Boston to Connecticut In BMW ActiveE: A Charging Odyssey

By · July 26, 2012

BMW ActiveE and crew

The ActiveE at my house with, from left, Eric Giler, Meghan Gardner, Sarah Pariseau. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Can electric cars be used for long-distance touring? That’s the fond hope of some early adopters, but it appears to be only possible in isolated parts of the country. The public charging network continues to grow, but it’s still embryonic.

West Coast Corridor

The west coast is relatively lucky, in that there will be a fast-charging public corridor along I-5 through Washington, Oregon and California. Not all of it is operating yet, but it’s relatively far advanced in the Pacific Northwest section.

On the east coast, we’re more challenged. To get a Ford Focus electric from a dealership in Westchester County, New York to the test track in upstate Connecticut, Consumer Reports had to resort to a tow truck. Reports CU’s Gabe Shenhar:

"Having strategically positioned a tow vehicle and trailer at about the half-way point, we set off from the Rye, New York dealership with 64 miles of driving range registering on the Focus’s onboard computer. (The EPA pegs the Focus’s maximum range at 76 miles.)"

Yes, 64 miles isn’t a whole lot. Most of today’s EVs (the Tesla Model S is an exception) have a stated range of 100 miles, and it’s often less in the breach, as in the case of the lost range experienced by Arizona-based owners of the Nissan Leaf.

Pioneers Hit the Road

That’s why Eric Giler, Sarah Pariseau and Meghan Gardner are pioneers in the field. Eric is the president and CEO of WiTricity, and Sarah and Meghan are with its PR firm, Version 2.0. WiTricity has developed a wireless charging system that’s attracted interest from Audi, Toyota and Mitsubishi. To demonstrate the system, they decided to drive a BMW ActiveE from company HQ in Watertown, Massachusetts to my home in Fairfield, Connecticut, a distance of just over 150 miles.

Has anyone previously driven an ActiveE from Boston to near New York? “It sounds like a first to me,” said Dave Buchko, a BMW advanced technology spokesman. The only precedent I could find for any EV was the trip James Worden and his Solectria crew made from Boston to New York in the company’s Sunrise EV in 1997. They didn’t have to worry about stopping, because they did it with a single charge of the nickel-metal hydride batteries. “We organized this project to show that EVs need not be limited in range because of the batteries,” said Dr. Victor Wouk at the time.

But, of course, EVs are still limited in range 16 years later, despite technically superior lithium-ion batteries. The ActiveE, based on the 1-Series BMW, is no exception: Range is 100 miles at the top end. The WiTricity team told me to expect their arrival at noon, but they actually showed up around 3 p.m., with a tale to tell.

This EV Makes Frequent Stops

According to Giler, the 7.5-hour trip (it should take three hours) required stops at three charging stations, which they found using a CarStations iPhone app. The trip set off fully charged, with 90 miles of range indicated, and made their first stop 60 miles later at a Chili’s in Auburn, Massachusetts. Restaurants like Chili’s add EV charging to increase patronage, but the Chili’s was closed, so the group repaired to McDonald’s for a leisurely breakfast while the BMW added range from a Coulomb ChargePoint charger.

The WiTricity team at McDonalds

Eric Giler and Meghan Gardner on the road. Stopovers were mandatory. (Sarah Pariseau photo)

The second stop, with just six miles of remaining charge indicated, was a Panera Bread in Wethersfield, Connecticut, which had a Clipper Creek charger. By now it was 10:30 in the morning, and breakfast was no longer being served, but the group was able to fuel up both the car and themselves.

The GPS said that the remaining run to my house was 51 miles and, after the second meal of the day, the WiTricity team had 53 indicated. “We decided to go for it,” Giler said, “but after the first 10 miles the range indicator really started to go down.”

The final stop, for a quick charge, was at a BMW dealer in North Haven, Connecticut. By this time they were pretty impatient, so the team was soon back on the road with a minor bump from a fast charger.

Pariseau tells me what happened next. “In addition to the car running out of juice, we were losing power across the board. My iPhone and our FlipCam also died. When we stopped at the BMW dealership in North Haven, one of the sales associates took pity on me and charged up my phone at his desk while the car was charging. We got some funny looks. Leaving our last charging stop we had a seven-mile cushion, which we quickly burned through going up hills on the Merritt Parkway. Approaching your house the mile range said zero for the last five minutes of the drive, and the occupants of the car were pretty silent and anxious waiting to see what would happen next.”

Because there’s a range cushion built into EVs, they arrived safely, though a little frazzled. We did the demo just fine, but immediately thoughts turned to how they’d get back. I had told Giler that I have a 220-volt outlet for my electric dryer, so he brought an adapter. Problems immediately cropped up, however. The 220 extension cord wasn’t long enough, and in any case had a four-prong plug incompatible with my older three-prong version.

