Monday, January 31, 2011

Thermal Conditioning for the Battery AND the Passengers!

The Cog & Temp icon you see it telling me the battery is too cold and the car will not have regenerative braking. I see this when the battery temperature gets in the low 40's. If the battery temperature gets any lower and the car will not accept a charge.

There's a lot of talk about thermal conditioning in electric cars, and for good reason. Maintaining proper battery temperature will not only help the vehicle to offer a more stable, predictable driving range, but will most likely be a big factor in determining how long the battery will acceptably perform before a replacement is needed.

The MINI-E is a wonderful vehicle. Those that have followed this blog know how I feel about it. I think the electric propulsion system pairs so well with the small, fun to drive MINI Cooper, that it's an outright shame BMW isn't going to offer it for sale in the near future, yes it's THAT good. All that said, the MINI-E is a prototype test vehicle and it does have it's faults. The most glaring shortcoming, is a lack of a proper thermal management system. The passive, cabin-air based system is insufficient to warm the pack in the winter or cool it off in the summer months. If the ambient temperature is below 95 degrees or above 50 degrees, everything is just fine and you can almost always squeeze out 100 miles of range if you drive conservatively, even 120-130 if you stay off the highways. However once the temperature extremes occur, the car lets you know it's not a happy camper. I'm going to focus here on the cold weather effects, since I did a post last summer about my hot weather experiences and difficulties.

The most obvious problem is the reduced range. I'm not really 100% sure if the battery simply cannot store the same amount of energy, or if it cannot efficiently use it when it gets cold, but the reduced range that the MINI-E has in the cold Northeast is something that you have to accept and manage. I know that it's not only the batteries storage/usage of the energy, but also the fact that the cabin heater uses a good amount of juice so it's really a double hit that conspires to cut into how far the car will go. This winter has been very cold and there are days when the temperature doesn't even approach 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7C). On these days I'm lucky to push the car to 75 miles per charge. That's about a 30% reduction from optimal conditions, and in my opinion, it's just too much for the average retail consumer to accept.

That's -2 degrees!
Luckily, there is a better way to manage the battery temperature and thus the range, and that's by implementing an active thermal management system to heat and cool the battery as needed. These systems will obviously add to the cost to the vehicle, but in my opinion, it's money well spent. BMW seems to agree with me because their next EV offering, the 2011 BMW ActiveE will have active thermal management. I expect to be one of the few people driving an ActiveE this summer when the MINI-E program ends so I'll be able to report on how well the system does or doesn't work. This to me is the most important improvement that BMW can make from lessons learned in the MINI-E program.

MINI-E winter driving apparel !
There is one more thermal conditioning issue I need to bring to light. That's the MINI-E's inability to thermally condition it's passengers! There's no problem in the summer as the A/C works fine. However when it's cold outside, the MINI-E drivers here on the East Coast are cold also! The heater in the car is woefully insufficient to really warm the cabin or it's passengers. Those of us that have a MINI-E in NY & NJ have learned to deal with it, but it's not fun. Most all of us have learned to keep gloves, a hat and a blanket in the car at all times. Others have even used a hot water bottle(Now I know why BMW calls us pioneers!) I haven't done the hot water bottle thing, but I do keep a hooded sweatshirt, gloves and yes, a small blanket in the car especially when I drive home from work late at night when it's bitter cold outside and the car has been sitting outside for 12 hours.

My Garage Heater
Last year I did a post about installing a heater in my garage to keep the car warm overnight. It's works really well and even keeps my family room warmer because that room is adjacent to the garage. I set it at about 45-50 degrees so no matter how cold it gets outside the garage is around 45 degrees.  Recently I have also been pre-heating the cabin in the mornings. I have a small ceramic heater that I put in the cabin about 30 minutes before I leave for work. When I leave the cabin is very warm and I don't need to turn the heater on for a while and that helps to extend the range a bit. This is similar, but not as good as preconditioning, something all production EV's have the ability to do.

It's going to be really interesting to see how much better the BMW ActiveE manages the weather extremes. I trust the engineers over in Munich know what they are doing. I'm sure I'll be writing a lot on this issue once I've had the time to drive the ActiveE in the extreme weather and analyze my range data. It will be nice to use the MINI-E as a comparison vehicle as I write about the ActiveE. Hopefully I'll be using the word "improvement" a lot, but you never know...

Monday, January 24, 2011

California Trip to Appear in BMW Film about Electric Mobility

A few weeks ago I was asked if I would like to be in a documentary that BMW is making about the future of mobility. I accepted and a few days ago I was off to LA for the day. They asked two other MINI-E drivers Peder Norby and Todd Crook from California if they would also like to be in the film and they also accepted.
The idea for our part in the film was to get the three of us together and talking about our experiences driving an electric car and what our thoughts were on the future. Would electric cars become mainstream? What do we like most about them? Plus other questions about the future of cars. It was a great experience and really nice to finally meet Todd & Peder after over a year of communicating with them online. They both have MINI-E blogs also, and I have links to them here under "Other MINI-E blogs" on the right side border. Todd is #140 and Peder is #183. Others in the film include Astronaut Buzz Aldren, visual futurist Syd Mead, CEO of Virgin Galactic George Whitsides and a bunch of other notable individuals. (None more important than me, but really who is?)

