First 25,000 Miles in BMW ActiveE: The Problems

By · October 02, 2012

BMW ActiveE Transmission Malfunction signal

The "transmission malfunction" warning, one of several software bugs found in the BMW ActiveE.

Last week, I highlighted the things I like about my BMW ActiveE. Now, I’ll discuss the things I don’t like as much, and list the technical problems that some cars have faced. While I’ve avoided any serious problem, many others that have leased the ActiveE have not had as much luck. Some ActiveE drivers have endured extended service visits to get the cars back on the road.

Room for Improvement

Maybe it’s due to its considerable weight (and perhaps my driving style), but the ActiveE isn’t a particularly efficient EV. I’m only averaging about 3.42 miles per kWh. When the BMW i3 launches next year, I expect to be able to achieve 5 miles per kWh in normal driving. The i3 will have the same 170 horsepower (184 lb-ft torque) motor the ActiveE uses, but the vehicle weights only 2,756 pounds—nearly 1,300 pounds less than the ActiveE. This efficiency—3.42 miles per kWh—is not acceptable to me unless it was a large powerful sports sedan like the Tesla Model S.

Here’s something else: You cannot pull the emergency brake while you are accelerating. The car will shut off and the dash will light up like a Christmas tree. The remedy is to reboot: power the car off and back on. But it’s still a frightening moment when you realize what you’ve done. I know you shouldn’t be pulling the e-brake while your accelerating, but the car simply cannot shut off if it happens.

While driving very slowly, you can’t step on the friction brake and the accelerator at the same time. If you do, the car will stutter—some people call it "cog"—as the car tries to figure out if you want to slow down or speed up. I’m sure this is just a software fix, but it’s not acceptable in its current configuration.

Technical Matters

BMW ActiveE gears

A properly greased gear, both the motor and the transmission sides.

My car has been relatively trouble-free. I’ve had a few software glitches that reset themselves. When I originally picked up the car, the onboard charger was only working at half-strength so it was quickly swapped out in a day. But it hasn’t been all roses for everybody else in the program. Here are the known problems that some people have experienced.

Spline failure: This has been the most serious issue. Where the drive motor meets the transmission, there is a male and female gear shaft. There was a problem that allowed the grease to escape from the gear and without any lubrication the gear splines would eventually grind and slip, and in some cases caused complete motor failure. For a couple months, every ActiveE that went in for service had to have its motor pulled, inspected and greased until the issue was resolved. The problem has been addressed. Now, as cars gradually come in for service, technicians apply the corrective measure to avoid the issue.

Steering recall: There was a recall that included about 160 of the 700 ActiveEs in the US. The recall was for a part in the electronic power steering and wasn’t connected in any way to the fact that the ActiveE is an electric car. This part is used in other BMW models, which were also recalled.

Charging GFCI faults: For some reason, when charging on Coulomb or Clipper Creek equipment, the cars sometime register GFCI faults and stop charging. This never happens if the car is charging on equipment from Blink, Eaton, GE, PEP, AeroVironment, SPX, Leviton or others—only Coulomb and Clipper Creek. Many public charging stations are equipped by these two companies, so some of the ActiveE drivers had difficulty charging on the road. The severity of the issue varied from car-to-car and from charging-station-to- charging-station. The problem was much worse on hot days, so it’s probably heat related. I’m happy to say BMW recently isolated the issue and has developed a software patch to correct it. They are currently in the final testing of the patch and all the cars should be getting the software update to correct this very soon.

Software bugs: There are two main software bugs. One is the “Drivetrain Malfunction.” The car has hundreds of sensors that monitor everything from the high-voltage battery system to the motor and electric transmission. I’ve seen this bug a few times. Ninety-nine percent of the time it just flashes “Drivetrain Malfunction” on the main information screen and then goes away after a while with no ill effects. But on some occasions the car can actually stall when this happens. When that happens, the car will usually just restart and drivers can continue on their way, but some people have reported the car wouldn’t restart and needed to be towed. BMW is still working on this issue.

The second software bug is the “Transmission Malfunction” warning. I’ve seen this one a couple times. It too doesn’t seem to be connected with any real problem, just a sensor reading an issue that isn’t there. The display reads, “Transmission position P (park) may not be possible,” however it always goes into park without an issue. This is less common than the Transmission Malfunction bug, but I’ve also heard reports that it doesn’t reset itself and the car needing to be towed to service.

The entire ActiveE motor that needed to be replaced because of gear failure.

The entire ActiveE motor that needed to be replaced because of gear failure.

Problem Solving

I keep in touch with many of the ActiveE drivers. Most that I know haven’t experienced much inconvenience, if any at all, with the above problems. The vast majority of drivers love the car. Many have expressed their hope that BMW will let them buy the car when the program is over. However, some haven’t been as lucky.

One person I know had the car in for service for nearly two of the first four months he had it, as he had a combination of just about every problem I listed. That person was understandably upset that his car was in for service so long. I spoke to him recently and he has gone nearly two months now without a problem. He told me BMW promised to compensate him for the extended down-time. He said he was satisfied with the outcome and generally impressed with how he was treated by BMW, which has informed about the problems and the progress they were making.

I’m not too surprised there are some technical issues with the car. After all, it’s a test mule. All of the components used were not designed for this car. They were designed to be used in the i3 and i8. BMW cut apart a regular 1-series and basically stuffed everything in where it would fit. The trunk is compromised because the charger and power electronics are back there. BMW even needed to make a custom hood bulge (which actually looks cool) because the battery wouldn’t fit under a stock hood. In the beginning of the MINI-E program we also had lots of issues like this, but after the first nine or 10 months, BMW had ironed out most of the problems. The cars were almost completely trouble-free for the rest of the way. I’m also starting to see the issues of the ActiveE be resolved one at a time now. I don’t think it will be long before the remaining software bugs are eliminated.

Work in Progress: Range Extender

I’ve been lucky to avoid any serious issue and my car has been very reliable. I certainly wouldn’t have 25,000 miles on it in nine months if it were in for service very much. While it’s definitely a step up from the MINI-E, it’s still a work in progress and the end result is the i3 that BMW will begin selling exactly one year from now in September 2013.

The standard i3 will be pure electric with about a 100-mile range. I expect the EPA rating to be between 90 and 95 miles per charge. For those that need or want more range, the i3 will have an available range extender option that BMW calls REx. The REx will be a small gas engine rumored to be a 600cc BMW motorcycle engine, and will be optimized to minimize vibration and noise while maximizing efficiency. I also suspect the i3 may not have full power available while the REx is in operation.

Unlike the Volt, I believe the REx option is more of an insurance policy meant to just get you to where you can recharge. I’m certain it will still be highway capable, and able to climb steep inclines—maybe not Pikes Peak—but I don’t think it will deliver the usual top speed at 93 mph, or acceleration of 0-60 in roughly 7.7 seconds.

Recent reports say i3 pricing will be between $43,000 and $49,000. I think that’s pretty accurate. I’m guessing a base MSRP of about $43,750 and loading it up with options you could push the price up right around $50,000. I hope to be one of the people to have the chance to get an early peek at the production i3 sometime next year. Expect a report on after I take a look.

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