Boston to Connecticut In BMW ActiveE: A Charging Odyssey
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 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.
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