Thursday, December 25, 2014

Gasoline prices drop

Based on a price of about $4.00 per gallon of gasoline, I ran some calculations to compare the cost-per-mile of driving an electric car versus the cost of a gasoline powered car.  The result was that it costs roughly 3.6 cents-per-mail to drive my electric car and about 19 cents to drive the same mile in a gasoline powered car.  That made my savings after driving 10,000 miles about $1,540.  This assumes an average price for fuel of about $4.00 per year.  In California, the last few years have seen prices fluctuate between $3.40 in the winter and $4.60 in the summer, so the $4.00 makes a reasonable (and convenient) average. 

What happens when the price of fuel drops substantially lower in the winter months?  Some recent oil-market manipulations have dropped the price of gasoline to about $2.55 per gallon.  Assuming that the summer price swings by a similar amount to $3.75 per gallon, the average price over the year might be $3.15.  How does this substantially lower price affect the per-mile cost of gasoline-powered travel?  Using the assumptions that I listed in my earlier post titled “Only 3 cents a mile”, the new cost-per-mile is 15.5 cents, or about 3.5 cents less per mile.  So, the money I would have saved during this abnormal year of relatively low fuel prices will drop by about $350.  Does this mean I lost this money?  No … my own costs are determined by the cost of my electricity (which was $0 last year, thanks to the sun).  It means that had I not bought my electric car, I would have been paying less per mile this year to drive a gasoline powered car (which lowers my hypothetical “savings”).

My biggest concern here is that the lower price of gasoline will motivate more people to purchase bigger, heavier, gasoline-powered cars, trucks, and SUV’s.  These larger vehicles require more power to move them, which demands a larger engine.  And, to compete in the race for ever more horsepower and faster acceleration, these bigger vehicles need even larger engines to be able to keep up.  All of this generally means that more people driving these vehicles will burn more gasoline needlessly, without much concern for how the emissions from these larger engines impact our planet.  High gasoline prices were actually helping to slow the rise in emissions by motivating people to favor better fuel economy when it came time to buy a car.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My home charger dies

What a shock!  (pun)  I plugged my car in, activated the charger, and then went to bed.  In the morning I needed to take a short trip and was surprised to see that the car had not charged at all.  I was running short on time and had to drive on the remaining charge in the battery.  When I returned home, I again connected the level-2 charger and activated it.  It came on for about three seconds, then shut off.  This repeated about five times until I abandoned my attempts.  I decided to drive to a nearby public charging station to determine whether my car was at fault.  I connected and the car began charging without any problem.  So, now I am faced with two problems:

First, I have to charge using my level-1 (110-volt) charger until I am able to install a replacement charger.  This means that I must plug in the car the moment I return home from work in order for it to charge fully before I need to leave in the morning.  It should take about 13 to 14 hours to fully recharge after my drive, and plugging in at 8:00pm gives me just enough time to accomplish this.  By working from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I can plug in even later and expect a full charge before noon.  So, the level-1 charger is working for me, although just barely.  I really do need to replace the level-2 charger.

Second, I have to find a level-2 charger that meets my needs.  My charger is installed outdoors, so this means I need a weather-proof enclosure for the charger.  I also have a 220-volt outdoor outlet with a weather case installed, which means I cannot easily adapt to a hard-wired charger.  These two requirements eliminate most chargers from consideration.  And those that do remain have only a 12-inch receptacle cord, which is not very compatible with an outdoor installation.  My old charger has a 3-foot cord to plug into the wall and I was able to mount the opening to the weather-protecting box on the bottom side.  To accommodate these new chargers, I will need to remount the box (and outlet inside) so that the hole is on the upward side.  I’ll also need to add an O-ring to the cable to further block any moisture.  (It seems that new national electrical standards require that the wall cord be 12-inches long.)
My original level-2 charger by EV-Charge America

I did try to have the two-year old charger repaired, but apparently I was one of the luckier customers of this charger.  Many customers never received a charger (or a refund), and others received defective units that never worked (and were leaking a black ooze).  My charger worked flawlessly for 31 months before giving up the ghost, so I guess I should count my blessings.  While researching repair information, I found a few articles mentioning law-suits against the manufacturer and a jail sentence for the company's owner.  The irony is that I felt that this product (when working) was superior in many ways to the competition.  It is just too bad that EV-Charge America could not have found a way to bring this product to market successfully. 

I’ll let you know what I buy as a replacement.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

First trip up the mountain

After driving the i-MiEV for several months, I wanted to test its capability and range under more unusual driving conditions.  I knew that the car used more electricity driving uphill than on a level surface, and it had been a while since my last visit to the mountaintop winery near me, so I decided to head up the mountain.  The first thing I checked was the distance to the winery from my home.  The routing suggested by Google Maps was the obvious and most direct route.  This route starts off with 11.2 miles of freeway (each way) which would draw down the battery by about 7kwh round-trip, or a little less than half the charge.  That left more than half the charge to get up the mountain and back down.  It was another 3.5 miles to the start of the mountain climb, and 4.3 miles up the mountain (about 1,500 feet of elevation change).  I figured that if I could make it up the mountain on 6kwh, I would get home safely.  (That amounts to 0.72 miles per kwh, which is terrible.)  So I decided to go forward with the trip.

