Sunday, January 17, 2016

Exclusive Interview with Chevy Bolt EV Chief Engineer

The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV will be available for sale in less than a year. A five seat hatchback with a 200+ mile electric range with a base MSRP of about $37,000. Will the Bolt affect i3 sales?
This week at the North American International Auto Show I had the opportunity to sit down with Chevrolet Bolt EV Chief Engineer Josh Tavel. We covered a variety of topics related to the Bolt EV, which was the cornerstone of the Chevrolet press conference at NAIAS this year. I originally posted this on InsideEVs, but I believe the readers here would also be interested in reading about a potential i3 competitor which is coming to market in less than a year. 
I started out asking Tavel what he felt were some of the biggest challenges his team faced with the Bolt.
Here’s Tavel’s response:
“This is a very different car.” 
“You might expect me to answer this by saying one of the major components like the battery or electric motor, but that really wasn’t the case. We’ve been doing batteries and electric motors for a long time at Chevrolet so they’re known entity for us.”
“The biggest challenges were really because the vehicle architecture of the Bolt is different. It’s the unique packaging of the Bolt which was probably the biggest challenge. It affects everything. Some of the predictive models, the CAE (computer aided engineering) work really well with conventionally powered vehicles, but when you take yourself out of that architecture and apply it to this new type of vehicle, they don’t work that well, so we really had think differently. There were a couple of areas where we had to take a different approach, because this architecture is so different than anything we’ve ever done.”
Talking about crash testing, Tavel stated:
“In crash testing, cars have unique crash test signatures, but the results of the Bolt are unlike any other car. That said we’re feeling really good about us being at the top of the segment from a safety perspective.”
He went on to talk about how they spent time slimming down the front seats in order to give the rear passengers more leg room and save weight, but how that then affects crash testing, and how the battery tray is incorporated into the main structure to increase the stiffness of the chassis.

Regenerative Braking

The Bolt has two driving modes, drive and Low. The regen level in normal mode is minimal, and basically simulates how a conventional car without regenerative braking feels. I specifically asked him to describe how “Drive” mode feels. Tavel explained:
“It’s still in the same field as a normal car. There are normal cars that have as much natural decel as the Bolt in Drive; it’s not out of the norm. Originally it was tuned such that if you were to take 100 people and monitor them coming to a stop light, and monitor that decel, and let’s say it would be about .2g’s. The Bolt was designed for .2g’s – to basically act like a conventional car. But the problem was, sometimes you need a little bit more, and it didn’t give it.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           "So actually just this past December we were all out in LA and I said ‘You know guys, this is stupid. It feels like were making the one pedal driving be kinda acceptable for the people that don’t like it, and kinda acceptable for the people that do. Why are we doing this halfway? If they don’t like it, they have drive (mode), the i3 for instance, doesn’t have a drive mode with light decel. So if they don’t like regen, go to drive. If they want it, give it to them (low mode with heavy regen).’ So now we’re at a spot where I can drive home and never touch the brake pedal.”

In addition to the Low drive setting, the Bolt has a Regen on Demand paddle on the steering wheel. So there are actually four different levels of regen with the level of deceleration getting stronger at each level below:

  • Drive mode (mildest regen <.2g’s)
  • Drive mode using Regen on Demand paddle
  • Low mode
  • Low mode plus using Regen on Demand paddle (strongest regen ~.3g’s)


Artificial Creep

In order to come to a complete stop while in Drive mode, the driver will need to use the friction brakes. In these conditions, when they release the friction brakes, the car will creep forward. Artificial creep and whether or not it belongs on an EV has been a highly controversial topic and one debated amongst the plug in community. The Bolt has a unique way of dealing with it. If you don’t like strong regen and use drive mode, the engineers feel you probably like how a conventionally powered car performs and they give you artificial creep.
However, if you like strong regen and use low mode, or stop with using the Regan on Demand paddle, the artificial creep is disengaged. In those circumstances, the car will hold its position there, even if on an incline. There is no need to depress the friction brake. However, if the operator does press the friction brakes after coming to a stop using the regen, and then releases the brake pedal, the car will creep forward.
The Bolt uses the same DC fast charging standard as the i3, the Combo (CCS) system.

DC Fast Charge

With Tesla currently charging at over 100kW, and Audi & BMW talking about the new 150kW system they are working on, I asked Tavel what would be the highest speed of DC Fast charging the Bolt would accept. It’s clear this topic is one that is still being internally discussed, but I also got the feeling it will most likely be limited to what the current hardware in the ground can deliver, that being 50kW.
“We’re still figuring out how fast we want to go. We’ve over validated a lot of our components just in case, but were still figuring out if we want to limit it to say, 50kW’s or 60kW’s or possibly higher. That decision hasn’t been made yet but I can promise it won’t be lower than 50kW.”


Torque Steer


I drove a MINI-E for two and a half years so I know have a front wheel drive EV with lots of torque can feel. The MINI-E was a blast to drive, but under full acceleration I needed to hold the steering wheel tightly with both hands to keep it from jerking from side to side from the torque steer. I wanted to know how the Bolt would feel with 200 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque going to the front wheels.
“We’ve got some special controls in there for that. Our steering system and our EBCM (electronic brake control module) has some pretty slick calibrations in there to combat torque steer. You can feel a little bit of it but I think it feels fine. There’s a lot of power up there so if you were to remove the controls we put in place the torque steer would be pretty wicked.”


