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BMW ActiveE Versus 135i

My daily car is a gas-burning BMW 135i. While I’m a big fan of the potential performance gains and obvious environmental benefits of electric cars, the market hasn’t yet met my needs. I’m not willing to sacrifice performance nor can I sacrifice range (the Bay Area is big — San Francisco to San Jose is 50 miles one-way). And otherwise superb Tesla triggers a different form of range anxiety — price range. The auto industry will solve these challenges in the next few years.

One of the more promising EVs on the horizon is the BMW i3, a car designed from scratch for an optimal electric experience and expected to go on sale in late 2013. As part of BMW’s test efforts, they have installed the i3′s electric powertrain in about a thousand BMW 1-series coupes, rebadged as the ActiveE. Today I drove one.

To be clear, comparing the performance of a 135i and the ActiveE is not a fair test, and I’m not going to declare a winner. The 135i weighs about 3,400 pounds and generates 300 horsepower from its twin-turbo 6-cylinder engine. The ActiveE weighs about 4,000 pounds and only generates 168 hp from its 32kWh batteries. But the ActiveE should provide a good feel for BMW’s electric powertrain, which will soon be found in the i3, as well as the impact on handling from switching a front-mounted engine for a rear-mounted electric motor and hundreds of pounds of batteries. If the ActiveE generally handles the way a BMW should, then the i3, which is expected to weigh well under 3,000 pounds, should be a blast to drive.

I drove the ActiveE from San Francisco to Stinson Beach, taking Panoramic Highway, one of my favorite coastal mountain roads in Marin County. In the city, pulling away from a stop sign is deeply satisfying with an immediate rush of torque and shift-free linear acceleration. The ActiveE doesn’t have a high enough power-to-weight ratio to be truly fast, but its smooth, instant acceleration at lower speeds makes it feel quick, especially when darting through city traffic. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and motoring up a steep hill on Highway 101 to 70 mph was uninspiring but again adequate. The motor is always ready to pull ahead with of course no downshift lag, but the absolute power of a downshift to 4th gear in the 135i is clearly absent.

The aggressive regenerative braking has a good linear feel, and I quickly stopped using my brake pedal for 90% or more of my braking. The ActiveE’s deceleration was about double the effect of coasting in the 135i at 4,000 RPM. Pretty aggressive and a good way to improve range. Reminds to look into whether electric cars light up their brake lights when aggressively decelerating without actual braking.

The tight curves through the forest and dropping into Stinson Beach were reassuredly pure BMW — well balanced, precise turning, and solid and progressive grip. Forced into using a 1-series shell designed for a gas engine, BMW carefully spread out the batteries in three locations: back of the engine bay, transmission tunnel, and trunk, maintaining a near 50:50 weight distribution. The center of gravity though could be improved, and will be in the i3 whose batteries will be located at floor level. If you try hard enough, you can slide the tail end accelerating out of a tight corner, but the ActiveE will mostly understeer significantly more than the 135i. The ActiveE has a high stack of batteries in the engine compartment (check out the bump in the hood) that I could feel, despite the car’s overall weight balance, pulling the front end out of my turning line.

All in all, BMW’s careful attention to weight distribution and refined electric powertrain produced a car that, while nearly 700 pounds heaver than a 135i, remained worthy of its blue and white badge. The i3 should be vastly better and is eagerly awaited.

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Tesla Model S: Motor Trend 2013 Car of the Year

Congratulations, Tesla. For 64 years, Motor Trend has been awarding Car of the Year, one of the most prestigious awards in the automotive industry. The Tesla Model S is the first electric car to win. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder and CEO, once said that he set out not to build the world’s best electric car, but to build the world’s best car that just happened to be electric. Well done.

For those of us who believe in the inherent performance benefits of electric vehicles — instant torque and a low center-of-gravity — perhaps this award is not that surprising. Then again, consider the dismal review given by Consumer Reports to the Fisker Karma, or that the last new, successful U.S. auto manufacturer was started many, many decades ago. The car manufacturing business is indeed notoriously challenging, so hats off to Tesla.

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EV Owners Can Still Call AAA

There are better remedies to range anxiety than Xanax. Now an EV owner out of juice is just a phone call away from a AAA charging truck. Yes, a gas-powered truck will drive up to your dead EV and give you 15 minutes of charge.

But real peace of mind comes from knowing that AAA won’t show up with a weak Level 2 charger, but with a Level 3. Fifteen minutes of Level 3, if your EV is compatible, probably fills up your “tank” half way.

Now if only the AAA truck could show up in less than an hour…

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BMW i3: The Ultimate Urban Machine

The EV market is steadily filling out, from exotic Tesla to mainstream Nissan and Chevy. Slotting nicely in the middle will be the BMW i3, a pure electric designed for urban surroundings.

BMW started this project with a clean slate and it shows. They tackle the critical EV challenge of weight by using carbon fiber for most of the passenger compartment, ending up with a curb weight of only around 2,700 pounds – 600 less than a Nissan Leaf.  Compared to the Leaf, that lower weight will allow for fewer batteries, yet similar range and better acceleration. Not to mention that this will still be a BMW, with rear-wheel drive and class-leading handling. If BMW is able to price this close to the Leaf, as rumors indicate, then BMW will have a big winner on its hands. First deliveries are expected in 2012, and no, BMW is not yet taking orders.

BMW is serious about EVs. For those needing greater range, they plan on offering an optional range-extending gas generator.  And for those just wanting the ultimate performance machine, they will roll out the i8 a year later.

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Liquid Batteries: The New Black Gold?

Battery swapping in theory sounds promising. Instead of waiting for your batteries to charge, just exchange them for freshly-charged ones. But a scalable and efficient swapping system has high hurdles. Batteries are mostly incompatible across different EV brands, battery packs are not easily accessible, and it’s expensive to have batteries sitting around waiting to be swapped.

What if, instead of swapping the entire battery, you could exchange only the inner battery material?  That obviously wouldn’t work with today’s solid-materials batteries where, for example, a Lithium-Ion battery exchanges ions between lithium and carbon electrodes. However, according to MIT News, 24M Technologies is developing batteries with electrodes consisting of a thick liquid instead of solids. Ironically, they’re using a thick black liquid that looks much like crude oil.

These “semi-solid flow cell” batteries would in turn create all sorts of new swapping and “refueling” opportunities, from liquid fill-ups (where the depleted liquid would be pumped out and exchanged for fresh liquid) to liquid tank exchanges (where an entire tank of liquid would be exchanged), all of which could perhaps someday be performed at your local gas station.

Liquid batteries are undoubtedly several years out but definitely a technology worth keeping an eye on.

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Electric Roads

Great story over at Txchnologist about work being done to enable wireless charging.  Imagine if, sort of like your electric toothbrush at home, your EV could pick up a little juice while simply driving on roads or while parked or while stopped at a red light. Inductive power transfer works great for your toothbrush and just might work for your EV too. While the concept is only in the R&D stage, the potential impact is staggering. Not only would this expand charging networks, but it could actually reduce the cost of EVs themselves.  How?  If an urban region truly enabled a “charge anywhere, anytime” network of electric roads, EVs could get away with having less range and consequently smaller batteries.  With batteries being the heaviest and most expensive component of an EV, smaller batteries would immediately reduce the cost of EVs, improve acceleration and handling, and ultimately increase sales.

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