That left house current, so we plugged the ActiveE’s 110-volt adapter into my garage power. That should have allowed them to add enough range to limp to a nearby Whole Foods, which has two 220-volt public chargers. But for some reason—maybe a bad ground—the car wouldn’t charge. We tried plugging into a different outlet in the house, but that didn’t work, either. Buchko suggested maybe my outlets weren’t offering at least 15 amps, but I’m not sure if that was the cause.

Running on Empty

If the WiTricity team didn’t believe in going for it they would have never left Boston, so they decided to try to make the Whole Foods with sub-zero range. If they made it there would be a nice ending to this story, but unfortunately they ran out of power in Bridgeport after only half a mile, right across from the cemetery that houses both P.T. Barnum and his ward Tom Thumb.

“The battery light said, ‘You’re done,’” Giler said. “The car crept to a halt, and then started going backwards, which at least allowed us to park it at the curb on Villa Avenue. We hit the SOS button, which delivered a tow truck after about 15 minutes. With the car on its way to the BMW dealership in Bridgeport, we ended up walking two miles to the Hertz rental agency in the Bridgeport’s downtown Holiday Inn.”

They rented a gasoline-powered car, which took them back to Boston. The next morning at 9:30, Giler’s son, Sam, set out in the rental car to retrace their steps and reclaim the ActiveE. That trip was relatively uneventful: The BMW needed to stop for charging only twice, and Sam made it back to WiTricity in the ActiveE by 7:30 p.m.

Is there a moral to all of this? Dunno. Maybe it proves that long-distance EV travel, in 2012, requires a trunk full of adapter cables, good humor plus flexibility, and a boundless appetite for road food.


· Anonymous (not verified) · 5 years ago

Are you kidding me ? 3 stops to recharge for a 150 mile trip ? Take the bus !
This is why full electric has years to go except as a second car.

· · 5 years ago

With fast charger support (infrastructure and in the car) this trip would have been child's play and only take about 3.5 hours instead of the 3 hours of an ICE. This would be a reasonable tradeoff for a vehicle owner in the Northeast between never having to go to a gas station on a regular basis and being able to drive between major metropolitan areas on when the occasional need requires it.
Putting a fast charger near a few heavily travelled interstate interchanges (I-84 & I-90, I-84 & I-91, I-395 & I-95, etc) would be all it would take.
I hope that the WiTricity folks learned from this exercise that wasting precious capital resources creating new expensive and unnecessary wireless EV charging is nowhere near as useful as simply deploying existing technology (fast charging) where it is needed.
Even being able to do Level 2 charging at faster than 30 amps (~6 kW) would have sped this trip up.

· Tom M. (not verified) · 5 years ago

There have been many people to drive ActiveE's further than 150 miles to a destination already. I've done single day 200+ mile trips in mine already. Another ActiveE driver also drove from Mass to New York City and back in the same day - I think it took him about 14 hours. I'm not sure why Eric & Meghan has a problem with a 150 mile trip, though. If they charged to 100% at the first stop 60 miles in there would be no reason to stop again - 90 miles is no problem unless you are driving very inefficiently. I've driven mine over 100 miles on a charge many times.

Still, while these stories of driving long distances in short range EV's are increasing, I don't really get the interest in them. You could drive a bike to a distance 200 miles away also but I don't think anyone would be surprised to hear it takes a long time to do that. Use the right tool for the job and if you have a ~100 mile EV you use it for all the daily driving that works with that range - which should be about 95% of your driving. Until we get L3 quick charge along highway corridors it just dosen't make sense to take a 300 mile trip in a ~100 mile car. Take the other family car, join a car sharing service or just rent a car when you need to go long distances and you're much metter off. Horses for courses.

Full disclosure: I'm taking a 450 mile round trip in my ActiveE (New Jersey to Vermont) soon. I'll make the one way trip of 225 miles in 11 hours stopping at approximately 65 miles in and then 100 miles later. I'm not going to write about it though, just doing it for a fun weekend adventure with my wife. Taking time to walk around the areas we're charging at. This is definitely a one time trip and the phrase 'getting there is half the fun' has never been more appropriate.

· · 5 years ago

Actually, I find these stories of ordinary folks pushing the limits of their EVs encouraging. But ex-EV1 nailed the issue, pointing out that most parts of the country still doesn't have strategically placed highway Level 3 EVSEs that would - someday - make the above story a routine experience. In the mean time, kudos to Eric and Mehgan for their adventure.

