Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Worst Case Scenario

The next day the snow was melting off and I had to tow it up my driveway to the garage since the battery was completely depleted.


Where to begin. I've often written here about how I've done so many things with my MINI-E, but the one thing I've yet to do is drive it until it just won't go another inch. We'll, with only about six weeks left with the car, I can now check that off the list.

It's not how I would have liked it to happen, but then again, what ever goes as planned? Ironically, that is precisely the argument that many pundits have against electric cars. With the limited range that today's EVs have, coupled with the effect the cold weather has on EVs that don't have thermal management like the MINI-E, many that are not EV supporters point that because the unexpected happens, they can be unsafe, and leave their drivers stranded in traffic or during a snowstorm. Earlier this year, I even took Charles Lane of the Washington Post to task on this very subject. He wrote an article about how he was stuck in traffic in a snowstorm and he thanked God that he wasn't an a crappy electric car because he would have most certainly ran out of juice and been stuck to freeze to death by the roadside. I wrote a rebuttal article and posted in on plugincars.com and it was then picked up and posted on many other sites and managed to garner a lot of attention. I still stand by what I wrote, and I did correct some blatant inaccuracies about EVs that Mr. Lane wrote. However as much as an EV supporter as I am, I do admit that as of today, there are instances that are better suited for internal combustion engine cars. Wow there it is, I said it. Please note that I did say "as of today." That's because, I do believe that as long as there is support for EVs, the automakers will continue to improve and refine them, and it won't be long until they do everything as good or better than ICE cars, but we certainly aren't at that point just yet. Why would we though? The ICE has had 100 years of refinement, and today's EVs are barely the first generation of modern electric cars, and the MINI-E I'm driving isn't even first generation, it's a prototype test car.

Anyway, back to the topic. This past Saturday morning, my wife and I took a drive to New York City. The plan was to leave the city around 11:00am, and head back to my restaurant in Montclair where my wife would leave me and drive home. Since the trip to the city and then to my restaurant is about 75 miles, she would need to recharge a bit at the restaurant before she drove the 31 miles to our home. My 4wd pick up truck was waiting for me at the restaurant, and I would drive that home at night after work. I brought the truck there earlier because the weather forecast called for snow later in the day on Saturday, starting at around 2 or 3pm, and I might need it to deliver food if the roads got bad. NOTE: This would be only the 19th time in recorded history (145 years) that it snowed in October in New Jersey.
Charging at work in the snow

When we entered the Lincoln Tunnel heading back to NJ, it was raining. When we exited the tunnel on the NJ side, it was snowing like crazy. We couldn't believe how hard it was snowing and how quickly it was accumulating. We still had to drive 18 miles to my restaurant, and then charge the car a bit before my wife would drive it home. At this point I wasn't really worried because I've driven the car dozens of times in the snow and the MINI-E being front wheel drive, and heavy because of the batteries does really well on snow covered roads. However, as we continued to the restaurant, traffic started backing up as the snow kept piling up. It took us much longer than usual to make it to the restaurant, and with the heat on all the while, the battery was down to about 5%, much less than I would have expected after a 75 mile journey. That meant it needed a longer recharge time and this would allow even more snow accumulation before my wife would set out to get home. We charged for 1 1/2 hours at 50 amps and this brought the state of charge to about 70%, much more than what would be needed for the 31 mile trek home. I've driven home in the snow many, many times, and in temperatures much colder than this so I knew she had more than enough juice to get home. My wife likes driving the MINI-E and is plenty comfortable driving in the snow so she didn't hesitate to set off home in complete confidence.

