Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Public Charging Stations: Necessity or Luxury?

What comes first the car or the public infrastructure? A 21st century version of the old chicken and egg conundrum.

I have read a lot of articles that have basically taken the stand that electric cars need a complex network of public charging stations, like gas stations before people will buy them because they will be afraid they will be left stranded by the roadside without any place to charge.

Honestly I don't know if these worries are genuine or just scare tactics by groups that do not want to see electric cars become the method of choice for our transportation. I suppose it is a combination of that and legitimate concern by people that have not had the opportunity to live with an electric car like those of us in the MINI-E program have.

Public charge points will definitely help the long term success of EV's, but to claim that they need to be in place before the public will buy EV's is just not true. The majority of EV charging will take place at the owners home, probably as much as 80%. The second most common charge point would be at the owners place of work. I believe many companies will agree to install chargers on their property if they have employees that will use them. It won't cost much to install them, there's even a government program now to offer free chargers to about 5,000 locations (I've already applied for my restaurants parking lot). Then there will be private enterprises like McDonalds, Walmart, Home Depot, etc that will take it upon themselves to install them in their parking lots. This makes all the sense in the world because not only can they charge a small fee to park and charge there, but then they have a captured customer while their car is charging. Every time one of my fellow MINI-E drivers stopped by Nauna's to use my charger they sat in the dining room and bought a meal. It's a win-win situation in every way.

What also needs to be noted is that although the cars take a few hours to charge, when someone uses a public charging station, they are more likely going to only need a quick charge to finish their travels and get home. The won't need to completely charge the car so they won't be waiting 3 or 4 hours in most circumstances. I can speak with authority on this topic unlike most journalists and "automotive experts" because I have lived with an electric car for 13 months now and have developed a network of friends that are also driving one and we frequently share stories and talk about the benefits and challenges we live with by driving an EV. Most everyone agrees that after their home charger, having a charge point at their place of work like I have would be the first place they would like to have one installed. Many say they don't even need a charger at work but would use it if it were available and even more say they would have rarely ever use a public charging station if they were available.

Personally I think that private enterprise will provide for most of the public charge points needed to begin to transition from gasoline powered cars to electrics. If municipalities added one or two in each public parking lot that would even be better, but this thought that we need to install them everywhere like gas stations is just not reality, and is only causing people that aren't sure if an EV would work for them to worry about it. I wish the auto manufacturers and the government would listen more to people that have actual experience with EV's. If they did they might realize that they could do more with less.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hot in the city tonight

I have often written here and on other blogs that the biggest flaw of the MINI-E isn't the lack of a back seat as others complain about, it's the lack of a thermal management system to keep the batteries at optimal operating temperature.

The cold weather seems to have a worse short term effect than hot temperatures do, since the range is dramatically reduced when temperatures drop below 30 degrees. However, I think the long term effects of overheating the batteries would be a concern if I actually owned the car and planned to keep it for 10 years of so. Supposedly, the life of these lithium ion batteries will be shortened if they were exposed to high temperatures (over 100 degrees) frequently.

Yesterday it was about 95 degrees outside with high humidity. I had a 50 mile drive that was mostly  at highway speeds. I had the A/C on and wasn't paying much attention to the temperature gauge until I got the warning icon that has a cog with a temperature symbol in the middle(see above). I think it showed 112 degrees at the time. When this icon comes on it means that the battery temperature is getting too high and the car in going to reduce the amount of regenerative braking that the car uses. I saw this icon last summer a few times and noticed the regen was less aggressive. As the temperature continued to climb the regen was less and less apparent until the temperature climbed up to 116 degrees and then the regenerative braking completely disengaged. It was the first time that has ever happened to me and it was really strange driving the car without regenerative braking at all. Having the car coast like a regular car does when you lift off the accelerator was strange after driving it for almost 13 months now with the aggressive regen that the car usually has. The reason the regen lessens and then completely disengages when the battery temperature get too hot is because charging the batteries causes them to get even hotter. This is good in the winter when I'm trying to keep the batteries as warm as possible, but when they are overheating like they were yesterday you don't want to do anything to make them even hotter.

