present information isn’t helping the EV cause.  After the routine questions about range, battery replacement cost and the now prevalent ‘will it catch fire following an accident’, cost to drive is usually where the conversation leads.  And this is where I think we have a problem.  Finding common ground to discuss cost isn’t always easy.  MPG comparisons are difficult because most folks don’t understand MPG for an EV that doesn’t use gas.  While it’s not an industry standard, cost per mile is another of the typical means for comparison.  It hasn’t taken me long to come to the conclusion that quoting costs in $/mile confuses the heck out of your average person.  It seems straightforward enough, but somehow it just doesn’t resonate with most folks.
I’ve found that the cost question typically boils down to “How much does it cost to run compared to a ‘regular’ car?”.  Initially my answer had been ‘it depends’.  The factors are the mpg of that ‘regular car’, gasoline costs as well as the cost your utility company charges you per kWh.  On average you can expect it to cost anywhere from $0.10-0.20 per mile at current gas prices, while EVs typically cost $0.03-0.08 per mile depending on your utility rate and the efficiency of the EV and its driver.  And the reaction I get?  You know that look the dog gives you when it doesn’t understand what you just said?  This Confused Dog Head Tilt (CDHT) is usually followed by the statement, “Gee, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of savings there.  I thought EVs were supposed to be cheaper to operate.”  It’s a damn good thing I wasn’t just handing people the DOE’s Comparing Energy Costs document – it could have turned into a scene from David Cronenberg’s Scanners.

I’ve seen the CDHT enough to know that I needed to change my approach to convey the point that EVs are cheaper to operate.  Today I’ve simplified my answer to something that at least seems like it’s resonating, and better conveys the operational cost savings.  My response is now, “My ActiveE has a typical range of 100 miles and it takes 28 kWh of energy to charge the batteries.  Since my utility company charges $0.14 per kW it generally costs <$4 to go 100 miles.  My previous vehicle got 20 mpg so it currently costs $4.23 x 5 or ~$21 to go the same 100 miles.”  A $17 savings per 100 miles seems to get people’s attention a whole lot better than 'you’ll save $0.02-0.17 per mile'.
With all the bias against EVs, it seems to me that we proponents need to be able to tout the benefits of the EV in ways that most people can identify with and that helps overcome their media induced perceptions of EVs – otherwise all we’re left with is the CDHT and a world full of ICE.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lord please please please, Take away my anxiety

I'm not sure it's what the Black Eyed Peas had in mind, but I'd be happy if someone took away my ActiveE anxiety.  When you read the title to this blog post, I’m betting that you were thinking that this would be a post on Range Anxiety.  Guess again!  Rather, its a post about ‘fault anxiety'.  'Fault anxiety' you say?  What on earth is 'fault anxiety'?

First a bit of background.  We took delivery of our ActiveE on March 12th.  Until last Thursday we had 2 ½ weeks of problem free driving in our EV.  We had a trip planned to Augusta National to attend Monday's Practice Round at the Masters and were flying out last Friday.  While we weren’t planning on driving the ActiveE to the airport as the roundtrip drive was outside of the car's 100 mile range and we had no way to charge at the airport, we had typically used it for every other trip we’ve made since we took delivery.  Then came last Thursday.

Amen Corner
A certain someone (you might remember her from my “Somebody don’t got no stinkin’ range anxiety” post) had driven the car to work, and got a warning indicating that the transmission could not be put into "park" mode and to use the parking brake and visit the nearest dealer immediately.  While this fault didn't prevent her from driving the car home (and ultimately cleared itself), it did have another affect.  As a result of the fault we opted not to drive the ActiveE to work on Friday out of fear, even though our flight out wasn’t until after 6 PM that day.  The last thing that we wanted to deal with on a day where we absolutely had to be somewhere at a certain time was a debilitating malfunction.  Welcome to the world of 'fault anxiety'. 

Since this is a field trial where BMW is working out the ‘bugs’ in preparation for the i3, these bugs are much more prevalent than would be the case for an actual production vehicle.  And now that it’s almost three months since the first ActiveE was delivered, a few bugs are becoming well known.  One of them is a drive train malfunction that could result in the vehicle being easily restarted, taking up to an hour to reset and be restarted, or worse, requiring a tow back to the dealer for resetting.

Clearly we didn’t want to deal with the stress of such a malfunction on a day that we were flying somewhere.  Fast-forward to this week, and the ‘fault anxiety' struck again.  I had meetings yesterday that I absolutely had to attend.  Guess what?  I drove the ICE, even though the meetings were well within the ActiveE's range.  While the i3 should have none of these issues when it is released, participating in a field trial where anything can happen will make you adjust your behaviors.  And for us that means dealing with ‘fault anxiety' until these bugs are exterminated by the good folks at BMW.

Such is the life of an Electronaut - until I'm confident that a fix has been implemented, sadly we won't be driving the ActiveE on 'critical' trips.