Probably the most unusual car I have driven in my life. One of those cars you like not despite its flaws, but because of them. Not having much trunk space, for instance. Not being able to go everywhere you want. Not having a lot of interior room either. Not getting the advertised range out of it, a little over 80 miles vs 100 miles as it were. I liked it a lot, and I am sad to see it go. But it had to go. It had to go because this last flaw turned from an “oh well” flaw into an “OMG” flaw in recent months when temperatures came down. Our low point was 76 miles at one time and the general consensus among Electronauts is that doing more than 70 miles means pushing it in this weather.
My second, equally sad experience was that the ActiveE “field trial” seems to be a rather poorly managed program. BMW gave its customers an online forum for discussions but the really interesting things happen in the customer-driven Facebook group, as I found out just recently. Communication from BMW is limited to gimmicks, video sessions with happy Electronauts and glances at future products while there is little to no feedback on the project itself, the mysterious “software updates” they make or any kind of incremental improvement going into our cars. Au contraire, when my first breakdown occurred, instead of getting sympathy I got a very German answer: Ve tested se car. It does 80 miles so suck it up! (I am paraphrasing of course, including the exclamation mark). When I challenged the author to prove it I heard nothing but the chirping of crickets.
“Electronauts” are the most hardcore fans of the BMW brand. They are pioneers, they are mavens and they are definitely avid communicators. Many have blogs that amplify the message, and they have all gladly invested in this project. Being asked “How is the ‘Kaputt’?” (which happened to me) is not nice when this is your personality profile, and you feel left alone with your problems.
This project is marking the brand’s third attempt of creating an image of environmental conscience in recent history. First there was the “Hydrogen 7″ that has yet to go anywhere; then came the “Active Hybrids” failing to perform better than their standard counterparts, and now there is the electric car program which is on it’s way into a very uncertain future – “Mission Impossible” was probably a bad omen. To this day, the TechSpecs on the web promise a range of 100 miles and safe trips from my home town to Philadelphia or Scranton that will never happen. Yes, there is fine print like in ads for weight loss products saying “results may vary”, but come on – that’s not what you tell an M5 buyer about horsepower either. It is this perception of a particular attitude that makes it so hard to believe future iterations of this concept will be any different. Why not be honest, why not admit to the flaws? The myth might have suffered, but the trust would have remained.
It is important to know that other “Electronauts” have different emotions about the experience. Most notably Tom Moloughney who just wrote a very interesting summary of his first year in his ActiveE. I am bringing this up to put my rant into perspective: there are people for whom the Active E makes a lot of sense. But note that Tom uses his car to commute from A to B and back every day – same purpose, same distance, with a charging station at each end. This is what the car was built for. And it’s what it does best.
Bottom line? Like Tom Moloughney I am convinced that electric cars are the future. Check out Tom’s earlier blog on how he added photovoltaic cells to the roof of his house for maximum effect. Local / decentralized energy production is a critical component for these cars to make sense. I predict that in 10-20 years from now homes will have their own fuel cells for energy production (which is where fuel cells belong – wrong idea for a car). The loss of power in transport will be near zero equalling additional “free” energy. I can also confirm Tom’s calculation of fuel expenses: the direct cost of my ActiveE was about 1/3 of what a gasoline powered car would have cost. A recent study in Germany also indicates that – despite of having to replace the main battery after 5-8 years – the overall cost of maintenance of electric cars is about 30% lower compared to a conventional vehicle; mainly due to the absence of moving engine and transmission parts and the use of kinetic energy recovery breaking systems. I still think there should be 4 motors, one at each wheel, batteries in the bottom, Tesla style, to refine the idea and to address the torque issues but that’s a topic for another day. So stay tuned for my next electric car adventure (although this may take a while…).