Google Maps' proposed route up to Ridge's Monte Bello tasting room
As I started driving, I created turn-back thresholds for the battery consumption in my mind, beyond which I would have to turn the car around and head home before reaching my destination.  This is the sad impact that range anxiety has on us poor fools who overthink or over-worry about their electric cars.  Of course, it’s better to be prepared for failure than to deal with the consequences of going too far up a mountain road.  As I reached the base of the road up the mountain, the charge meter showed that I had used four ticks (which amounts to 4kwh), as expected.  So, I continued up the hill.  You can imagine my shock after driving the first mile and watching another tick (1kwh) disappear from the gauge.  Still, at this rate, I would make it to the winery with energy to spare, so I trudged on.  The second and third ticks disappeared with less of a shock as I noticed the rate continued at about 1kwh per mile.  Finally I arrived at the winery with about a half a charge remaining.  The drive home would use less energy, so I knew I would make it home safely.

After enjoying a modest wine tasting and giving my body a little time to process the tasty stuff, I left the winery for my drive home.  Much of the drive down the mountain required very little energy, and often times I was regenerating while the road sloped downward.  Nearly as shocking as watching the first tick disappear while driving up was watching the first tick reappear on the way back down.  This time, the shock put a smile on my face.  By the time I had reached the bottom of the hill, I had regenerated about one and a half ticks (1.5kwh).  Now I was faced with driving the remaining 12 miles on the highway with the 9kwh charge remaining in the battery (about 30 miles of range), which I could do easily.  So, in all my worry about getting up the mountain, I forgot to factor in the regenerative effect of driving back down the mountain, which changes the amount of charge needed to complete the trip. 

So, here is the mind game about driving an electric car with regenerative braking up and down a mountain.  I used about 3kwh of electricity to drive about 9 miles up and back down the mountain.  This rate of energy consumption is a little worse than it is when driving on the freeway.  But, the trick is that without at least 4kwh of charge in the battery, I never would have made it to the top of the mountain.  I needed more than I used on the whole trip just to get half-way.  It is conundrums like this that have me thinking I’ll stick to being a flat-lander.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Level-2 chargers arrive at work

When my company moved me to its consolidated location, I was no longer one of the only electric cars on site.  It would seem that there were nearly a dozen of us.  To accommodate the need to recharge our electric vehicles, the company allowed the electric cars to make use of the various landscaping outlets that could be found around the campus.  These few 110-volt plugs were in high demand and provided very little distance to anyone who connected late in the day.  In my case, six hours of charging would give me about fifteen miles of range, so most of the time it was not worth the effort to hunt down an open outlet.  My employer even made an effort to install three new 110-volt outlets by the main entrance to the facility (which was over ½ mile from my desk), and these three outlets quickly became the most popular on campus.

Then, Tesla released its Model-S sedan and electric cars became fashionable accessories for the executive set.  Two level-2 (220-volt) charges were installed in close proximity to the executive offices, allowing four cars to get a reasonable charge.  One was installed in the small parking lot just outside the executive offices, and the other was installed in the guest parking outside of the new executive reception center.  Neither of these level-2 chargers was convenient for the rest of the workers.  Still, I was able to walk the ten minutes and climb the four levels of terraced buildings to be able to plug in my car.  Even after 4:00 (when the early chargers would rush home), I could still get in about 2.5 hours of charging giving me an extra 25 miles of range.

Luckily for the environment, electric car popularity in Silicon Valley boomed and more electric cars were showing up at work.  Unfortunately for me, that meant fewer opportunities to charge.  At about the same time that my office was moved closer to the original level-2 charges, four new level-2 charge points were added to the campus, bringing the capacity to twelve electric cars charging at the same time.  They also installed solar panels on all the roofs to generate clean electricity.  And, to ensure greater access to all EV drivers, they imposed a limit of four free hours of charging, with subsequent hours being charged a fee (fine?) of $10.00 per hour.  The idea is that the company would help you complete your trip, not provide all of your driving electricity.  Now there are more access points on campus, two of which are fairly convenient, and I am usually able to find a vacant spot after 4:00 for when I could use the extra comfort-zone for my drive home.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Eco versus Drive

Although the electric car comes with a transmission (and a shifter), this is not your traditional transmission.  A gasoline engine cannot stop turning, and its range of efficient operation is more limited than an electric motor.  To work around this, gasoline cars had 2-speed transmissions in the 1950’s, 3-speed transmissions in the 1960’s, 4-speed transmissions in the 1980’s, and so on to the point that Chrysler has released a 9-speed automatic transmission.  All of these transmission speeds (or gears) are designed to improve how a smaller gasoline engine can work harder when needed and slack off while cruising.  To back up, the transmission includes a gears with reverse threading to turn the wheels backwards.  The automatic transmission also includes a slippage mechanism that allows the vehicle to remain at rest while the engine continues to run, costing it low-speed efficiency. 

