To understand why the electric car hasn’t taken over the world yet, imagine this:
A beautiful supermodel enrolls at MIT and earns her doctorate. She adds an MBA from Harvard. She patents a brilliant new technology, founds her own company, and becomes a billionaire. Then she marries a school dropout who watches TV in his underwear, eats fast food every day, and has never held down a job. He gains a lot of weight, and gambles away his wife’s fortune. They move to a trailer park.
This couple represents the technical conundrum that is the electric car. The wife is the electric car’s motor: brilliant, efficient and inspiring. And her corpulent loser of a husband is the electric car’s battery – a deadweight underachiever who drags her down.
With this in mind, let’s look at the BMW i3, a fantastic, game-changing car that is, unfortunately, powered by a battery. Aside from the power source, the i3 is a vehicle you would covet – it has a striking shape, an aluminum chassis and the interior is constructed using carbon-fibre reinforced plastic, an extremely strong yet lightweight material that provides superior protection for the i3’s occupants in the event of a crash. The interior is further crafted using renewable natural resources such as eucalyptus wood, wool and naturally treated leather.
After a life in gas-powered vehicles, driving the i3 is a revelation. It whooshed up to highway speed as if propelled by an invisible force. The stereo is crystal clear, and I realized just how loud a traditional car really is – in the i3, the loudest noise is air rushing over the body.
A wide-screen monitor sits on the dash like a miniaturized high-definition TV, tracking the i3’s functions through advanced software, transporting the driver into the automotive future – at least until the battery runs out.
The i3 is part of a sweeping corporate plan. The transportation world is changing fast, and BMW wants to be on the cutting edge of future vehicle design. The i3 is aimed at a small but critical group of buyers: upscale, urban, environmentally conscious trendsetters who appreciate advanced technology.
On the technology score, it does not disappoint. You don’t just drive the i3. You have a digital relationship with it. Considering the BMW badge and the $44,950 base price, that is to be expected. The car is packed with enough software to run a stock exchange, and it is linked to the web, a small glowing dot on a distant server. The i3 can monitor your driving and compare your energy use with other i3 drivers (which might be dispiriting for some). But even the least-efficient i3 driver will outdo every gas-powered car on the road, and the fuel cost (the electricity loaded into the battery) will be pennies per kilometre.
I enjoyed my time in the i3. It was quick and smooth. The controls were intuitive and well designed. Other drivers stared at the car – they knew they were looking at something new and different.
At the heart of the i3 is its battery, a 500-pound unit that’s flat-packed into the bottom of the car, keeping its weight low for stability. Under optimum conditions, and driven in its most efficient mode, the i3 will do up to 160 kilometres on a single charge. But, as they say, your mileage may vary. I travelled 81 kilometres in a mix of urban and highway driving, and nearly drained the battery. According to the i3’s display, I only had 22 more kilometres of range left.
Here, we come to the electric car’s built-in problem – the low energy density of batteries. Pound for pound, a battery holds only about a tenth as much energy as gasoline. This is unfortunate, given all the advantages of electric power. The electric motor itself is superior to internal combustion, with vast torque, clean running, and excellent packaging – there’s no messy fuel or exhaust systems, and the electric motor can run in forward or reverse, eliminating the need for a transmission. But, like the beautiful billionaire who married the overweight bum, the electric motor must live with the battery.
Weight and low energy density are just two of the battery’s problems. There’s also the matter of recharge time – for drivers used to refilling a gas tank in three minutes, a 15-hour recharge comes as a shock. (That time can be reduced dramatically using a high-output charging station, but it’s still dead slow compared with filling a gas tank.)
Scientists and engineers are working on technologies that will replace the battery, and make the electric car king of the road. Among the possibilities is an ultra-capacitor, a brick-sized device that will store huge amounts of power, and can be recharged almost instantly. But for now, the electric car is shackled to the battery.
BMW’s engineers have invested a lot of effort dealing with problems created by the limitations of battery technology. The i3’s software monitors the state of charge, and does its best to maximize its range. As the charge level runs down, the i3 shuts down functions to preserve its battery, like a downsizing corporation shedding staff.
But there’s more to it than that. The i3 uses BMW’s ConnectedDrive software to link the driver with services that extend the maximum travelling range – like charging stations, for example. But it also includes intermodal routing, which is a fancy way of saying “another way to get there when your car dies.”
The intermodal routing system can connect drivers with public transit and car rental companies. It can locate train and bus stations, and even pulls up schedules and fare information. This is telling. The i3 is only too aware of its limitations – it’s like marrying someone who has their therapist’s number tattooed on their forehead for your convenience.
For those unwilling to pay close to $50,000 for a car that may leave them stranded, BMW offers a small, range-extending gas engine. It will cost about $10,000, and is installed in the tail area. (To understand how it works, imagine a gas-powered generator sitting in the trunk, feeding electrical power to the battery.) The extender motor won’t recharge the battery, but it will keep the i3 going until the gas tank runs empty (which won’t take long, since it only holds a few litres of fuel).
For a certain customer, the i3 will be ideal. That customer’s profile looks something like this: An early adopter with a short commute, rich, and with an appreciation for eco-chic style (it’s hard to beat an interior made out of resin-infused plants). This customer will also have a garage to install a rapid-charging station – and another car with a gas engine.
As I exited the i3, I was impressed. This is a sophisticated, ultra-green car that uses minuscule amounts of energy. If it were a person, the i3 would be that beautiful billionaire scientist. But then I pictured the i3’s massive battery, which had barely made it through my 81-km ride, and a single thought shot through my brain: What’s SHE doing with HIM?
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