Comparing the Bolt to the Volt

I asked Tavel to describe the performance of the Bolt, and possibly compare it to the plug in competition. Unsurprisingly, he chose the Volt as the car he would most closely compare the performance to.
“The Gen 2 Volt I think is a great car. Amazingly, I’d like to say that I believe we’ve worked it out so that performance wise we’re equal to where the Volt is. To me, there is no competitor I wanted the Bolt to be like. I think the Volt, the Gen 2 Volt specifically, is a really well done car. And that is a car we compare ourselves to a lot. 


The Bolt has a traditional-looking gear shifter. Other EV's like the i3, the Model S and the Nissan LEAF have ditched the traditional shifter for something different, since gear shifting really isn't necessary on an EV

Why the traditional gear shifter?

Since electric cars don’t really require a gear shifter, and some manufacturers like BMW, Nissan and Tesla have ventured from the norm of the traditional gear shifter on their electric offerings, I asked why the Bolt has what looks like a gear shifter for a traditional automatic transmission. Tavel was quick to dismiss the need to change what works.
“This isn’t some funky looking car that’s some whizzy statement. This is a mainstream car that happens to be propelled by electrification. It’s not some unique quirky little thing. (I couldn’t help but think he was referring to the BMW i3 here) It’s a real, no kidding, good car. It’s already an electric shifter, if you pull that away the car gets maybe a little more different than you might want, and quite honestly I think there are some questionable safety issues if your reaching up and moving things up there that I don’t think as a company we want to go to right now.”
Side note: Right as I was asking this next question, Carlos Ghosn and his entourage were escorted onto the platform behind us to have a private look at the Bolt on display. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were talking about, but he wasn’t smiling.
No Carbon Fiber?
The Bolt’s press release from GM stated the Bolt incorporated advanced materials including aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber to help lightweight the vehicle. I asked him if he can explain where these materials were used, and how they helped save weight. Tavel was surprised there was a claim that carbon fiber was used on the Bolt, and in fact told me he believed that was incorrect. As for the use of advanced materials and light weighting, he said:
“We saved just shy of 50lbs by using all aluminum enclosures (all the exterior body panels are aluminum). The underbody is 95% high strength steel or advanced high strength steel, some of it is the first time it’s been used in production so far. The upper body, not counting the exterior panels is about 80% high strength steel, so there is a lot of advanced materials in there, but we didn’t use carbon fiber anywhere I can think of.”

On high tech advanced electronics

With more and more advance electronic features becoming available in today’s cars, I asked if the Bolt would feature any of these technologies. I specifically asked if the Bolt would have adaptive cruise control, lane departure assist, self parking, automatic braking or any autonomous driving features and I was a little surprised to hear it won’t, not even as optional equipment. They will however introduce a few new features that weren’t on my list. Tavel explained:
“No. Adaptive cruise control – no, you would need the blended brakes to do that and we didn’t want to do that with this car. However, all the standard side blind zones, rear cross traffic alert, ten air bags, all that’s there. What’s new is the optional Rear Camera Mirror. You normally have a 22 degree field of vision with a standard mirror, this takes you to 80. We also have optional Surround Vision, which you know is the 360 degree camera system. We’re still working hard to perfect it, but I’m told it’s the best one camera systems the guys have seen so far.”


Conclusion

Overall, I really got the feeling Tavel was extremely proud of the Bolt. He took particular pride in talking about how different this car is from anything GM has ever produced, and that his team worked relentlessly on every small detail to try to achieve perfection. While they are still actively improving things, they are actually pretty close to a finished product.
In fact, he said GM has executive test drives every week, and after some of the top brass drove the Bolt last week, they told Tavel he could release the car now, and as far as they are concerned it’s finished. He’s not satisfied yet though, and that’s what you’d expect from your chief engineer.

Monday, December 21, 2015

BMW EV Infrastructure Discussions from the LA Auto Show: Part 2

On a recent trip to Vermont I stopped at Prestige BMW in New Jersey on both legs of the journey. They recently installed two 24 kW DC Fast Charge stations that are accessible 24/7 and free to use. A robust DC Fast charge infrastructure is crucial for mass EV adoption.
This is the second half of a two part post on BMW's infrastructure plans, current and future. Having spent time with BMW's EV infrastructure team at the LA Auto Show, (Robert Healey, Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Manager, Idine Ghoreishian, Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Specialist, and Cliff Fietzek, Manager of Connected eMobility) I posted the first half of this report last week. In that post, we discussed the East and West Coast Express Charging Corridors, and the just-announced ChargeNow DC Fast program.

ChargeNow DC Fast:

I reached out to Jeremy Desel, Director of Communications for EVgo, to discuss the deployment rate of the 500 ChargeNow DC Fast stations. What Desel told me was pretty impressive: "We have been able to add nearly 100 additional 50kW DC Fast Combo chargers in six weeks, in 25 markets."  EVgo certainly didn't waste any time, and began installing Combo stations immediately after the announcement of the partnership with BMW for ChargeNow DC Fast. That's good news for the i3 (and all Combo) owners who have been patiently waiting for Combo (CCS) infrastructure to proliferate. Speaking with Desel he told me they are able to move quickly because EVgo had the foresight to future proof EVgo DC Fast charge sites. When these sites were initially built, they were designed to be easily upgraded and expanded. That fact will certainly help EVgo meet the 2018 completion date to get all 500 Combo stations in the ChargeNow DC Fast program installed on time. EVgo currently has 104 Combo DC Fast Charge stations operational in California, the result of the initial phase of the ChargeNow DC Fast program which began in 2014.