By contrast, the electric vehicle has just one speed that is always engaged.  This is possible because of several factors.  The electric motor can start turning from a standstill (without a slippage mechanism), and it requires no complicated change of gears to get up to speed.  Also, direction can be controlled by changing electric polarity to the motor, so there is no need for a separate gear for backing up.  So, in an electric car, most of the transmission functionality is handled virtually via an electronic controller.

The "shifter" on my Mistubisih I-MiEV in its usual position (Eco)
Of course, maintaining a familiar set of levers and knobs to operate the electric car makes it easier for most people to adopt.  The Mitsubishi i-MiEV includes a traditional shift lever for selecting the different operating modes (just like a conventional transmission selector) and includes positions for drive (D), economy (E), and brake (B).  These three modes affect the programming of the electric motor controller and how much electricity flows between the motor and battery.  In drive (D), the motor is delivered maximum electric current, but regeneration when not braking is minimized.  In economy (E), the power delivery is slowed, smoothing out accelerator pedal response and reducing energy consumption while increasing the regenerative effect when not braking.  Finally, brake (B) combines the drive (D) mode responsiveness with stronger regeneration than economy (E) and is most useful when driving on long hills.  Note that regeneration is the same in all modes when using the brake pedal.

I usually drive using economy (E) because my route is mostly level and this mode results in a smooth delivery of power.  In addition to increasing my driving range slightly, it makes for very comfortable acceleration and makes it easier to maintain a steady pace on the freeway.  In drive (D) mode, the motor response is more punchy, with more immediate response at slower speeds and making it harder to maintain a steady pace on the freeway.  For nearly all driving situations, economy (E) is the more comfortable, predictable, and economical mode for driving.  This changes the moment I get into stop-and-start traffic on the freeway.  Because regenerative slowing does not light the brake lights, I do not feel safe relying on regenerative slowing in heavy traffic, so I switch to drive (D) whenever traffic gets slow on the freeway.  This way, I communicate my slowing clearly to the drivers behind me.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Now that’s quiet!

I remember buying my 1982 Mercury Capri RS 5.0 with its V-8 engine and sport-tuned exhaust.  I went to a lot of trouble to select a top-end Yamaha car stereo unit, Alpine speakers, and thick cabling and spent a long weekend wiring it up.  It sounded great in my parking space as I turned on the unit for the first time.  Then I started the engine … and I learned my first important lesson about car audio.  It doesn’t much matter how good the car stereo sounds if you cannot hear the music with the engine running.  I rationalized that the music did sound better than the factory system and I would be driving the car a lot on long-distance trips.  And the amazing sound of the V-8 engine rumbling through the sport-tuned exhaust had me forgetting at times about the stereo system I had just installed.  If I wanted to really enjoy music in this car, I would have to park and shut off the engine.  (I did that a few times.)  I learned my lesson well and never again replaced the factory car stereo unit.
My 1982 Mercury Capri with its sport-tuned exhaust

When I bought the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, I was happy that my model came with a CD & MP-3 player.  It’s hard to make a bad sounding CD player, and with the MP-3 setup, I simply stick in a disc with 10 hours of my favorite tunes and leave it in there for when I tire of commercials on the radio.  I still run the factory stereo, but that has more to do with cosmetics than acoustics.  For the first time, I can hear many of the details and nuances of classical performances while driving (as opposed to filling in the drowned-out parts from memory).  Sitting at a traffic signal, there is no noise from the car (beyond the ventilation fan) and you can hear every detail.  This holds nearly true while driving around town.  It is only at highway-speed that the road noise starts to drown out the music, nearly as much as with a gasoline powered car (without the sport-tuned exhaust).

The car is so quiet, correction … peaceful when stopped that traffic lights do not annoy me the way they once did.  I used to hate to sit idling at a traffic signal for three or four minutes during commute hours waiting for my brief green light.  I would worry about the gasoline being wasted, the extra pollutants, and the build-up of heat during the summer months.  (I started turning off the engine at these prolonged intersections.)  But eventually, it was the noise that got to me.  Now, when waiting at a red light in my electric car, there is no noise, no exhaust, and no waste while I am stopped.  I can hear every detail in my music and I feel more relaxed.  Of course, without my engine running, I can hear other people’s conversations too that were once more private.  So, now days, you really need to look around you before you start yammering about anything embarrassing.

