Friday, November 25, 2011

Mega-City Car? How about Open-Country Car?

My house is straight through this field and on the hill you can see in the background

Electric cars are perfectly suited for urban environments. The low speed, stop and go city driving uses a lot less energy than higher speed highway driving does, plus the regenerative braking is used more and this helps to recover more of the already used energy. This has prompted some people to even say that electric cars are only good for city driving, and that nobody who lives in the country would want to buy one.

This general thought is so prevalent that BMW dubbed the upcoming i3, the first electric they will sell, the "Mega-City" car. The thought behind the name is that the car will be primarily marketed for people who live in some of the largest cities in the world.  BMW views mega-cities as urban areas with more than six million people – places like New York, Los Angeles, London, Barcelona, Paris, Tokyo and the Ruhr Valley area in Germany.

Wild life, not city life on my way to work
I agree that EVs work very well in urban environments, but it's the notion that they aren't well suited for rural areas that has me scratching my head. The reason: I live in a rural area about 50 miles west of New York City and have been doing just fine driving MINI-E #250 for nearly 30 months now. In a couple days the odometer will roll passed 70,000 all electric miles, many of which were driven on the winding country roads of Northern New Jersey.

One of the resident horses in my town
When I drive to work every day, I don't pass the skyscrapers you would find in a mega-city. I drive by horses, farms, streams and open fields and the MINI-E is perfectly at home there. Of course I'm not saying that an electric car with a 100 mile range would work in rural middle America where you need to drive a hundred miles to get to a grocery store. Obviously there are limitations with the current crop of electric vehicles, but ranges will increase and charging times will decrease as more and more companies are investing in them. However even today an EV can work perfectly well in areas other than big cities.

I doubt I'll get BMW to rename the i3 the "open country car," but perhaps someone out there who lives in a suburb or rural area who reads this will now realize an EV might just work for them. Plus, remember that I've been driving around the past two and a half years without the benefit of a single public charging station anywhere I've ever driven. Now that they are beginning to be installed, it will only help to make EV life even easier. Whether you plug in under the bright lights of a big city or in a barn next to your horse stable, the future for electric vehicles is sure looking good.  

You can see the solar panels that charge #250 on the roof of my home in Chester, NJ

Friday, November 18, 2011

MINI-E Meet ActiveE



It happens all the time. You bump into your old girlfriend or ex-spouse while you're out on a date with your new one, it's usually really awkward so rarely do you purposely bring the two together. Today I did just that. I took my MINI-E up to BMW's North American Headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, NJ to get another close up look at the ActiveE. I have to admit, I felt a little bad for the MINI-E. It's served me admirably for the past 29 months. It's proven to me that an electric car with a 100 mile range is perfectly fine for my everyday driving needs, even though I drive about 30,000 miles per year, which is much more than the average American. It's never left me stranded and given me many great memories.

The ActiveE is in just about every regard a more complete electric car than the MINI-E, but that doesn't mean I won't always hold my MINI-E in the highest regard. It was my first electric car, and it allowed me to kick my gas addiction, hopefully for the rest of my life. However to deny that the ActiveE isn't a better all around car, would be denying the obvious truth. In my opinion, the biggest flaw of the MINI-E has been it's lack of a sophisticated thermal management system. It didn't cause much of a problem in the hot weather for me, but in the cold winters of the Northeast, the MINI-E's range can shrink by as much as 40% in certain conditions. The ActiveE has a liquid thermal management system, which is generally regarded as the best way to keep an EV's battery at optimum operating temperature. In my 40 mile test drive of the ActiveE last month in Munich, the battery temperature didn't vary more than a degree or two, and was about 85 degrees the entire time even though it was in the 40s outside. The ActiveE can also precondition the battery and cabin while you are plugged into the grid, so you can set the car to warm up or cool down before you begin your journey. By doing so, you leave 100% charged and the car doesn't need to use a lot of energy to warm or cool the batteries and cabin. That allows you to use more of your stored energy for its primary purpose; to drive as far as you need to.

The ActiveE also has what BMW calls the Eco Pro mode, which reduces the amount of power the car supplies the drive motor and cabin heating & cooling systems, this may make the car a little less enjoyable to drive, but will increase the range by about 10%. I don't plan on using the Eco Pro mode all the time, but I will on days that I know I need to drive far.  Then there is the new "glide" mode. By backing off the accelerator a bit, the car de-clutches and coasts, neither using energy to accelerate or recoup energy via regen. If the driver backs off a little more, the regenerative braking begins, and if they depress the pedal at all, the car will accelerate. My guess is that this feature may take a bit to get used to after driving the MINI-E for so long.  Besides the technical improvements, the ActiveE is a lot bigger and more luxurious. Unlike the MINI-E it has two back seats and a trunk and will be much more functional. It's also well appointed with white leather seats highlighted with cool blue stitching. An integrated GPS with improved electronics round out the interior.

All of this adds up to a much more sophisticated, luxurious and functional electric vehicle and I'm sure I'm going to love driving it for the next two years. We haven't been offered the exact date that we'll be getting our ActiveEs, but rumors have it some of us will be getting them in about a month and I suspect I'll probably be in the first batch of MINI-E drivers that get one. (BMW doesn't want me to continue pestering them any longer than absolutely necessary!). While I will no doubt really appreciate the technical improvements as well as the extra room and added luxury, I will always have special appreciation for the MINI-E, after all you never forget your first.