One aspect of the ChargeNow DC Fast expansion program which wasn't discussed in part one was the fact that new BMW i3 buyers will have unlimited free access to this network for two years. To qualify, you need to buy or lease an i3 on or after November 1st, 2015. If you bought or leased your i3 before that, you do not qualify and will have to pay the current rates for access to EVgo's DC fast charge network. That didn't sit well with many current i3 owners, and some expressed their dissatisfaction to it. I wanted to get an idea of how the i3 community felt about this so I ran a poll in the BMW i3 FaceBook Group. Sixty percent (109 of 181) of respondents said they weren't happy with it, and felt BMW should allow all i3 owners free access to the network for two years, not just new owners.

Personally, I'm not a fan of offering this kind of unlimited free DC Fast charge access as a purchase incentive. Nissan announced a similar plan for new LEAF buyers called "No Charge to Charge" back in 2013. I believe it promotes abuse, and in many instances will be counter productive as stations will be unnecessarily overused simply because they are free. Even Tesla is having issues with unnecessary Supercharger use. They recently sent out letters urging Model S owners to only use the Superchargers when they need to for long journeys. Free, unlimited use will result in i3 owners plugging into DC Fast charge stations within close proximity to their homes, and those stations then won't be available to the drivers who actually need them to complete a long journey.  I'd much prefer to see BMW offer i3 owners a discounted rate, or a limited number of free sessions as a purchase incentive. This free promotion is clearly a marketing tool that BMW plans to use to attract new i3 customers, and I don't think it went unnoticed that many current i3 owners weren't happy with it. Although I couldn't get any comment on this, I got the feeling that BMW may be working on something they can offer to current i3 drivers, as well as i8 and eDrive owners, so stay tuned.
Rob Healey plugs an i3 into a DC Fast charge Freedom station   
Another topic we discussed is the fact that many current EVgo Station locations don't support the Combo connector that BMW uses. The competing DC Fast Charge system, CHAdeMO, which is used by the Asian manufacturers, had about a three year head start getting established in the US before any Combo (CCS) stations were installed. Because of that, there are a lot of EVgo Station locations which are CHAdeMO DC fast charge units. I wanted to know if those locations would remain CHAdeMO only, or if they would be upgraded to support the Combo connector also. To that Fietzek said: "Where there is currently a EVgo Station that is only CHAdeMO, they will either swap that station to a dual-connector unit which supports the Combo also, or install a second station which is Combo. When we are done with this project in 2018 there will no longer be any EVgo Station locations which only support CHAdeMO, they will also Combo."

The Future: Better, faster and widespread:

I then turned the conversation to the future of EV charging, and asked the group to comment on what's next for BMW. I specifically pointed to Audi's announcement with regards to their electric vehicle plans, and the fact that Audi's press conference had just taken place where they said the 2018 eTron Quattro would support 150kW charging. Audi also promised to offer "Access to Nationwide Network of 150kW charging stations" and that these stations would begin to be available when the vehicle is offered for sale in 2018. 150kW DC Fast charging is a huge step forward compared to the 24 kW and 50 kW DC Fast charging stations which BMW and their partners are currently deploying. So I asked if BMW is going to be able to keep up with the competition.

Healey started out talking about how quickly the landscape of electric vehicle charging has advanced. Back in the days of the MINI-E, Healey was the MINI-E technical coordinator. I got to know him then as I was one of the MINI-E lessees and he was in charge of keeping the fleet on the road. He added: "You've been with us from the beginning, Tom. If you step back just a few years you'll remember how we struggled just to get the wallboxes installed in the MINI-E customer's garages. So for a while there we mostly focused on level 2 charging. Then came the 24kW and 50kW DC fast charging which we are currently deploying, and now we're already working on charging at much higher speeds. So if you really think about it, we've actually advanced a lot in a 5 to 6 year time frame. This is the natural progression; to continue to introduce faster levels of charging, but we can't sit and wait. We need to install what we have available to us now. We can't underestimate the other side of public infrastructure; the psychological aspect. We need to get the chargers out there, they need to be seen. This is not only important for current EV drivers, but for potential EV owners. They want to see the infrastructure before they buy the car. We'll continue to upgrade the infrastructure as better options become available."
Audi made news in LA with promising to offer access to a nationwide 150 kW DC fast charge network.
Fietzek then offered the following:  "Yes, we have seen some announcements from other OEMs at the show here today. We are currently working with the other OEMs on increasing the charging standard to 150kW and higher. (Here Fietzek is referring to The Charging Interface Initiative association - CharIN) Once we have defined the new charging level we need to then determine the best way to implement it. We have already shown 150kW charging at Baden Baden, and together with the other German OEMs we are working on defining the standard and determine the costs. We are also supporting an EVgo CPUC program here in California to demonstrate new 150kW high-powered charging. Part of our commitment is to provide test cars to test these station as well as technology. So yes, we are working on it, but we don't have any news as far as when or which cars will use this technology just yet." 

Speaking of partnering with other OEM's in infrastructure projects Healey said: "BMW is open and willing to work with all industry stakeholders that are committed to supporting EV infrastructure projects. The partnership programs that we have launched have afforded us a wealth of knowledge and lessons learned that we will continue to share and apply to the expansion of the US charging infrastructure to benefit our current and future customers. The old adage 'A rising tide lifts all boats' is especially appropriate with EV infrastructure. Working together will only expedite our goal of making electric mobility more accessible and appealing to even more drivers."