Creeping along in very slow traffic can also be a major source of noise, both for the drivers and the neighbors living within earshot of the congested roadway.  But, I was able to experience the congestion of the future at a recent electric vehicle rally and parade nearby me.  Some 500 electric vehicles were to assemble at 7:00 am on a Saturday morning, the logistics of which resulted in a traffic jam extending ½ mile on the main road to the campus hosting the event.  In this particular traffic jam, with the windows down, there was no engine roar from surrounding cars, and better still, there were no choking exhaust fumes.  It was by far the best traffic jam I have yet to have the opportunity to get trapped in.  I now look forward to traffic congestion of the future.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Only 3 cents a mile

How much does it cost to drive a gasoline powered car a distance of one mile?  The price varies by a number of different factors, including the price of gasoline, the cost of an oil change, the cost of an emissions test, and the cost of a minor tune-up.  The fuel efficiency of the engine also figures in significantly.  A typical small sedan might average about 25 miles per gallon.  Gasoline fluctuates between $3.50 a gallon in the winter and $4.50 a gallon in the summer, so I’ll pick an average price of $4.00 a gallon.  I can get a smog check every two years for $60, an oil change every 5,000 miles for $80, and a minor tune-up every 15,000 miles for $150.  (There are other service items too, but these will make my point.)  The cost to drive this small sedan 30,000 miles over three years is:

smog check
oil change
minor tune-up

That amounts to $0.19 a mile.  (A SUV that gets 16 MPG costs $0.28 a mile.)

The cost to drive an electric car is basically a function of the cost of electricity and the range per kilowatt-hour.  Assuming electricity can be bought for $0.145 per kWh, and a typical range of 4 miles per kWh (according to the EPA), then the cost per mile is (simply) $0.036.  My car is fast approaching 30,000 miles on the odometer, which means that I have saved approximately $4,600 over the cost of driving a small gasoline powered sedan.  Of course, I squandered my savings on additional solar panels, which dropped my electric bill to about $85 a year to drive 10,000 miles, saving me another $825 over the same three years.  (And, the solar panels should remain in service for 20+ years.)  So, when figuring the total cost of a gasoline powered car, you need to think beyond the sticker price and look at the additional costs of ownership.  Even factoring in a new battery after 10 years of driving I still come out thousands of dollars ahead.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The carpool lane

One of the big incentives for most electric vehicle customers in the San Francisco Bay Area is the access to the diamond/carpool lane.  For commuters that have inflexible work hours, driving in the carpool lane can cut ten minutes or more from your trip.  Because of the hours I tend to drive, the carpool lane is seldom an option for me.  Along my route to work, the carpool lane is restricted only during the morning and afternoon peak hours, and I tend to commute just after each of these restricted periods.  So, most of the time, the carpool lane is not a viable option.  Of course, the carpool lane is not without its costs either.

Like any car, an electric car uses the least amount of energy when a steady speed is maintained.  Although stops can recapture up to one-third of the energy used to accelerate, it cannot recapture all of the energy, nor do you recapture the steady-state energy.  The trouble with driving the carpool lanes is the unpredictability of the flow of traffic.  At any moment, a car ahead of you may need to slow in order to change lanes, or another slower car can pull in front of you from an adjacent lane.  Finally, getting into the carpool lane often requires harder acceleration than simply pulling onto the freeway (if you want to avoid a rear collision).  So, on those few trips I take when the carpool lane is available, I tend to evaluate the flow of traffic outside the carpool land and decide whether traffic is moving steadily or stopping and starting.  I will stay in a steadily moving lane as long as the speed is at least 30 MPH and elect to use the carpool lane when it drops below that point.  (Besides, driving at these slower speeds uses substantially less energy.)

So, if I seldom use the carpool lane, even when it is available to me, why did I bother applying for the special decals allowing me to do so?  The other diamond lane available to me is found at metered freeway onramps, where a traffic signal controls which cars enter the freeway and how often.  At some of these metered entrances, a diamond lane has been set up affording carpoolers a shorter wait to get into traffic.  These express ramps can save as much as three to six minutes time getting into traffic on the freeway, and I take advantage of them every chance I get.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

How far is 60 miles?

Before buying my Mitsubishi i-MiEV, I read the expected range and then started paying attention to my daily driving habits.  The predicted range for the car is about 62 miles when fully charged (according to the EPA).  That seems quite short, considering that I would refill my gas tank every other week.  My drive to work wasn’t much of a concern because my travel round-trip was about 19 miles, and the planned relocation would double that to nearly 40 miles, both within my car’s range.  My bigger concern was how far I would drive on weekends.  I knew that certain weekend excursions would be beyond the reach of my car, so I ignored those trips.  Instead, I started paying attention to the trip odometer on my gasoline-powered car on weekends.  As it turned out, while I did a lot of driving running errands and such, I seldom drove more than 35 miles in a day, and often less.  So, it seemed that the car can meet the vast majority of my driving needs.

Once I got the car, the next challenge would be to see how far it can drive comfortably without needing a recharge (or only a small one).  My first extended trip was to a wine store about 26 miles to the north, which the car completed comfortably with some miles to spare.  Another time I had to drive to work and back and then to a relative’s place about 6 miles east from home.  After getting to their house, I learned I had to make another trip to another house about 15 miles to the south, and then drive home another 11 miles.  All this was in addition to my usual 40 mile commute.  I drove the freeway on the 15 mile leg, and streets on the 6 mile stretch.  Looking at the charge level, I decided it would be best to take streets home along the last 11 miles.  The 72-mile day left me with 5 miles of range indicated, with the last bar on the charge gauge flashing.  This was my longest drive without recharging.
My challenging trip to Oakland left me very charge nervous.