Sunday, November 13, 2011

BMW i3 Special Sneak Peek Review

Me next to the i3 concept. The production version is said to be VERY similar to this concept





On November 9th, BMW introduced the i3 & i8 concept cars for the first time in North America and I was one of only about 75 people to be invited to the event. It was particularly rewarding to see the car that will be  the fruit of the MINI-E and upcoming ActiveE programs. This is the car that we have been driving the MINI-E for.  Providing BMW the opportunity to collect data and get real world feedback  so that when they sell this car in 2013, they will have had millions of miles of real world driving experience from thousands of EV drivers, giving them feedback and offering their opinions of what they like and what they don't. This approach will allow BMW to bring a car to market that will be much more polished than a typical 1st generation car because it is, in a sense the third generation. I REALLY liked what I saw and did some reports on my i3 blog as well as on a couple EV websites. Click here to jump over to my i3 blog to see what I have to say and also get the links to the reviews I did on the GreenCarReports.com and PlugInCars.com

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Much Does it Cost to Charge an Electric Car?

With all the talk about electric cars lately, one thing that I keep hearing is people wondering how much electricity will an EV need? Are they simply ditching the gas pump only to pay just as much in their electric bill? I made a post on this subject last year and I think it's important enough to put it up again for anyone who hasn't seen it already. It's consistently one of the top questions I get when readers email me so I figure a re-post is in order...

One of the questions that people frequently ask me about the MINI-E is, "How much electricity does it use?" Sometimes they'll just say, "I love the car, but I wouldn't want to see your electric bill!"

When I tell them the car costs between $3.00 and $6.00 in electricity to go 100-120 miles they usually smile and say, "Wow, that's great." The reason the range is between $3.00 and $6.00 is because there is such a difference in electricity rates throughout the country. The MINI-E has a 35 kWh battery pack but only 80% of the pack is usable which means it has 28kWh of available power. That 28kWh can move the car between 90 and 120 miles depending on how efficiently you drive. It is less in the winter months because the heater uses a lot of energy, but for most of the year these numbers are correct as an average.

The national average cost for electricity is $.12 per kWh which means it would cost the average person $3.36 to fully charge a depleted battery on the MINI-E. However rates do vary. I pay $.11 per kWh at my restaurant in Montclair, lower than the national average, but it costs me $.18 per kWh at my home in Chester, only 30 miles from Montclair. So if I "fill up" at work it costs me $3.08 but at home it costs me $5.04! Obviously I take advantage of the lower rates and charge at work as much as possible. So basically for what it costs for a gallon of gas today, you can drive an electric car like the MINI-E or Nissan LEAF about 100 miles.

Since I have a solar PV array at my home, I sell the electricity back to the utility at the rate they sell it to me ($.18/kWh) so every kilowatt-hour that I charge at work saves me $.07. The average person drives about 15,000 miles per year. If they had a MINI-E they would need to use about 4,200kWh to drive 15,000 miles. If you use the national average, you would pay $504 for fuel for the entire year. If you use my rate at my restaurant, it's $462, at my home it's $756. So figure anywhere between a $40/month and $65/month increase in your electric bill if you had a MINI-E and drove it the average of 15,000 miles per year.

One of the great things about electric cars is that you can easily reduce your electric bill by $40 to $60 per month just by being more efficient and therefore completely eliminate your transportation fuel cost! You can't use less gasoline unless you drive less, but you can reduce your electricity usage at home and still drive as much as you always have. Simple measures like a programmable thermostat and the use of compact florescent light bulbs (and LEDs now) can make a big difference. In fact, five 100 watt light bulbs left on continuously for a year use the same amount of energy as it takes to power the MINI-E 15,000 miles! Here's how: five 100 watt light bulbs use 500 watts per hour. In 24 hours they use 12,000 watts or 12kWh. In 365 days they use 4,380kWh. What does the MINI-E use to go 15,000 miles? Remember above I calculated it to be 4,200kWh? So five 100 watt light bulbs use 180 more kWh than it takes to power 3,200lb MINI-E for 15,000 miles!

If you take a good look at your home electricity use, I'm sure you can reduce your usage enough to drastically offset the cost of electricity to power an electric car, if not completely eliminate it. Then, every penny of the money you would have spent on gasoline can go right into your pocket!

If you are considering an EV, you can basically figure that for every 100 miles you drive, you'll use about 25kWh of electricity. Today's EVs average about 4 miles of driving on every kWh of electricity used. Then look at your electricity bill and see what you are paying for a kWh of electricity. Then take the total miles you drive and divide it by 4, and multiply it by what you pay for a kWh of electricity and you'll know your annual fuel cost for an EV like a Nissan LEAF or a BMW ActiveE.

Let's say you drive 20,000 miles per year and pay .15 per kWh (which is higher than the national average). Your fuel cost would be about $750.00. Now if you drove those same miles in a car that gets 30mpg (much higher than the average car) and gas cost an average of $3.50/gallon (less than it has averaged the past year) your fuel costs would be $2,333.00! Now imagine if you had solar electric, or simply made your home more energy efficient and reduced your electric bill. You could probably cut $40 or $50 per month off your home's use pretty easily. That could add up to $500 to $600 per year of savings! With an annual fuel cost of only $750 to power an EV 20,000 miles, your transportation fuel expense would now be virtually eliminated! That's a savings of over $2,000 per year, and that's at today's gas prices. Unlike gasoline, electricity is regulated and the price is relatively stable. Gas prices are volatile and are constantly increasing drastically before slowly lowering only to suddenly jump back up again, and in the long run, always increase.

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.