BMW is a founding member of the newly formed ROEV association

On Interoperability:

Finally, one cumbersome aspect of public charging is that we don't really have network interoperability. It's kind of been a bit like the Wild, Wild, West out there the past five years with many different network providers offering many different types of EV charging equipment, and very little cooperation amongst all of the various stakeholders. An EV driver may have to carry four or five different network cards, pay an annual or monthly fee for some of them, pay for replacement cards and make sure you have all of them with you because you never know when you'll need one. Having true network interoperability would be so much more convenient. Well, it looks like we may have taken the first real step in that direction.
Soon  EV drivers will only need to carry one card. Photo credit: Patrick Connor
BMW and Nissan, joined network providers ChargePoint, EVgo and Car Charging Group as the five founding partners of ROEV, which stands for "roaming for EV charging."  In addition to the founding partners, several more companies have joined ROEV, including Audi, Honda, Efacec, Portland General Electric, SemaConnect, and BTC Power. They are still a couple of months away from officially launching the program, but once that's happened, a BMW customer will be able to use their ChargeNow card, or any participating network RFID card, to access any charging station operated by the participating networks. What isn't clear yet is whether or not using a card from one network to access another network's charging station will result in an additional fee, like roaming fees on mobile phones. And since the name of this new enterprise included the word "roaming," I'm guessing there will be some kind of roaming fee to access stations from competing networks. The good news is that the three founding partner networks, ChargePoint, Car Charging Group/Blink and EVgo currently operate 17,500 of the 19,000 (91%) public charging stations in the US, so interoperability among these three giant networks alone is a huge step forward.
Rob Healey speaking at the ROEV press conference at the LA Auto Show.
Pictured on stage just to the left of Healey is Idine Ghoreishian
Speaking of BMW's participation in ROEV, Ghoreishian said, "As much as it sometimes may not seem like it, we are indeed listening to what our customers are saying and constantly working to make things better. The goal with ROEV is to improve the experience of owning an EV. We've heard our customers complain about needing multiple network cards, and we feel ROEV's network interoperability will enhance the electric vehicle ownership experience."  

This of course is all good news. With Tesla not showing any signs of slowing down in their relentless pursuit to install Supercharger infrastructure, the CHAdeMO Association continuing to expand their worldwide network and now the Combo (CCS) standard beginning to really proliferate, all EV drivers will benefit in the long run. Getting the infrastructure in the ground is the most important and most difficult thing. In my opinion, at some point in the future there will be a single winner in the "connector wars" and it may not even be one of the existing "standards" used today. When that's decided, it will be easy to just swap out the connectors on the stations to whatever standard is the ultimate winner. For now we really just need to continue to get the infrastructure in the ground and the problem of which standard wins will eventually work itself out.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

BMW EV Infrastructure Discussions from the LA Auto Show: Part 1


A few weeks ago at the LA Auto Show, BMW made news by announcing a partnership with NRG's EVgo to install an additional 500 DC Fast Charge stations in 25 major US markets. The project is called the ChergeNow DC Fast and is actually the second phase of a program started in 2014, which brought 100 DC fast charge stations to select California areas. I was there at the show for Press Preview days, and had the opportunity to sit down with basically all of the top EV infrastructure managers at BMW of North America. Seated at the table were Robert Healey, Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Manager, Idine Ghoreishian, Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Specialist, and Cliff Fietzek, Manager of Connected eMobility.

Even though the news of the ChargeNow DC Fast program had just been released, I wanted to first talk about the East and West Coast Express Charging Corridors. If you remember, this program was announced back in January at NAIAS and the press release stated that approximately 100 stations would be installed in these corridors (Washington, DC to Boston, MA on the East Coast, and San Diego, CA, to Portland, OR, on the West Coast) and it would be completed by the end of 2015. This was a joint venture between BMW, Volkswagen and ChargePoint. ChargePoint is responsible for the installations, and BMW and VW are basically telling them where they want them, and footing the vast majority of the bill. Time is running out and I knew they wouldn't hit the predicted deadline, so I asked the group what happened, and when can we expect it to be done. Here are some quotes from the discussion:
Rob Healey, BMW's top EV infrastructure manager

When asked about why they missed the predicted end of 2015 completion date, Fietzek said: "The business model for ChargePoint changed for this program. Before this they were responding to site hosts that wanted to have a charger installed. Basically the site host would call them, and say they wanted a charger. Now, ChargePoint had to go out and say to property owners, 'I need to put a charger here, because BMW and Volkswagen want me to, do you want to work with us?' This was very different from what they were accustomed to."

50kW DC stations which are part of the
West Coast Express Charging Corridor.
Photo credit: Tony Williams
Ghoreishian added: "Another challenge of placement goes back to our goal of making sure they were no more than 50 miles apart. Seventy five miles just won't work."

I also learned that getting the sites in good locations was more important than just getting them in the ground and meeting a deadline. BMW knew these locations would likely be used for years to come, so it would be worth their while to take the time to make sure they got good locations. In that vein, Healey had this to say: "There is a process in place between BMW and VW; collectively we have the final (site) approval. There were a lot of sites offered to us that we rejected. For instance, we looked at the customer and said, 'Do you want to have your wife go in and charge in this area late at night?' There were sites that we rejected because we didn't think it was a safe place. We want the best sites for our customers, basically."