My third adventure was a little more nerve-wracking.  I needed to pick up a package (yes, more wine) about 37 miles from home to the north in Oakland.  The trip was entirely freeway speed, so I needed to be very careful of the distances.  I knew I could not make the full trip on a single charge, so I found a Target store on the way home that offered charging.  The distance to Oakland and back to Target was just about 60 miles, so I figured I could stop there for two hours, recharge, shop, and get back on the road.  The freeway drive drained more of the battery than I had hoped, so by the time I was looking for the exit to get to Target, the last charge bar was again flashing.  Luckily I had studied the map well and did not miss any turns.  I got to the charger station with 4 miles of range remaining.  But when I tried to start charging, my ChargePoint card was rejected because I hadn’t set up the credit card option.  A panicked phone call resolved that problem but left me with only 80 minutes in my schedule to charge.  By the time I arrived at home, the last bar was again flashing.  Even though I made it safely, I have decided to take my gas car from now on to this place (about twice a year).

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Clean Windows and Air

There's no denying that driving an electric vehicle charged by solar panels is doing my bit to minimize my impact on the climate.  But that's not what this post is about.  Driving a gasoline-powered car, you find the world has put in place certain extras to improve your driving experience.  Namely, when you stop at a gas station for a fill-up, you will likely have a squeegee handy to clean your windows and an air pump handy to top off the air in your tires.  When you drive an electric car, you give up gas station visits.  This is a mixed blessing.  True, you get to re-fill (charge) your car from the convenience of your own driveway each night and avoid stops at the gas station on your way home (or rushing to work).  But you lack those little conveniences that help keep driving a safer experience.

Because I park outside, my windshield dews up at night and gathers all the settling dust.  After a few mornings, a haze has formed that I must look through.  After a few more days, I am reminded that I need to clean the windshield every time I drive towards the setting sun.  If I catch this early enough, a few squirts from a bottle of Windex and a clean rag get the windshields back in shape.  The real problem is the tires.  This is where a bicycle pump becomes my upper-body cardio program.  Unlike my VW GTI, with its 225 width tires, the i-MiEV features much smaller 175 width tires in the back and 145 width tires up front.  The advantage these tires offer is that as few as twenty pumps of the bike pump can bring them back from a six PSI deficit.  The rear tires require a little more work, but it’s nothing like the 120 strokes the GTI requires.  If upper body strength (or sweat) is not your thing, then you can either buy an electric air pump, or return to the gas station every other month to top off the tires.  (I’m sure they miss you there and would welcome you back.)  Luckily, you don’t need a paper towel dispenser for checking the oil level each time.
A good-quality bike pump easily keeps the tires up to pressure when used monthly.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Electric Vehicle Rally 2014 and World Record

Today, September 20, 2014, was time for the annual electric car rally put on by the Electric Automobile Association on Silicon Valley.  I had been looking forward to this event for weeks, as it’s my one chance to geek out and see what’s new in EV’s this year.  I had an opportunity to sit in a new Kia Soul electric and to test drive a Fiat 500e.  I found the Fiat to be a bit more “normal” feeling than my Mitsubishi i‑MiEV, but I prefer the interior utility of my car.  There was a converted Porsche convertible from 1958 which had a 60hp motor and lithium-ion batteries.  I also spotted a guy standing on what amounts to a motorized wheel.  The device is controlled via foot actions on the pedals upon which the rider rests.  There were also several companies selling infrastructure or apps related to charging electric vehicles.  But my favorite exhibit remains the electric bathtubs.  These tiny fiberglass bathtub shells, complete with spigots, are little electric cars (along the lines of Barbie’s cars) that kids can drive around in a small coral.  (I was told I could try one, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to extract myself afterwards.)

Electric-powered bathtub cars for the kids
Of course, all of these exhibits paled in comparison to the main draw of the event.  It would seem that earlier this year the good citizens of Stuttgart, Germany, got together and assembled a parade consisting of 481 battery electric vehicles (no gas engine hybrids) and made their way into the book of world records.  Earlier this week came word that Silicon Valley was going to break that record.  With little notice, and even less marketing, we cobbled together a band of hundreds of electric cars.  Each car was registered ahead of time and had to present credentials for driving on the road.  We all filled nearly two parking lots at the community college where the event was held.  There were low-flying drones capturing a record of the event, and countless smartphones snapping pictures and videos.  By the time I had arrived, most of the drivers had filled the main parking lot and were overflowing into a second.  Finally came the call to start.  I did some math and estimated that 500 cars spaced 30-feet (front-to-front) would occupy about three miles.  Sure enough, just before my section from the parking lot departed, I could see the first cars arriving from the two-mile loop.  The official count for the parade was 507 electric vehicles, breaking the Stuttgart record by 26.  There was a loud cheer as the officials announced the final tally. 