The good news is that BMW realizes that the thermal manage system is necessary and the ActiveE and the Megacity EV's that they are making will both have sophisticated thermal management systems like Tesla has to keep the batteries within a certain range of temperatures (something like 80 to 95 degrees). This will help keep the car's performance nearly the same in the cold as they are in the hot weather, while also prolonging the life span of the batteries.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sound Off

I was going to do a post about the recent push to enact a law that will require all electric cars to get this: Install a device to make a noise all the time the car is driven under a certain speed! The thought is that electric cars are so quiet that they are going to be virtual killing machines, running over cyclists, the blind, poor little children, the family dog and anything foolish enough to come close to the streets once electric cars hit the showrooms.

Then, today I read an article on this subject at AutoBlogGreen by Chelsea Sexton, a long time EV advocate that has been on the front lines of the electric car movement(if you want to call it that) since she worked for GM and was involved in the EV-1 program. Anyone that has seen Who Killed The Electric Car should remember her as she was a prominent figure in the movie. Anyone that hasn't seen it needs to, as soon as possible! She managed to put everything I was thinking, and then some into words, so instead of me going on about why I think this is such a bad idea, follow the link above and read what Chelsea has to say about this, I really think she is spot on.

I have traded some messages with her in the past on this subject and one of the things she believes is that the auto manufacturers should be getting more involved in this instead of just sitting by the side and waiting to see what is legislated and she is right about that. Perhaps they don't want to look insensitive to the requests of the National Federation of the Blind? Perhaps they are luke-warm about EV's anyway so they really don't care if this hurts them. I'm not even sold that the NFB even really started this. I think there was another player(hello big oil) that brought this whole issue up. Where's the data that shows this is necessary? There have been electric cars on the roads for a while now, although not is great numbers, are they running people down? I drove my MINI-E 34,000 miles so far and managed not to kill anyone. How about the other 600 MINI-E's driving this past year, did ANYONE hit a pedestrian? I haven't heard of any incident like that. How about the GM EV-1's that were on the roads for a few years or the Toyota RAV-4's that have been out there for almost a decade, can we pull some data first before jumping the gun? Can we know what we are dealing with here before we enact laws? Also, the new cars today are so quiet you can hardly hear them unless they are under acceleration. The industry has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to make their cars as quiet as possible. Now the government wants them to add noise to them. We should be striving to reduce noise pollution, not increase it. We should be striving to make the roads as quiet and peaceful as possible so we would hear the sound of tires rolling on the pavement as an EV approaches.

I'll be contacting the executives that head up the newly formed electric car division of BMW. As one of the more active MINI-E drivers I have had the pleasure of getting to know many of the top people in the program, I even had four pages dedicated to yours truly in BMW's 2009 annual report(pages 192 to 195). I know many of the BMW executives (US & Germany) read this blog so they will probably know ahead of time that my emails will be coming. I would like to see them to take a stand on this and urge the politicians to look at the facts before rushing into legislation that may in fact prove unnecessary. If the 2013 BMW Megacity has to beep or brup or whine like the cars on the Jetsons cartoon all the time that they drive under 30mph you might as well pack it in and start the new "hydrogen car division" and keep us waiting another 20 years or so to get off oil. People are not going to want to buy an electric car, even BMW electric car if it sounds like a toy and these artificial noises do just that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

MINI-E stars at the Green Transportation Expo


A few weeks ago I was contacted by a representative from Pershing LLC, a BNY Mellon company and asked if I could come to their Green Transportation Expo in Jersey City to display the MINI-E and talk to people there about the car and my experiences driving it. I agreed and headed out to the event early this morning. 

The Expo was held on the top floor of a parking deck in Jersey City, NJ very close to the Hudson River. Other than the fact that it was a very windy day which caused havoc for the tents and tables set up there, everything went well.

There were about 20 vehicles there, mostly hybrids but there was also a natural gas Honda Civic and a hydrogen fuel cell Chevy Equinox. The MINI-E was the only pure electric car there(a Tesla that had committed had to cancel) so it generated a lot of interest. In fact when the Mayor of Jersey City came(with the press in tow) the first car he walked over to was the MINI-E and he and I had a nice conversation about it as the cameras snapped pictures and a local television crew filmed. I was later asked by the TV crew to stand in front of the car and talk about it and the Trial Lease program I am participating in.