I then asked if they thought BMW should finish this program before they start new infrastructure projects, like the NRG EVgo program which had just been announced and Fietzek quickly said: "Different partners, different projects. I'd rather have them running in parallel than waiting for one to finish before starting another. We'll get things done much faster this way."
Cliff Fietzek, Manager of Connected eMobility for BMW of North America, stands in front of the special edition Shadow Sport i3 on display at the LA Auto Show
Finally, I asked that since it's clear the program won't be finished on time, when can we expect the two Express Charging Corridors to be completed, and Healey answered: "Yeah, we're a little delayed. We're now shooting for early spring for completion. We always knew it was going to be tight. We sat with ChargePoint, we talked to the Volkswagen people and said, 'Can we do this in one year?' We knew approximately where we wanted to install the stations, but we still needed to contact the property owners, sign site host agreements, go through permitting and that just took more time than we expected. If you look at the ramp up, we started off slow, but are now really ramping up. We should have about 52 stations active by then end of the year, with another 19 already under construction. We're looking at finishing in late March or April."

Having personally gone through the process of installing a DC fast charger on my property in Montclair, NJ, I know the challenges that can arise during the process. I'll actually be pretty impressed if they do finish by Spring. That would mean that they installed the 100 stations on two coasts in about 15 months, and the company doing all of the site host agreements, permitting and installations never really took on a project like this before. That's really not bad in my opinion.
The DC Fast Charge Station I installed in Montclair, NJ. It's part of the East Coast Express Charging Corridor program
With that progress update on the East and West Coast Express Charging Corridors finished, I turned the discussion to the announcement made just hours before, the national ChargeNow DC Fast expansion. This is actually an expansion of a program started in 2014, when BMW and NRG teamed up to install 100 DC Fast chargers to select California markets. That program was completed earlier this year, and this is the second phase. There will be an additional 500 DC Fast chargers installed in 25 markets around the country.

When I asked about why they chose these specific markets, Healey said, "One of the important points of the expansion of the NRG program is that these 25 markets cover 80% of our current i3 sales. Now, we don't want to forget about the other 20% of our customers; we're working on it, and you'll be hearing from us shortly about how we're filling in the other 20%. It's really a systematic approach."

The 25 markets covered in this second phase of the program are:
 
Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Fresno, CA; Houston, TX; Los Angeles, CA; Miami, FL; Monterey, CA; Nashville, TN; New York, NY; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Portland, OR; Raleigh, NC; Sacramento, CA; Salt Lake City, UT; San Diego, CA; San Francisco, CA; Santa Barbara, CA; Seattle, WA and Washington, DC.

Arun Banskota, President and CEO of NRG's EVgo had this to say about the program:

“It is our mission to install the right charging solutions at the right places, and EV drivers have overwhelmingly told us they prefer DC Fast chargers at public spaces. Over the next 24 months EVgo will add reliable DC Fast Combo capability to what is already America’s largest DC Fast charging network. This will be the fastest and most cost effective build out of a new network ever – thanks in large part to our existing infrastructure and committed retail host partners... The only way such a massive expansion is possible is because of the purpose built, and forward looking planning behind the EVgo network...EVgo has installed infrastructure with the ability to efficiently and economically add this new DC Fast Combo standard as the number of electric vehicles have increased. EVgo owns and operates our chargers with long term agreements with premium retail hosts, and is able to provide the level of customer service, reliability, and pricing that will lead to increased EV adoption and high satisfaction among the existing base of EV drivers.”

The deployment rate of these 500 stations is expected to be aggressive. NRG is a very large company with vast resources and plenty of experience with regards to installing infrastructure. After all, they are an electric utility company. Healey told me that they have existing sites that currently have CHAdeMO stations that they'll be adding a Combo (CCS) station to, as well as many other sites already identified and ready to go. He expects to see hundreds of stations completed within the first year and the entire 500 stations in the ground and operational by the end of 2018. He even said that he's being conservative with these predictions based on the lessons learned by the previous programs they worked on, and that it is quite possible that they finish earlier than the mid 2018 prediction.

Since I had over an hour with the team, we covered a lot of infrastructure topics and there's just too much for one post. Check back next week for part two when the discussion turns to BMW's decision to offer free charging, but only for new i3 buyers, the future of DC charging and BMW's long term commitment to EV infrastructure.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

BMW i3 Melts Away in House Fire

Believe it or not, this was an i3. Unlike the 328i that was also destroyed in the fire, it's difficult to tell that this pile of burnt material was once a car.
One of two things usually happens when people see an image of an electric vehicle on fire or the remnants of an electric vehicle that had been on fire. If you're an EV supporter, you probably hold your breath and grimace a bit until you can read the article to learn what caused the fire and if anyone was hurt. But for many people who are unfamiliar with electric vehicles, they likely question the safety of EVs. They don't even have to read the article; they just see "EV and fire" together and the unfortunate and uninformed speculation begins.

Luckily, since the recent electric vehicle movement began roughly 6 years ago, there have been very few cases of EV fires, and to my knowledge no one involved has suffered an injury. Other than a couple of incidents involving the defunct Fisker Karma, the causes of EV fires have been mostly a direct result of a severe impact compromising the battery pack. I don't know of any instance where an EV has caught on fire because of a systems failure with the high voltage battery pack or power electronics. In fact, as a comparison a gasoline powered vehicle has a greater chance of having a fire than an EV, statistically speaking.
You can recognize the seat frames, strands of carbon fiber and the optional rear 20" Sport wheel, but not much more

So while I usually don't like to use the words "EV and Fire" in the same story, I found this one particularly interesting and wanted to share it.  For one, I've never seen an i3 after a devastating fire incident, (these are the only pictures of an i3 after a fire that I know of) and two, because of the unique state of the car following the fire. I'd like to first say that thankfully, nobody was hurt in the fire depicted here. Also, neither the car, nor the home charging equipment, had anything to do with the fire. It was an unfortunate accident resulting from a fireworks event for a New Year's Eve celebration last year. Hours after cleaning up the debris from a neighborhood event, a trash can that had ashes from the fireworks ignited. Neighbors had gotten together for the fireworks display and the clean up. There must have been something placed in the trash that wasn't completely extinguished, and after a few hours of smoldering, it unfortunately caught on fire.