The official world record plaque
As I was stuck in traffic trying to pull into the parking lot, and during the two-mile loop around the college, I could not help but notice two things.  First, electric cars really are quiet.  There was no droning of gas engines idling, waiting to inch each car forward.  There were no exhaust fumes from the other cars either.  If this is the traffic jam of the future, I’m all for it.  The second thing I noticed was how well electric cars drive at slow speeds.  My gasoline-powered car is a blast to drive at highway speeds and through the mountains because of its manual transmission.  But creeping along at 4 to 6 MPH is a task that wears on your left foot and is anything but smooth.  Likewise, the small rental car I drove last week was jumpy off the start, lurching forward and unable to get going smoothly.  By contrast, the electric car gets going and maintains these speeds easily, comfortably, and quietly.  Again, driving in heavy traffic is best enjoyed in an electric vehicle.  I still prefer the wide-open roads, but now I don’t object so much to congestion.
The parade of all-electric vehicles (including conversions)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The range gauge

When your car carries the equivalent of two or three gallons of gasoline, it is very important to have a good idea how far you can drive without recharging.  Electric car manufacturers understand this and include a driving range gauge.  In the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the range is displayed by a multi-function gauge that shows eight different measurements, including the outdoor temperature and two different trip odometers.  When I first started driving the i-MiEV, I displayed the range gauge all the time while driving.  This gave me a pretty good idea of how it works.  The gauge reads the battery charge level, then estimates your range based upon the last 5 to 10 miles of driving.  If I finished my day with some city driving, the fully charged car will show 80 to 90 miles of range after charging the battery.  If instead I ended my driving with freeway miles, it will show only 65 to 75 miles or range.  This experience was a little unnerving to watch as the range dropped by 20 miles after having driven only 10 to 12 miles.  This rapid drop happens because the car acclimates to driving on the freeway and lowers its range estimate.  After exiting the freeway, the range stops dropping for a distance and sometimes even increases.

This ever changing impression of how far I can drive lead me to stop using the range gauge.  Instead, I rely mostly on the trip odometer, which I reset after every full charge.  I have learned (and the EPA has confirmed) that the car travels about 4 miles per “tick” (out of 16 ticks) on the charge-level gauge.  The freeway goes a little less per tick, and around town goes a little farther.  To estimate my driving range, I consider where I plan to be driving (city or freeway) and “do the math”.  If I have 9 ticks remaining on the charge, then I figure I can drive about 32 miles on the freeway to 45 miles around town.  Whenever the charge level drops below 4 ticks I switch to the range gauge.  With only 3 or 4 ticks left, I trust the car to know better how far I can drive.
My full-charge range after yesterday's freeway and city driving
So far I have not “turtled” the car or run the battery to empty.  “Turtling” happens when you drain all but a portion of the last remaining charge-level tick.  The car goes into an ultra-conservative energy management mode where the speed is limited to about 25 MPH.  This is indicated on the display using a small turtle graphic.  Because the i-MiEV allows its entire battery capacity to be depleted, turtling the car is not good for the longevity of the battery, though the occasional turtling should not be too harmful.  After about 27,000 miles, the batteries still seem to support the same driving range, so I am guessing that my driving and charging style is good for the car.  (On a similar note, I read that too frequent charging can also be hard on the battery – recharging while in the 25% to 75% charge range is ideal.)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

No more gas stations

I always think about how amusing it would be to pull into a gas station in my i-MiEV and ask for help finding where to connect the gas pump.  Somehow, the rational side of my brain says not to do that, so I only visit the gas station on those rare times that I have forgotten to clean the windshield and I’d really like to see out of the car.  That amounts to six or ten visits to a gas station a year.  My new service station is in my driveway. 

Every night, after 9:00pm (when the electric rates drop for me), I plug in the car.  The next morning I awaken to a full charge.  This is the trade-off with a gasoline powered car: no more hanging around the gas station.  The biggest problem is dust and dirt build-up on the wind shield, but that is easy to clean off (if you remember to do it).  Checking the tire pressure is more important in an electric vehicle, and I find that the skinny tires on the electric car need only about a dozen pumps from a bicycle pump each month to keep them maintained.  There is no oil to check.  And best of all, there’s no waiting for a pump.  Of course, I don’t get many opportunities outside of work to interact with the world, and the gas station used to be one of them.  Somebody needs to combine electric-car charging stations with coffee, laundry, and other social activities to get us back into the world.

An ordinary bike pump easily keeps my tired inflated.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Odd Looks and Thumbs-Up