As Robert Burns wrote: The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The "wost case scenario" that all the EV hating pundits write about was about the happen and we didn't have a clue. When my wife left to head home there was about an inch or two of slushy snow on the roadways, nothing at all to really be worried about. The roads weren't cold enough to ice up, and as long as it was just snow, the MINI-E shouldn't have any problem at all getting good traction. Not long after she headed home she realized it wasn't going to be easy. Traffic was crawling along at a snail's pace and she started to notice large branches were falling off the trees all over as she was driving. The problem with snow in October is that the trees still have most of their leaves. The leaves catch the snow and the branches become so heavy from the snow that they simply break off. As the snow continued to fall, so did the trees. Everywhere. She was stuck in one of the worst driving conditions ever in the area. Entire trees were toppling over everywhere. In only a couple hours thousands of trees were down, power lines were down and streets everywhere were closed. Her little 31 mile drive home became the "Worst Case Scenario" as everywhere she went the roads were closed and she had to turn around and try to find an alternative route, all while the snow plied up to over a foot of accumulation. I was on the phone with her trying to figure out a way to our house given all the main roads were closed. She was only five miles from our house, but seemingly no way to get there when she asked me what the large yellow battery icon meant. UGG! That means you are really, really low and only have a few miles to go before you run out. Not to scare her too much I said "Oh that just means you're getting a little low on energy now so it's probably best to shut off the heat now, just to be safe."  It turns out she knew how low she was when she called me to help her with a route home, but didn't want to get me worried so she didn't tell me. At that point I was convinced she wasn't going to make it, and was already thinking of who I could call that was nearby to go out and rescue her. With the current conditions, it would probably have taken me two or three hours to get to her, so I figured it would be better to call on someone close to her if it was necessary. Anyway, after we consulted Google maps we found a back roads route that would get her home, provided none of the streets that way were blocked. If any of them were, and she had to turn around once more, then for sure she wouldn't have made it. She followed the route, crept along  in reduced power mode at around 20mph, and pulled into our driveway about two hours of roadblocks, deep snow, falling trees and other motorists that need to learn how to drive (I won't go into that today). However, just as she pulled into the driveway, the car rolled to a stop, then went another ten feet or so and slowly crept to a halt. There was no way it was going to make it up my 350 foot, all uphill driveway; not a chance. I had to tow it up to the house the next day with my truck and push it into the garage.

No power meant most gas stations in the area were closed. No electricity = no gas.
Spoiled Food :(
So she walked up the driveway and found that the generator was on, so the area was out of power. About an hour later the power at the restaurant also went out. It's now over three days later and neither has had the power restored. Trees are still down across streets everywhere and millions of people in the NY/NJ/Conn area are without power. Most of the gas stations are closed because they have no power, and since my restaurant has had no power for three days I have to throw all of the food away as per the Montclair Board of Health (I would have anyway). I have no idea when we'll have power or when I'll be able to reopen. I've had to throw out about $15,000 worth of food!!! It was definitely the worst case driving scenario that the pundits were referring to, and yes she was lucky to have made it home. Just one more detour and she wouldn't have made it. I'm not happy at all my wife had to be the one that went through that, and I agree that's precisely the argument the EV haters have been saying all along. However I can't help but continue to point out how the MINI-E is a prototype EV, not a production car. Electric car technology is still in it's infancy and companies like BMW are still learning what works and what doesn't. BMW calls the MINI-E lessees Pioneers. Sometimes that sounds a little corny, but sometimes when something like this happens I realize it is fitting. We are occasionally experiencing inconveniences and difficulty, and we are helping pave the way for future generations of electric cars. Electric cars that don't have the shortcomings that the current crop of EVs do. Electric cars that handle extreme temperatures with ease, have hundreds of miles of range and can be recharged in a few minutes. This will happen, and I believe sooner than most think. As much as I love the MINI-E, I am very much looking forward to the BMW ActiveE I'll be getting in a few weeks. Not because it's a fancier, luxury car with leather heated seats, a back seat and a trunk though. What I'm looking forward to is analyzing the technical advancements BMW has made, because the ActiveE is still just another learning experience, another step to BMW's first series production EV, the i3. The i3 is really generation one in e-mobility for BMW and that's the car that will have to endure extreme scrutiny by the media. I'd like to think my experiences (and my wife's!) with the MINI-E and soon the ActiveE will play a role in making the i3 a better car, if so then all this has been more than worth it.  

