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Articles on Electric Vehicles

December 30, 2014
Bob Jans

The BMW i3 (a personal impression)


I was “born electric” on May 1st 2014--pure electric--no Rex (Range extender).

No Range Extender

I did not want to have any old and dirty technology with fuel, oil, spark and other plugs in my modern car, neither the 100 kg extra weight and noise to lug around all day. Additionally, there would have been no space for a heat pump I now have instead.

Another reason is that the Dutch (I live in the Netherlands) charge only a 4% tax on the value of a new electric car--when one uses a company car also for personal purposes. They charge nearly double that--7%--for an electric car with a range extender. (All other cars—those burning gas or diesel--pay a 25% tax!)  And bear in mind that this tax is on the value of the car—when new--including all options for as long as you own the car. Thus, the price you pay at delivery affects how much tax you pay for years to come. Adding the range extender would have significantly increased the cost of owning an electric car in the Netherlands.

Enforcement of this tax is very strict and easy to do for the Government because the Netherlands is full of closed-circuit cameras. They’re everywhere. Further, all BMW’s are equipped with “Connected Drive.” This means that every move and every aspect of the car is known by BMW--and the Government.


This posting by Bob Jans (pronounced Yaans) is part of a continuing series on EVs by colleagues around the world. Bob is one of wind energy’s pioneers. He was one of the first--if not the first--to bring Danish wind turbines to the US in the early 1980s and that’s how I first came in contact with him. Bob was developing not only commercial wind projects but distributed generation long before it was trendy. He’s still building wind projects. He just completed a project in the Netherlands that took nearly 13 years to bring to fruition and he owns his own Enercon turbine in a project in Germany. We worked together in the Tehachapi Pass thirty years ago and have stayed in touch ever since. Bob’s a techy and a serious car guy. He knows cars and likes to drive them fast--very fast. I remember roaring down California’s Central Valley late at night with him—well in excess of any posted speed. It was surprising to both of us that we chose to go electric the same year. Bob naturally gravitated to the fast and sporty BMW while we went with the more modest Nissan Leaf at the other end of the scale.


Connected Drive also has its advantages when, say, 50 BMW’s on a particular road proceed slowly, BMW knows and relays it to the display of every car that a traffic jam is present at that location and it offers alternatives. This system is much faster and more accurate than notices sent by the police or traffic alert companies.

A City Car—Not a Road Car

I now have 6,000 km on the odometer and have some experience with driving electric and the i3. BMW calls the i3 a Mega City Car and that’s probably right. It is not a car for long distances. Beside the range anxiety, my main problem with the car is the lack of course stability at higher speeds and especially with wind, which we have here a lot. It becomes a chore to keep the i3 in its lane at speeds over ~ 100 kph (60 mph) with crosswinds.

Numerous theories float around about this subject: the narrow tires, the somewhat higher body than most cars, the equation between the wheel base and its width, the sensitive electric power steering, and so on. Whatever it is, one has to pay attention to steer the car all the time. You get used to it but don’t let your sight of the road wander or you are no longer on the road. Mind you this is at highway speeds and with winds. I had my car reprogrammed to the minimum of power steering assist, which helped – an advantage of an all electric car.

And that’s really my only complaint about the i3.

Everything else is fabulous. It’s well designed, extremely quiet (some say the quietest electric in existence), and fast. It accelerates to 100 kph in 7.2 seconds. Its finish is what you’d expect from BMW. It has a green footprint both during construction and afterwards as well. For most European countries, BMW has a program in place to use the batteries after 7 years (warranty period) of use in the car or a capacity loss over 20%, to be used in homes equipped with solar panels to store energy. Smart grids aren’t developing as quick as the plan called for (a smart grid would use electric cars as storage source which may be called upon when needed by the utility – and not needed by the car owner).

Price & Size was Right

Another point is its price tag; I paid €50k for mine, but then it has nearly all options available. It’s still half the price of a Tesla over here (purchase tax on any car in the Netherlands is about 100%). I looked at Tesla, but the car is too big for Holland in my opinion: too wide (it won’t fit in many parking spaces here); and for my work, primarily in Germany, it wouldn’t work. Autobahns have no speed limits so I never drive my Ford Mondeo diesel below 200 kph (125 mph) where possible--for hours on end.  Tesla’s range would be cut in three at such speeds and furthermore the car is simply not built for that. The Tesla is in terms of fit and finish isn’t built to today’s standards. The front seats--with their fixed continuous head restraints--look like a throw back to the 1970s. The side mirrors are not collapsible—a given on top-end cars here. And then a price tag of €110k for the P85 equipped the way I wanted it—or more than twice that of BMW’s fully outfitted i3.