I can tell that the Mitsubishi i-MiEV has not become a sales hit here in the U.S.A. the way that it has in Europe and Japan.  Nearly every time I drive somewhere, I get odd looks from people trying to figure out what the curious purple car is driving by.  (I call it the “electric grape”, but one friend calls it the “purple bean”.)  Some people smile once they figure out that the car is electric.  Some point discretely from within the privacy of their own vehicle.  Others never get that far in the thought process.  Usually, the larger the vehicle, the more puzzled the look on the driver.  I once stopped into a Starbucks as a lifted Ram 2500 turbo-diesel was pulling up.  I had a brief chat with the driver about the car before returning to the road.  I have to admit that the difference in mass between our two vehicles was a little frightening.  Another time, I had parked and run into a grocery store.  By the time I came out, another i-MiEV owner had parked his car next to mine.  For me, that was a Kodak moment.  (Too bad Kodak got out of the Kodak-moment business.)
A Kodak Moment happened when I returned to my car after shopping.
But of all the interactions I have had with fellow drivers and roadside gawkers, the most memorable happened within the first two weeks of getting the car.  It was a breezy, rainless day after Christmas.  The sun was lingering just above the hilltops, threatening to darken the area soon.  I was driving up a fairly busy residential street when I passed a fellow working in his yard.  He must have seen my car approaching (because it’s really hard to hear it) and had time to check it out.  As I drove past, he gave me a big thumbs up of approval.  This one reaction is probably the most gratifying I have experienced to date.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My level-2 home charger

The first thing you need to get for your electric vehicle is a level-2 EV charger (220-volts).  This makes it possible to charge your car in a few hours rather than the better part of a day.  In my case, a full charge when plugged into a 110-volt outlet takes up to 22 hours.  With my commute to Palo Alto, the 110-volt charging solution was not a feasible option.  Of course, being the first i-MiEV customer in San Jose meant that the dealership was horribly unprepared to help me get a level-2 charger installed, and the folks from Best Buy (sent by Mitsubishi) dropped the ball and were no help (especially so close to Christmas).  I checked at Lowes and Home Depot and found a GE charger for $1,000 and a mystery-brand model for $800 that only offered 20 amps of charging capability (about half the GE’s).  Although my car would never draw more than 14 amps, I felt that newer EV’s (such as from Tesla) might be able to draw more current and I wanted a capable charger.  So, I turned to the internet for help.
My EV Charge America level-2 charger installed outdoors

I found the website for EV Charge America and their 32-amp EV charger being offered at an introductory price of $650, and placed my order.  Because they were still pre-production (something I wasn’t aware of), I had to wait about six weeks for them to work out the production kinks in their pilot-production models.  They shipped me one of these pilot-production models, then canceled their production plans.  (While shocking – pun – the unit provided has worked beautifully since day one.)  Next, I hired an electrician and applied for a permit.  The electrician installed a beautiful outdoor 220-volt receptacle and I mounted the charger to the house wall with four easy screws.  (I needed to whittle away at the receptacle housing to get the cover to close over the beefy electrical cord for the charger, but otherwise it was an easy installation.) 
I needed to file away at the opening for the power cord so the plug would fit.

Now I have a charger that can only be activated by a RFID card I keep in the car, so I don’t have to worry about amp-bandits tapping my house during the day while I am at work.  The RFID card can be hit-and-miss at times, but with a little patience it works well.  And, I charge at home while I sleep, avoiding those 5 to 10 minute stops at gas stations every week.  How cool is that?  And, my charger has the extra capacity needed for my next generation of EV, which looks to be hitting the roads sometime in 2017.

Friday, August 22, 2014

My commute

Before committing to buying my electric i-MiEV, reports had spread throughout work that we would be relocating from the Cupertino campus to the Palo Alto campus in the coming 12 to 18 months.  My coworkers and I had hoped this wouldn’t happen, because we had all purchased properties in proximity to the Cupertino campus.  My coworkers would go from driving two miles to driving about ten miles, while my commute would grow from 10 miles to about 20 miles (each way).  So, I plugged my home address and work address into Google Maps and saw that there were four practical routes to work for me.  One involved driving mostly on the most congested freeway cutting through Silicon Valley, another involved endless stoplights on a slower-speed expressway, and then two more involved taking the freeway that passes closest to my house.  The difference between these last two routes was in the last 8 miles.  On one, I would stay on the freeway and drive over rolling foothills, while the other traveled a slower, more level expressway with traffic signals.  This last route would add about five minutes or so to my travel time, was one-mile shorter, uses less electric charge, and has become my route to work.

The fastest route to work

The slower, shorter, more level route to work
During the Christmas shutdown, I decided to test out my future route to work to see how the car would fare.  I decided to drive at the speed limit (65 MPH) along the entire stretch of freeway, not using the car’s Eco mode, to get an “upper bound” on how much electricity I would use.  When I arrived at the office site in Palo Alto, I had used one third of the charge, meaning I could drive to and from work without any worry of running out of juice.  In fact, there would still be about 18 to 24 miles of driving range remaining when I arrived at home afterwards, which is enough to run to the store or go out for dinner.  As it turns out, I always use the car’s Eco mode when commuting and I keep the speed closer to 60 MPH, resulting in using almost 15% less electricity used for the same drive.  Over time, this savings becomes significant.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Range Anxiety


Range anxiety is not some superstition that afflicts electric vehicle drivers (except you Tesla guys), but rather a meaningful need to understand how far you can drive.  Anyone can hop into a gasoline powered vehicle with a 15-gallon tank and expect to drive 300 to 500 miles without the need to refill.  (That’s over six hours of driving.)  And, the refueling takes as little as five minutes.  In fact, most owner’s manuals recommend refueling once the gas tank is down to its last two gallons of fuel to avoid sucking tiny debris into the fuel injectors of the engine.  With a range of about 65 miles, the i-MiEV is like driving a gasoline engine with a two-gallon gas tank.  Of course you’re going to be antsy about range because you have been trained to refuel when the energy level drops to where an electric vehicle is fully charged.  The good news is you get used to this.