A very unfortunate scene 
It's pretty shocking to see how little is left of the i3 after the fire. The plastic body panels and CFRP Life Cell just melted away. Without the steel frame and passenger compartment used in a conventionally built car, there is practically nothing recognizable in the pile of i3 debris after the fire. However once they started cleaning up, they were able to drag the aluminum frame with the battery tray out of the garage with a tow truck. Although you can't tell from the photos, the owner, Tory Johnson told me that the aluminum frame and battery tray were still intact. Tory also said it was interesting to see that while the resin which holds the carbon fiber together had melted away, the actual strands of carbon fiber didn't melt, and were clearly visible after the fire.


The 328i next to the i3 in the garage was also destroyed by the fire, however you can still tell it was once an 328i
It's been over two years since the first i3 was delivered in Germany, and at this time there are about 40,000 i3s in customer hands. It's actually a little surprising that there hasn't been a news story or a picture shared on social media of an i3 that had been involved in a fire after a severe accident, or even one like this, that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. At least we now know what to expect.














Even after removing the debris and cleaning up the garage floor had clumps of dried CRFP resin where the i3 had basically melted away.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The 2017 BMW i3: 94 Ah Cells and a 125 Mile EPA Range Rating?

Might these new 94 Ah cells from Samsung SDI make their way into the 2017 BMW i3?
About a month ago BMW CEO Harold Krueger surprised the EV world by casually mentioning in an interview with Die Zeit that in 2016 the i3 would have increased range. That of course sparked a lot of online speculation as to how would BMW accomplish this. Did they figure out a way to squeeze in more of the same 60 Ah Samsung battery cells that the i3 currently uses? Might they have sourced higher energy density battery cells from another supplier? Could Samsung have made the new 94 Ah cells available to BMW now? According to Samsung's Battery Technology Roadmap it didn't look like they would have those cells available for at least another year.
From the Samsung SDI website. The 94 Ah cells aren't even listed as available (click to enlarge)
According to some well connected insiders, it is beginning to look like BMW will indeed use Samsung's now 94 Ah battery cells in the 2017 i3 which will begin production in July of 2016. Furthermore, one insider even believes BMW will offer a battery upgrade option for current i3 owners that want the new, higher energy dense battery cells. Personally I just don't see how BMW can accomplish this without charging more money for the upgrade than most i3 owners would be willing to pay. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to get the battery upgrade myself. However, even if BMW discounted the new battery pack by giving owners a credit on the battery pack they returned, what would the upgrade price have to be for current i3 owners to bite?

Samsung SDI Battery Technology Roadmap
Personally, I think I would go for it if BMW could do the upgrade for under $5,000. That would also be contingent on the rumors being correct, and the new battery pack would be the same physical size - 96 battery cells packaged in 8 modules, containing 12 cells each. Using the new 94 Ah cells, BMW would increase the i3's total battery pack size from 21.6 kWh to 33.4 kWh without increasing weight significantly, if at all. Assuming BMW continued allowing approximately 90% of the total pack as usable energy, that would mean that the new i3 will have approximately 30kWh accessible to use. 30kWh usable would increase the i3 BEV's range to approximately 125 miles per charge and the i3 REx to about 115 mpc. With 115 EPA rated miles of range, my i3 REx would almost never fire up the range extender, which is fine by me. I'd still need it for the 240-mile trips to Vermont I take every couple months, but not for much more than that. If the i3 had 125 miles of range when it initially launched, I definitely wouldn't have ordered mine with the REx.
The battery tray removed from my i3 for service. This contains 8 modules, each holding twelve 60 Ah Samsung SDI battery cells. The new 94 Ah cells are the same size and can simply replace the current cells, in the same modules and fit nicely into the existing battery tray.
However, I'm still not convinced BMW will offer an option for current i3 owners to upgrade, and I'm even less convinced that they could offer it at a price point which would make it a reasonable purchase for someone who has only owned their car for a couple years or less. If they had 100,000 miles on the car, and the battery had already degraded to 75% or 80% or so of what it was when it was new, then the owner might be able to justify the cost of a new replacement pack. Of course, this is all speculation at this point. Nonetheless, we'll be talking a lot about these questions until BMW finally releases the details. Which, by the way, I don't expect them to do for at least 4 or 5 months. Rumors of an upgrade to an EV's battery pack can really hurt sales of the current vehicle. The only thing that will hurts sales even more is when the manufacturer admits it, gives the specifications and the expected launch date for the new model. If anyone out there is i3 bargain hunting, and can live with the i3's current range, you can expect some killer deals this spring as BMW clears out the remaining 2016 inventory to make room for the 2017s with the new battery.

One i3 battery module. As you can see there are twelve cells in each module, and there are eight modules in the pack.
A battery upgrade would seemingly solve another issue that has bothered some i3 REx owners, that being the size of the gas tank - or really how much of it they have access to. All i3's come with a 2.4 gallon gas tank. However, for the US market, BMW had to restrict the amount of gas available to use to 1.9 gallons. The reason was to satisfy the California Air Resource Board's criteria for a BEVx vehicle. One of the criteria for an extended range electric vehicle to be classified as a BEVx is that the range of the car while being driven on battery needs to exceed the range it can drive on gasoline. If BMW allowed the full 2.4 gallons to be available for use, the gas range would be slightly greater than the electric range, and the i3 REx wouldn't qualify as a BEVx. BMW would lose some of the highly valuable ZEV credits they get for every i3 REx sold in "CARB states".