How I use the i3

I use the i3 for specific locations where I need to be regularly: an airport (I fly small planes) and one of my wind projects (I work with wind energy--the reason I acquired a green all electric car). Both 2-way distances are just over 100 km, so I can recharge at home from my 6.2 kW solar array. The standard supplied charger with the i3 delivers 11 amp @ 240 V or 2.65 kW. The i3 has a battery pack of 22kWh but only 18.8 kWh can be effectively used. Therefore a complete charge takes 7 hrs, but since you never run the thing totally empty, in real life the car charges in ~6 hrs.

EV Quick Charging Network

The future of electric cars hinges entirely on charging stations. Just like one wants to have gas stations everywhere, we need charging stations everywhere. In Holland, a private company (Fastned), is building a network of 55 kW DC quick-charge stations. It means that you can charge the i3 in 20 minutes. Since you never run fully “dry”, in practice you need between 10 and 15 minutes for an average charge. It works using your mobile phone.

You arrive at the Fastned charging station. Your GPS phone knows where you are. You enter your PIN in the phone and start charging. The bill comes once a month. Given the small quantity of BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles), you never have to wait, so filling up takes the same time as with any car running on gas or diesel.

The difference is that I have a diesel range of 1,200 km in Holland (maximum legal speed is 130 kph – 81 mph), while my range with the i3 is ~100 km at highway speeds or 130 km on secondary roads.  And that corresponds with my average consumption according to BMW’s Connected Drive to 14.2 kWh/100 km. Or you could say that it charges at my home with a speed of 15 kph. In comparison with my diesel one fueling stop, I’d have to stop 10 times for charging the i3. Needless to say: I kept my Mondeo for “real surface travel”.

EVSEs Failure Prone & Expensive

One note on the “charger” supplied with the car or the AC chargers along the road. None of these charge! They are all overpriced sophisticated relays, nothing more! 240VAC goes in and 240VAC goes out. The only thing the wall charger does is verifying that the connection is safely made and it determines the maximum charging rate by using resistors in a sensor cable to prevent any overload in the wall box relay or the charging cable. That’s all. Total price for that should be no more than €50 or so, except for the plugs which can be expensive because of the cable size, the resistor network in the plug, and “teeth” that do not allow disconnect while charging (for safety, theft and vandalism). Some companies therefore, offer kits to construct such wall charging box (EVSEs in the American vernacular) yourself at a fraction of the price. The real charger (converter, regulator, whatever it’s called) is all built into the car, not in the charging station.

One exception is the fast DC quick chargers. They have the equipment built into the charging station: DC goes directly into the battery (360 VDC in case of the i3 @ 150 amps).

Luckily just about the entire world has agreed to a plug standard with the exciting name of Type 2, developed by Mennekes, Germany. That includes all EU BEVs and all of the future US BEV cars. Exceptions are the French (what did you expect?) and the Japanese; Tesla is quoted as being adaptable to type 2. They also have their own stations: all of one (1) in the Netherlands; home charging takes a full 72 hrs.

The Japanese Chademo (cup of thee) is said to be compatible with the Type 2 charging system; not the plug, however, but adapters do exist.

Acceleration

Back to the i3. In good old BMW fashion: the car is fast, at least in acceleration; faster than most other BEVs, except of course the Tesla which beats just about anything in existence.

The Tesla is incredible: it's like a super sports car, but then one built for the masses. But roadholding is another matter at 2.5 tons. The i3 is not comparable in any way with the big Tesla, but the i3 also costs half the price.

The i3 is a well designed car: designed from the ground up and built in a completely separate new 100% green factory, almost 1,000 km away from the BMW head office in Munich. It shows that BMW is serious about an electric future.

Since most BEVs are one-pedal-cars (there’s no clutch so no shifting), there’s no downshifting to decelerate. The i3 shines in this respect: deceleration and resultant regenerative charging is very noticeable. The car is so fast in both respects that I, who love to go fast, nearly always drive in the ECO mode.

There are 3 modes: comfort, ECO, ECO+. Comfort should have been called Sport because all hell breaks loose in this setting. ECO mode delivers a comfortable driving setting. In ECO + mode, the car shuts everything off except lights and radio (thank you) to get the absolute maximum range.

As for me, I’m careful, and I’ve never had to call BMW to come and rescue me due to an empty battery. I had instances where I was able to gain 15 km in expected range by using the most careful approach to driving.

One interesting comment here: it does (nearly) not matter at all if you accelerate with the pedal to the floor vs accelerating to the same speed slowly. Indeed: since the efficiency and electric engine’s torque is constant from zero to maximum RPM, you gain nothing by accelerating slowly vs full bore. This is not true for internal-combusion engines since their torque curve is all but flat, and additionally requires several gear changes.

The only small caveat from fast acceleration vs slow is due to the internal resistance of the battery pack. In normal driving, even from traffic light to traffic light, range loss due to internal resistance is--in the end--nearly negligible. So don’t feel bad about pushing the pedal to the floor and leave the majority of other cars behind you--and doing it in absolute silence.