The more important thing to do is to befriend Google Maps.  If you plan all your destinations within 25 to 30 miles from your home, then you are usually safe, especially if you can shift some of the miles from the highway to slower streets.  Google Maps allows you to put in your starting point and your destination and determine the length of the best routes to get there.  (Many smart phones offer this feature as well.)  I can travel beyond 30 miles when I have access to a charging station at or near my destination.  But then I need to allow time to recharge the battery.  A full charge takes a little more than six hours.  I can get about one third of a charge in two hours (good for 20 miles), which can extend my driving range to roughly 80 miles, or points 40 miles away, without too much inconvenience.
The approximate safe range for my I-MiEV without recharging
 There are two destinations I would like to try to visit from my home.  San Francisco and Santa Cruz.  The road to San Francisco is 50 miles and is mostly level.  There is more demand for charging stations in San Francisco and the car would need to charge for at least five hours before I could return home.  This long recharge time is what keeps me from taking my car there.  As for Santa Cruz, the biggest unknown is crossing the mountain at 1,800 feet up, with a number of uphill climbs before coasting into the beach town of Santa Cruz.  Since buying the car, there are now charging stations in downtown Santa Cruz, so perhaps I should attempt this drive next.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What got me started?

In the summer of 2007, while strolling the main street through Los Gatos, CA, I came across the Green Vehicles car store.  Inside they had three of their prototype vehicles.  One three-wheeler was highway capable, while the other two were neighborhood electric cars.  They were taking deposits on the cars to help bring them to production.  I became enamored with a yellow two-seater, but in my usual fashion, I opted to think about it and do some research before laying out $1,000 in hopes that the car would someday be delivered.  In the coming months I learned that the car was imported from China and was limited to speeds of 25 MPH, and could not travel on roads with a speed limit of 40 MPH or higher.  My favorite wine store could only be accessed by a road with a 40 MPH speed limit, so I decided against getting any Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV). 

Green Vehicles Neighborhood Electric Car

The Flybo Neighborhood Electric Vehicle

Next, I started digging into what electric cars were being developed and which were in the works for the near future.  Those that would be imminently available were too unconventional to really work for me, so I had to set my sights further down the road.  (One sat two people in tandem and made a Smart ForTwo look big, while the other looked like its airplane wings had yet to develop.)  Then, three cars started to promise a delivery timeline.  The first one, the Mistubishi i-MiEV, was targeted first for Japan, and then the United Kingdom, with the rest of Europe following shortly thereafter.  Then, the Nissan Leaf EV and the Chevy Volt came to market in 2011.  The Leaf met with some success, but the Volt took much longer to catch on.  At this same time, Mitsibishi announced plans to adapt the i-MiEV for the U.S. Market, making it wider and giving it bigger bumpers.

After months of waiting, Mitsubishi created a waiting list for U.S. deliveries of the i-MiEV, asking for a $300 deposit to secure your car and select its color and trim options.  I hesitated at first, but after a month I put my name on the list and my money on the table to secure one.  Of the four colors offered, I chose the only real color, "raspberry".  (Somehow, white black, and silver do not seem like actual colors.)  I picked the upgraded trim level in order to get the leather-wrapped steering wheel (a must for me) and a few other dandy items.  Then came the two road tests.  First, Mitsubishi sent a European-spec i-MiEV on test-drive tour through the states so that people could get a small taste of it.  Drivers were not allowed onto the highway, but the city driving was promising and almost impressive.  The second test involved a U.S.-spec pre-production model, which drove amazingly like the first.  Again, drivers were not allowed access to the highway, but my representative allowed me a brief “wrong turn” onto highway 87 and back off at the next exit.  While not mind-numbing with its speed, it performed like many of the small cars from the early 1980’s. 
One of the pre-production Mitsubishi I-MiEV cars made available to test

Finally, can time to track delivery of my car.  According to the Mitsubishi web site, my car would arrive in early January.  But, in mid-December, 2011, I received a phone call asking me to come to the dealership to pick up my car.  On December 18th, I took delivery of the first retail-sale Mitsubishi i-MiEV in Santa Clara County.  (I’m guessing that the real first person backed away when they saw how purple the car turned out to be.)  When I returned to drop off some paperwork a few days later, I met the second retail delivery customer, which is where this started to get a little peculiar.  We are both named Mark, both in our late-40’s, and both working in the computer software development field.  (Even more disturbing was later discovering a second i-MiEV showing up at work driven by another Mark.)  Later I would meet owners not named Mark who were not involved with software who drive the same car (much to my relief).  So, that’s basically how I got started.
My i-MiEV at the Mitsubishi dealer