11 comments:

  1. Glad she made it home Tom. It really was as close to worst case as possible:

    -Weather forecast was wrong & it snowed hours earlier than expected

    -It's October so leaves were still on trees causing the weight of the snow to bring them down

    -Roads closed: needed to do multiple detours which added to the length of journey

    -Cold outside(at least 32 or colder) so heater needed & that uses energy

    - driving in deep snow uses a lot of energy as the rolling resistance goes way up.

    Sheesh!

    James Perry
    EV enthusiast in Atlanta

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  2. As you and James note, a highly unusual set of circumstances came together in your case. As you already note, I don't think that the 1 in 10,000 case should be a reason to reject EVs, which will improve their range, etc. -- if we continue to invest in them, which we will!

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  3. Be safe Tom,
    I'm glad you have back up power at the home.

    Cheers

    Peder

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  4. Reaching the driveway must have felt so good.

    And I find it astonishing that even that worst case scenario didn't get your wife stranded in the snow....I can imagine you have some good karma on you :)

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  5. The lack of active thermal management really compromises the utility of an electric vehicle when used in either hot or cold climates. I'm sure BMW knew what was going to happen when they made the car available to New York and New Jersey residents. Tesla has the best active thermal management system currently available but others like Ford and as you mention BMW with the active-e will soon have their systems in public use. Meanwhile Nissan is still pooling around with fans for battery heating & cooling. They will also come around sooner or later.

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  6. I am sure that many drivers of ICE vehicles that day were also worried about getting home (and probably many didn't). Their rate of fuel consumption in these conditions would be high and their ability to re-fuel equally compromised by the lack of electric power.

    So probably a worst-case scenario for ICE and EV.

    Glad it all worked out.

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  7. Yes Andrew you are correct. There were cars stuck on the side of the road. When I was driving home that night I saw one person in a Mercedes filling it up with a gas can. He must have abandoned the car earlier and went back to fill it up.

    The problem with EV's is that the limited range becomes magnified even greater when your energy consumption increases. A gas car that gets 25mpg may only get 18-20 in these conditions, while my MINI-E could only travel 40 miles on 65-70% charge. The gas car, provided it was 65-70% full could still probably drive 200 miles, and keep the heat full blast all the time.
    EV's will get better, I'm 100% convinced they will, and soon. However as big an EV guy as I am, I have to admit right now there are instances that a gas car will perform better in. That's not to say I'm going back to gas, because I'm not, ever. It's just an a fact that I accept FOR NOW. The engineers over at BMW are cooking up some great things for the 2013 i3, and that's just the beginning.

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  8. Tom,
    That was a very entertaining post.
    You had a post just a few weeks back lamenting that you never totally depleted the battery, now you have success.
    I do remember being stuck in a blizzard after running out...oh wait, I was driving an ICE car. I also remember have a timing belt break on the freeway, do EVs have those. hmmm.
    I think that the EV naysayers often refute an assertion that no one makes and that is "an EV is always better than a ICE". No one has ever said that. We all know that an EV is not the perfect car for everyone, but for so many it really can be. and like you said, as the technology advances, the better they will become.

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  9. Very entertaining post. I've been following for about a year now and you offer great insights into what living with an EV would be like. As someone that is really considering buying one when there is one available in my area this has been a great resource. Thanks

    Phil Tripodi
    Philadelphia, PA

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  10. Tom, Glad you and your wife made it home. Best idea yet is to NOT GO OUT IF SNOW IS EXPECTED! Anytime the weather tells me if it is going to snow I reorganize my schedule. I got stuck in my gas car once 25 years ago for 6 1/2 hours. I learned my lesson well. Stay home if it is going to snow. If you must go out, take a snow plow and gas generator in the back. Keep EVing!

    Doug Stansfield

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  11. Thanks for this Tom. This site is the most realistic description of what it is like to live with an electric car anywhere; and I have searched believe me. You are not just a cheerleader pontificating the virtues of green transportation. You eloquently describe your struggles just as you do for all the good things about driving an electric car. Please continue to do this as long as possible. I would donate to a fund to assure you continued if you accepted donations. You should be paid for this valuable resource because it's really not available anywhere else, at lease not as informative and entertaining as it is here.

    Bravo!

    Will from Benbrook Texas

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