If the i3's electric range is increased more than 20 additional miles, then the full 2.4 gallon tank could be accessed without a BEVx violation. Therefore, I fully expect the 2017 i3 REx to have use of the entire 2.4 gallon gas tank as it does with the European i3s. Actually, if the new batteries do extend the i3 REx's battery range to the possible 115 MPC, then BMW could increase the gas tank to a little over 3 gallons if they wanted to. The i3 REx would then offer over 200 miles of driving range without needing to plug in or fill up.
Might the 2017 i3 REx have a larger gas tank?
Whether or not BMW will indeed use the new 94 Ah cells from Samsung is yet to be known. According to CEO Krueger, we do know BMW will be upgrading the i3's battery pack, and the most obvious and easiest way to do so would be with higher density battery cells. Samsung's new 94 Ah cells are the same physical size as the 60 Ah cells used in the current i3, so upgrading to the new cells couldn't be any easier - as along as they are indeed ready and available. As for the battery upgrade for existing i3 owners, it's a tempting proposition, and one that I hope BMW fully explores to see if there is a way that they can do it at a reasonable cost (I say that's under $5,000). However I'm just not convinced that they can offer an upgrade without losing a lot of money on every pack they sell. Time will tell, and I'm sure there will be a lot of discussions about his before we actually get all the facts from BMW.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

i3 Software Update 15-11-502 Fixes Flaws, Adds Features

Details of the November software update (15-11-502) for the i3 and i8. Click to enlarge or download.
BMW has just rolled out another software update (15-11-502) for the i3 in the North American market. Since the i3 launch, these updates have been coming out about once every six months, and as with previous i3 software updates, they are free of charge. Hopefully this time around BMW dealers know these updates are indeed free. Last year when BMW introduced an i3 software update, for some reason there were some dealers that charged their customers for the service. Once BMW realized what was happening, they reached out to their dealer network to inform them that these i3 updates are indeed free, and they were instructed to refund the money to anyone who was charged for it. If you were one of the people who unfortunately paid for an i3 software and wasn't reimbursed, please contact your dealer and they will refund what you paid.

This new update is a combination of fixing some nagging issues, as well as adding a couple of new features. Below is a detailed description of what the added enhancement and fixes of this update are all about.

Fixes:

"Broken motor mount potential"

There have been a few cases since the i3 has launched, where the left side motor mount has failed.  Basically, this failure is caused by an excessive shock to the driveline, such as a sudden loss of traction or underbody impact, during hard acceleration. For instance, if you get the rear axle airborne (going over the bump while accelerating) while still keeping your foot on the acceleration pedal, the electric motor, without any load, will quickly reach very high speeds - up to 11,000 rpm. When tires hit the ground while the motor is freewheeling at such a speed, the impact force from the drivetrain may compromise motor mount bolt (it's the left side mount in a BEV and possibly both sides in REX). It's obviously bad if this happens, but if you continue driving then extensive damage to high voltage components (EME, KLE) can occur. The 15-11-502 update will reduce the electric motor speed when the rear axle freewheeling situation is detected. 
Picture of a broken motor mount from an i3. Photo credit Roger Klemm
Some i3 owners, upon seeing this line item in the update were concerned that BMW's solution may have been to reduce power in an effort to reduce the strain on the motor mounts. Luckily, that isn't the case. This update is not going to affect motor output or torque during normal driving; only when the car has lost traction and the wheels are spinning without load. 
 
"Low Cost Charging complaints"

This issue concerned the Low Cost Charging feature which allows the owner to set a delayed charging session so they can take advantage of lower cost electricity pricing. There were complaints that for some customers it only worked sporadically, and for others it didn't work at all. This is the kind of feature that many people won't use, but for those who do, it's very important because it can lower the cost of charging their car significantly.


One i3 owner posted a video of his EVSE clicking. This should be solved with the software update.

"Clicking noise from Level 2 charger during charging"

This issue was definitely strange and annoying. When i3 owners set their car to precondition, often it would cause a contactor in the EVSE to open and close every few seconds. It would happen with various brands, including the BMW i branded Wallbox Pure, which was made by Bosch. Depending on the brand of EVSE, the clicking noise would vary from every couple of seconds to clicking once every 15 or 20 seconds. It didn't present any immediate problem, but the contactor would eventually wear out and fail if this were allowed to continue for years unresolved. Besides that, it was really annoying and many customers could hear the clicking noise throughout their house. The video above was made and posted on YouTube by i3 owner, George Betak.

"Various fault codes will set a check engine light (CEL)"

Basically, BMW cleaned up some errors in the code that have caused the check engine light to illuminate when there really wasn't a problem. Phantom check engine light warnings have been an ongoing problem with the i3 REx cars since the launch. The majority of the time when they happened there wasn't anything wrong with the vehicles. Hopefully with the new software update these false warnings will be a thing of the past.

Enhancements:

"Addition of Hospitality Charging Feature"

This is a feature that owners of other electric vehicles will appreciate as much as the i3 owner does. This issue centered around the fact that the i3's connector would lock itself to car if the doors were locked and wouldn't release until the doors were unlocked. On the surface it sounds like a good idea. Nobody wants someone else to be able to unplug their car while it's still charging at a public charging station, right? Well, in in the majority of instances most people don't, but there are exceptions.