There will be four short films that you can view online, each coming out a week apart in February. For now you can see the trailer at this link.

BMW put me up in the Universal City Hilton and covered all my expenses. The filming was only about 4 hours and we were paid a basic SAG rate for the day. Todd, Peder and I all had a great time and the producers told us we did great and gave them exactly what they had hoped we would. After the shoot, Peder had to charge his car for his 100+ mile home to Carlsbad and Todd and I went out for dinner.

However, as strange as it may sound, the most surprising part of the trip was in the car ride to the airport.  I was picked up at about 4:00am by a car service that was hired by the production company. We were only about 5 minutes into the hour and a half drive to JFK Airport in New York when the driver asked me if I knew of a 24 hour gas station in the area because he had only about 35 miles of range left so he needed to fill up. I told him there was one on the way and to my absolute surprise he responded "Thanks, I hate going to gas stations, what we need are electric cars!" I couldn't believe what I was hearing and for a minute I thought he knew why I was going to LA and was part of the whole film plan. When I told him that I was flying to LA to be in a film about electric cars, he had all kinds of questions and we talked about electric cars for the whole drive to JFK. He told me his name and I think it was Milon but I'm not 100% sure now. I did take a picture of him and gave him this blog address so he can stop by and read about my experience with an electric car. 

So check out the trailer and watch the four films as they become available. Feel free to critique my "acting"!

My film partners Todd Crook (left) and Peder Norby stand in front of their MINI-E's

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Winter Has Officially Arrived

#250 charging in the first snowfall of the season. By the next day we had 26" of snow, that's almost as high as the charge port!

The East Coast got clobbered with one of the biggest snowfalls in a long time. We had 26" on snow in Montclair where my restaurant is (the car is charging near the back door). I drove home that night when there were only about 6 inches on the ground. The MINI-E with it's new snow tires did a fine job getting me home, even though I passed about ten cars stuck on the side of the highway on the way. The roads weren't that bad yet, I just think many people drive like idiots sometime and refuse to drive a little slower and more cautiously when there is snow on the ground.

So the next three days I drove my four wheel drive pickup truck to work. The restaurant was closed (along with the entire State of New Jersey) the first day after the storm, but I still had to go there to plow the parking lot and get it ready to open the next day. I put a plow on my truck in the winter so I can keep my parking lot clear without having to wait for a plow contractor to get to me. I also use it for my driveway at my home which happens to be 350 feet long and all uphill. My wife drove the MINI-E to work for a couple days while I used the truck to clean things up. It was so much snow I had to plow the lot about ten times and then use a snow blower to create giant mounds of snow about twelve feet high! One day I followed my wife for a awhile as our paths to work are the same for the first ten miles. I think it was the first time I followed anybody driving #250 so I had to take a picture of the car from the cabin of my truck following it.
EF-OPEC piloted by my lovely wife, and driving through "The Green" in Morristown, NJ.

So winter is back and along with it comes reduced range and a cold cabin, not exactly my favorite time with the MINI-E. However it still beats burning gasoline, spewing all kinds of pollutants as I drive and sending my money to OPEC. More on the cabin temperature in my next post!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

As the odometer of MINI-E #250 turned 48,000 miles today, New Years Day 2011, I can only think of how much has happened in the eighteen and a half months that I have been driving the car.

Back in 2008 when I first applied to be in the trial lease program electric cars weren't really talked about too much and if you wanted one you had to either buy a $110,000 Tesla or build your own, and for most folks neither were really viable options. Now, only two years later you hear about the Chevy Volt or the Nissan LEAF in all media outlets since retail customers have begun to take delivery of them.

The electric car has gone from virtual obscurity to a topic that is debated by pundits on a daily basis. Customers are finally getting a choice. We can finally decide for ourselves what type of fuel we use to power our cars: oil that is pumped halfway across the planet and who's profit goes to radical fundamentalist regimes, or electricity that is generated entirely in the United States by US workers, working for US companies and where 100% of the money you spend on that electricity stays in our local economies.

Sure there are sacrifices to be made when driving a pure battery electric car. The limited range and long recharge time makes EV's less versatile than a typical internal combustion engine car, but this is only the beginning. These cars will continue to improve, battery technology will advance, charging compatibilities will get faster and the gap in functionality in the two propulsion systems will shrink.

Energy independence will not happen overnight and we are a long, long way from being able to tell the OPEC puppet masters that they do not own us anymore, but at least there is now hope. Hope that we can break the chains that have kept us dependent and even subservient to the regimes that control the supply of oil we so desperately need. Happy New Year everyone!

I also wanted to say "thank you" to everyone that has visited this blog, sent me emails and posted messages to the entries. Your enthusiasm and support help to inspire me to keep the blog current.

In 2010 this blog had 31,000 visitors from 93 countries! There were 10,000 visits from the United States followed by 3,300 from Germany, 800 from Canada, 400 from Spain, and 350 from the UK. The rest of the countries all had less than 300 visits per country. Thanks again for the support!