The highlights of the day for me were talking to the Clipper Creek representative Michael Paritee, about his products( the MINI-E uses Clipper Creek charge stations) and the possibility of converting them to use the new industry standard SAE j1772 plug.   The picture above is the j1772 plug attached to a Clipper Creek CS-40 charge station, the same one I have at my home to charge the MINI-E, except is has a plug specific to the MINI-E. All future electric cars in the US will use the j1772 plug so all public charging stations will have this plug. I also has a good time arguing with the Chevrolet representative who was there to show the Hydrogen Fuel cell Equinox. He was telling people that GM will have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in their showrooms for sale within a couple of years. I told him he was nuts and that either he is uninformed or flat out lying. Hydrogen as a fuel may sound great (It only emits water as exhaust), but realistically we are decades away from being able to use it as a fuel for transportation, it's just too expensive to make, compress, transport and distribute. Plus, it takes more energy to make it than you eventually get from it. If you just use the electricity that it takes to make the hydrogen to charge a battery for an EV, you eliminate the whole process necessary to create hydrogen, plus there is already an electric infrastructure and it would take billions of dollars to build out a national hydrogen supply chain. When anyone suggests to me that Hydrogen is the ultimate fuel, I refer them to this informative article on Hydrogen. It's a long article, but full of facts that point to hydrogen being nothing more than a red herring to keep up addicted to oil for as long as possible.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

MINI-E #250 One Year Wrap-Up


Wow. I really can't believe I've had my MINI-E for a year now, but it's true. When I picked up #250 from Morristown MINI on June 12th of last year I honestly had no idea what to expect. Questions crossed my mind like: Would the car break down all the time? Would I be left stranded on the roadside waiting for tow trucks to save me? Would the car lose power the longer I had it? Would the range be adequate for my needs? But most of all: Would I regret doing this?

I got involved with this trial lease program by accident really. I was dong some online research about the recently announced Chevrolet Volt concept car. An electric car with an on-board generator to allow continuous driving albeit not emission free. At the time Chevrolet just announced they were going to move forward with the car and bring it to market in the end of 2010. This being years away I did some searches to see what other auto manufacturers were developing electric cars. I was really an EV newbie and knew little about the industry and the politics that have repressed electric cars to date. That would change.

As I was searching, I  happened upon an online application to lease an all electric MINI Cooper. I really just filled it out for the fun of it, and never thought I would be one of the people selected to participate in the trial. After all, they were only going to deploy 100 of them in New Jersey and I was sure there would be lots of applicants. Low and behold about 4 months later I received a call from a MINI rep that said I was one of the selected few and if I would like to continue they would need to inspect the electric service at my home and make sure I qualified financially for the lease. All of that went fine and on June 12th, 2009 I was driving this amazing car home.

I'm not going to go into specifics about my experiences in this post, there are plenty of them if anyone wants to look back at my prior posts from thorough the year. I will say that every expectation that I had about the car had been exceeded and that I am extraordinarily happy that I was chosen to be in the program and drive this great car for the past year. I am now completely convinced the future of the automobile will be electric. The technology is there, the driving experience is fantastic and now that significant investment is being made, advancements are coming at a fast pace. One of the great unexpected bonuses I have had is that I have met so many great people, both industry experts that have been EV advocates for years now, as well as everyday people that see my car and ask me questions about it. I even have let many of them test drive it, so they can experience what it is to drive an electric car. I must have let over 50 people drive the car and given rides to many, many more. I'm sure I've made more than a few believers.

I have also received a lot of attention along the way, which has been quite interesting. I have been interviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Toronto Financial Times. Been written about on AutoGreenBlog, and All Cars Electric. There have been full length articles written about me in the Montclair Times and the Observer Tribune, both local papers where I live and work. I have been featured in a New Your Times Video and was filmed for three days by a production company from Germany that is making a documentary on the transition the auto makers are making to electrics. It will be a 90 minute documentary that will be complete in a few years but there was a short video made from some of the footage for BMW that you can see here. I was also interviewed by Thomas Geiger of Der Spiegel in Germany which is an enormously popular magazine in Europe. When the article was written, Thomas mentioned this blog and I received about 5,000 new visitors in the next week, mostly all from European Countries.

I wasn't sure about starting a blog at first, but I'm very happy I did. I have receives so many emails and comments from visitors that had questions and also wanted to offer support. Many even thanked me for being an early adopter and doing this to help electric cars advance quickly.

Well, as many of you know, I have accepted BMW's offer to keep the car for another year so the one year experiment has now turned into two. However I do not view it as an experiment any more. I view it as an opportunity to be part of the future, an hopefully be someone that is helping to shape it.

Thank you all for reading this blog and I hope to have lots of great stories to write about in the next twelve months. Stay tuned!

Tom