The issue of charger sharing dates back to the early days of the recent generation of electric cars in California. Back about a decade ago when GM had the EV1, and Toyota had the first generation RAV4 EV, there were very few electric vehicle charging stations, and the small group of EV drivers took it upon themselves to come up with methods of sharing the few stations available. They would leave notes that would say something like, "You can unplug me anytime after 1:00," or "I'm opportunity charging. If you really need to charge, just unplug me." These charger sharing methods allowed the users to get the most out of the few stations available.
Hospitality Charging in action! These hang tags help make hospitality charging possible and efficient. But that's only if the connector will unlock.
Fast forward to today. There are hundreds of thousands of plug in vehicles on the roads here in the US, and not nearly enough public charging stations, especially in EV hotbeds like California. So charger sharing has continued in many different forms, especially for workplace charging. Often, the number of plug in cars in a workplace parking lot greatly exceeds the number of charging stations they have. So by playing nice, and sharing the chargers, everyone gets their fair time on the plug. However, if the connector is locked to your car, even when the car is finished charging, then the charging station cannot be utilized by the next person.  One electric vehicle owner, realizing the need for them, created hang tags specifically to assist in public charger sharing and now sells them on his website.

Also, if an i3 owner is charging in a public parking lot, they cannot leave a note allowing the next person to unplug them and use the station at a certain time, when they know the car will be finished. BMW fielded many complaints about this issue, and I've even heard people call the i3, "The most hated electric car at the office," because of this. Earlier in the year, when the last i3 software update came out, this issue was addressed, and the cars then unlocked the connector once the vehicle was finished charging. However, for some reason the update only worked on cars with a build date after March of 2015. This update corrects the issue on all i3s built before March, so all the i3s now have Hospitality Charging. This was the first thing I checked when I had the software update, and I have confirmed it does work.
BMW i European Type 2 charging cable. Notice it has connectors on both ends. We don't use cables like this in the US - though I think we should. Personally, I prefer this method of public charging rather than having the cables tethered to the unit as we use here.
However this feature will not be added to European i3s. That is because the majority of public charging stations throughout Europe do not have the charging cable tethered to them as they do in the US. In most European countries, the owner of the car brings the cable which one one end plugs into their car, and the other end plugs into the EVSE. If the connector automatically unlocked, than the cable could be easily stolen. I believe this is the reason all i3s were initially delivered without the Hospitality Charging feature. BMW, being a German based company, was just more in tune with the charging needs of European customers than they were with US customers. However thankfully, they listened to their US customer base and added this feature.

I'm glad BMW added this, but there is one thing about it I'd like to see them improve upon. As it is, you cannot turn off Hospitality Charging. Once the car has finished charging, the connector will unlock, you cannot stop it. I would prefer a setting in iDrive where I can check or uncheck a box that will determine if Hospitality Charging is utilized. I want this for the times I may plug into a basic 120v outlet with my Occasional Use Cable while the vehicle is in a public space. As it is now, once the car finishes charging, the connector will unlock and someone can steal the portable EVSE which is worth a couple hundred dollars. There are ways to lock the OUC to the car, but that means carrying a padlock along with you and taking the time to lock it to your car whenever you use it which is cumbersome and time consuming. Adding the option to iDrive would be the best solution, giving the driver full control over when the connector unlocks or not.

Charge Port Flap Open Warning

Interestingly, this new feature isn't included on the 15-11-502 service bulletin list, but it is indeed part of the new software. I like this feature a lot and am happy to see it now added on the car. There have been many times in my six years of driving electric when I did not realize that I left the charge port open until I arrived at my destination and needed to plug in. Usually that doesn't really present a problem, but it can. In fact, back in 2010 I left the charge port of my MINI-E open while driving home from work one night in a pouring rainstorm. So much water got into the charging socket that even after a couple of days of letting it air out (and even taking a blow dryer to it), I had to take it to the dealer where they replaced the charge port. This new added warning is really appreciated and I believe it should be standard on all electric vehicles.

I'm happy to see BMW updating the software frequently to fix issues, and actively adding features that the customers have asked for - you may remember that last year they added the numeric state of charge and low battery warning after receiving numerous customer requests. Tesla in particular has been praised for how they offer frequent updates, and over the air no less. While the i3 needs a trip to the dealer to perform the update, the fact that they are pushing them out, and frequently, is good news indeed.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Breaking: BMW i3 "Shadow Sport" Special Edition to be offered in US

The i3 Shadow Sport Limited Edition is coming
Thinking about getting a BMW i3? Do you like to own low-volume special edition cars? When it comes to cars, a special edition where only 50 copies are made guarantees the owner will be in pretty exclusive company.

That's exactly what BMW is doing with a special version of the 2016 i3. BMW is calling it the "i3 Shadow Sport" and they are using social media for the public unveiling. Tomorrow (Monday, 11/16) at 8:00pm EST, you can tune into the live BMWUSA Periscope event to find out the details on the i3 Shadow Sport.
BMW's teaser of the new limited edition i3 Shadow Sport
From the teaser picture it looks like the car has a moonroof, which has yet to be available in the US, and is the new color, Fluid Black. It has the 19" Cyclone wheels which only come with the top-of-the-line Tera World package, so it's likely loaded with all the options the car offers. So far, all BMW has said was "With only 50 available to purchase, the all-electric 2016 BMW i3 Shadow Sport is every bit a BMW i3 with new features – available for the first time in the US." Nothing else is known about this special edition i3, so if you're interested in the i3, and like owning rare cars, made sure you tune into tomorrow's live Periscope event.