Range Limitations

More about range: all the above applies to summer temps. Boy, did I get a wake-up call now that winter has started with temps hovering around freezing. Count on a 25 to 30% loss in range! That’s a big letdown. And especially in winter is when one wants to use the heater--all 5 kW of it--although the heat pump takes care of about 4 degrees C for free.

What I do is I program the car for pre-heating when it’s still on home charging. I heat the interior and the traction batteries so its ready to go with fully charged batteries while still plugged-in. You go a long way like that, since you cannot drive more than ~1 to1.5 hours anyway before charging again. At a fast charging station I have the heater on full blast again. Wearing a winter coat, thermal underwear and gloves is no luxury in an i3 for longer distances.

In summer: the AC does its work, but batteries last longer also; and there is the heat pump plus sunroofs (two of them).

Rex equipped cars don’t have range anxiety: they carry their own fossil-fueled charger.

The only fluids in the car are for the windshield washers and the brakes – which you never need because the i3 decelerates enough for any stop, except emergency. Funny quote: BMW suggests in its manual to actually use the brake pedal every so often to prevent rust and to make sure they still work!

Interior Design

The i3 is bigger inside than its outside looks would suggest that’s because rear access is very easy due to its “suicide doors” and the front seat back which can be moved out of the way. Furthermore, there is no engine: it’s under the floor where the batteries are located.  Hence the entry and seats are ~10 cm higher than in comparable cars: just the right height for getting in and out.

The car is one big computer: two display panels is all there is in terms of instruments, phone, music, navigation,… and the usual speedometer, range calculator, outside air temperature and so on.

Being somewhat skeptical about computers and their continuous updates, crashes and other problems, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. So far the i3 has worked exemplary: my phone, music… it all integrates very well and instantly. The i3 also carries a 20 GB hard disk.

Privacy

We are already used to having the Government spy on every aspect of our lives: listening to phone calls, reading our email, following our moves, what we eat,… especially in this country where everything needs to be done by pay-cards and cash is just about banned and often not accepted anymore.

BMW isn’t any better: the car has its own BMW mobile network (Connected Drive) and knows everything about the car, its status and where, what, when you do or are. It has its advantages (traffic information comes to mind). A red button in the car connects you directly to a live person and, for now, will bail you out for free if you run out of juice and other problems. If you pay an annual fee, you get internet, streaming music, help to the nearest hotel or restaurant, etc.

Road Holding

A pleasant surprise is the car’s road holding ability. It proves once more that fat/wide tires are just for looks and do not contribute to more safety. The front tires are ridiculously narrow (for less rolling resistance), but the car has a tremendous grip, enhanced by its 50/50 weight distribution front and rear. Total weight is 1,195 kg (1.2 ton). The rear tires are wider because it’s a rear drive, typically BMW. In tests on a closed circuit, the i3 is often the fastest [if speeds are kept below 150 kph (93 mph)].

Conclusion

In conclusion, the i3 is fun to drive, very comfortable (except for the required road stability at higher speeds with high winds). The problem of all BEVs remains the range (except Tesla which has an acceptable range) and providing one can charge quickly like in maximum 15 minutes. As a first for BMW it’s not bad at all, actually quite good. It’s much more than a prototype. You like the exterior or hate it; there’s no in between. You become a real master at figuring out your driving style when range becomes a problem and that’s the way we should all drive instead of just throwing money at the gas pump.

I look forward to what the future will bring!

On Batteries & Fossil Fuels

One comment about battery power. There’s a general consensus that battery technology will go forward in big steps. I’m not so sure because batteries are already quite advanced in comparison to fossil fuels.

Any fossil fuel-fired car uses 1 volume of fuel PLUS 14 volumes of air, leaving the combination of both behind in the form of polluted air. In other words, internal-combustion engines use up the free air, while electric batteries carry ALL their energy within their battery. If a fossil-fueled car would have to carry the required air with itself (think space shuttle which goes outside of our surrounding air bubble and must carry the huge weight of its oxygen tanks as a result), every car would need to be a heavy large truck just to carry enough air to get that fuel working in its engine. Compare that to the size and weight of the current BEV car...

Naysayers are fond of using the argument that the electricity to charge BEVs comes from dirty coal or gas-fired power plants, so electric vehicles doesn’t really do any good for the environment. If one uses green energy to charge the EV that’s certainly not the case, but that entire argument is BS to begin with. You can only hold a car manufacturer responsible for producing good and clean cars, not for the entire chain of where and how materials come from and how they will be propelled. We could equally argue that electric toothbrushes or hair dryers are bad (which exist in much larger quantities than BEVs today) because they use the same dirty produced electric energy. The utilities are responsible for doing their duty: producing clean energy. That’s how we work together. Each doing their own job that they are expected to do!

 


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