· · 5 years ago

I'm just not a fan of them. Everybody knows it's not convenient to drive a ~100 BEV on a 150 mile trip. With proper planning it can be done but it's still more of an adventure than a trip. In this instance I find it difficult to understand why they decided to stop three times along the way to charge - and still needed to be towed! When they stopped at Chili's 60 miles into the trip that should have been the only stop they needed. If they would have waited there to charge to 100% it would have been more than enough to complete the trip. They must have not fully charged the car when they stopped. If you don't allow the car to recharge when you stop. You'll have to stop many times whne you could have just stopped once. The average person who reads this would come away with the impression that it's just not possible to drive an EV on a 150 mile trip without enormous hassle and still have a good chance that you'll need to be towed and that's just not reality. I've done 150 mile trips in my ActiveE dozens of times and never needed to stop more than once to charge and have never needed to be towed. I guess the one thing you can take from stories like this is driving a limited range EV requires planning. If you do so, it's not difficult at all.

· Jack Brown (not verified) · 5 years ago

I will be taking my ActiveE from the Bay to LA in a Day in September for a high school reunion. Approximately 340 miles in 4 stops or 19 hours by my estimates. I am interested in this trip for testing the information infrastructure for reliable information on Level 2 chargers and to catch up to Tom.

· JeffU (not verified) · 5 years ago

I don't get it. You didn't know a 100 mile electric car would not work like a 400 miles gas car?

What was the point of this?

Very silly.

If you need to go on long trips, get a long trip car. Get a Volt and have the best of both worlds. Electric and gas. 40+ miles electric, 340 miles on gas. No stopping.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 5 years ago

I agree stores like this are usless and in my opinion actually hurt EV adoption. The people that took the drive obviously didn't know what they were doing if they stopped three times for a 150 mile trip. Once there are DC quick charge stations available this trip will be a piece of cake, but for now you need to know what you are doing if you venture this farr from home and these people obviously didn't know what they were doing. If they would have just fully charged at the first stop they made it would have been an uneventful trip - maybe that's why they did what they did --hmmm

· · 5 years ago

@Jack Brown
Please open up a "discussion" at and I'll be happy to share some information on driving from SF to LA. That seems like it should be a completely new discussion topic.

· Chris C. (not verified) · 5 years ago

FYI there actually isn't much of a "reserve" in the ActiveE's battery, at least according to Tom M.'s experience:

I documented the reserve behavior of the Chevy Volt. Of course, with the Volt you have the gasoline engine backup, so what we were documenting is what happens when you then run out of gas! Short version: enough battery power for highway driving for about 3.5 miles, then a rapidly depleting amount of power, enough to immediately pull over to the shoulder and that's it.

· Bill Howland (not verified) · 5 years ago

It would have been good if they could have provided specifics, but apparently, in this 'slice of life' article , no one knew exactly how the products worked. So, if anyone is interested in the specifics of the following two cars, here goes:

The '110' volt charger will work with an extension cord at either 8 or 12 amps,(your choice at the charging dock), and not be too worried about the voltage (the size of the extension cord), but the ground , and wiring must be otherwise perfect.

200-250 volt charging happens at a fixed 14 amps, unless the charging dock can't produce 14 amps.

The '110' volt cord will work with almost anything, and you can set the current from the car's touch screen at either 12 or 15 amps. IF you use too light an extension cord, youll get a warning message on the screen, but charging will continue.

200-250 volt charging may take place at anything from 12 - 70 amps, if your charging dock can provide it. If the battery is too cold, a 2000 watt heater runs for a while prior to charging the battery. If the power electronics module has overheated earlier from too agressive driving and/or hasn't been cleaned lately, and has not cooled down prior to charging, then charging will be limited to 15 amps.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 5 years ago

This article is harmful to the adoption of EVs - I think that it should be pulled.

It's an example of stupidity on the part of the drivers that highlights that these cars have a limited range. What does it tell us? It says that EVs will leave you stranded despite millions of all-electric miles being completed yearly by regular folk going about their day-to-day business.

And this from charging and PR people, what were you thinking?

· · 5 years ago

I agree that it's harmful, but I wouldn't go as far as saying it should be pulled. It happened, it's not a fabricated story, but at least we have comments here so people can read and learn this isn't representative of what a trip like this SHOULD be, but it COULD happen like this if you don't plan your trip or have the patience to wait for your car to fully recharge when you stop along the way.

As I said in an above comment, all of this would have been alleviated if they would have simply allowed the car to fully recharge when they made their first stop 60 miles in. That would have allowed them to complete the one way trip and leave them with enough juice to make it to the charge point they were trying to get to when they ran out. There would have been no tow truck, no renting a gas car and most of all no story to tell. So maybe the truth is that's what they were after, a story - and not an uneventful trip. We'll never know but we do know you need to plan your trip accordingly if you are traveling further than your EV's single charge range. You can't just hope you make it. Know your cars range, know where there are charge points and allow the car to charge enough to confidently make your destination or the next charge point and you'll have no problem - and no story to tell...

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