Recently, I had the opportunity to spend 24 hours with an all-electric BMW ActiveE sedan. — After driving a friend's Tesla Model S a few weeks prior, I must say that these electric vehicles are some of the most comfortable and quiet cars that I have ever been in.
It'll be cool to see where “EVs” are in 10-20 years, as, if it weren't for their current limited travel range (due to energy storage constraints), I feel like I could recommend them to everyone. 👍🏻
I rented this BMW ActiveE through a new service here in San Francisco called Drive Now, which is offered by BMW directly and provides cars that are billed to you by the minute. It costs just $39 USD to join for a lifetime membership, and because they do not accept advance reservations, there are often plenty of cars available for immediate use.
You can grab any one of their available cars, drive it, end the reservation, and only be billed for the exact usage in between at their published rates. …Cool, right? — The vehicles are equipped with a built-in Android smartphone (mounted behind the shifter) that handles all of the vehicle's reservation details and its connection with your Drive Now account. Enter your 4-digit passcode, and begin your driving experience!
Drive Now is currently offering a promotion where any available BMW ActiveE sedan can be rented (for as long as you want) for just $30 USD/day over a rolling 24 hour period.
That means that, for example, a member can pickup one of these beautiful BMWs at 12PM one day, and return it before 12PM the next day for just $30 USD total… as long as he or she does not exceed 180 miles of driving nor accrue any traffic violations or other incidental charges. That's an awesome deal! 😲
“Drive Now” vs. Zipcar
The Drive Now service is similar in many ways to Zipcar, but handles its reservations quite differently. — With Zipcar, there are usually other pending reservations either immediately before or immediately after your own reservation, which is super inconvenient in the event that you want to leave for your trip sooner or stay out with the car for longer.
Zipcar requires you to guess in advance for how long you'll actually need the car, and mistakes or miscalculations can turn into late fees, additional charges, and/or headaches! The only trade-off is that with Zipcar you can actually rely (most of the time) on the car being there for you to use by booking a reservation well in advance.
This is all very different from how Drive Now works. — With Drive Now, there are no reservations allowed… unless you're actually ready to pickup the vehicle within 15 minutes. If you do not activate the vehicle within that time, you'll lose the “reservation.” Once you've activated the vehicle, though, you may keep it for as long as your credit card will allow. 🙂
One of the reasons why this approach is better than Zipcar's is that people often reserve a Zipcar “just in case” and then don't actually drive it at all or at least for its entire reservation time. — I've noticed that many people book Zipcars and don't actually use them, or they will book too long of a reservation and the car will remain stationary (yet unusable) by other Zipcar members.
Zipcar offers no credit or incentive for returning a vehicle early, so this is another inconvenience of their service compared to Drive Now. That's unfortunate because there are often not enough Zipcars available on weekends, for example. — With Drive Now, you can simply pickup a car from anywhere as soon as it becomes available, and they even allow one-way journeys as long as you bring the car to one of their valid drop-off locations. With Zipcar, it's the opposite: you must return the car to the same spot at which you started before the end of your reservation. 🤔
Finding cars with “Drive Now”
Drive Now users can drive a car to the airport and then “end” their reservation there. After leaving the vehicle, another Drive Now member can then use it to drive back home from the airport. …Cool, right? — They have a sweet “Drive Now” app for iPhone that can be used to find cars that are available:
… Interestingly, though, Drive Now's available vehicles may not actually have a fully-charged battery yet.
In the above screenshot, you can see that my vehicle “Madison” only had 11% charge remaining after I'd returned it. Even though someone could still use this car if they really wanted to, they probably shouldn't while it needs to be charged, though. 🤔
The ActiveE takes about 5 hours to charge completely, so it's really essential to have a full charge if possible.
Almost running out of power
I'll tell the story of the EV adventure in reverse. ↩️
Only a few minutes before returning the vehicle, I was on Highway 101 in South San Francisco, stuck in moderate traffic, and hoping that the vehicle would make it back into downtown on the remaining charge of just 11%!
Pictured above, the vehicle's entertainment system was chiming at me, letting me know that the car needed to be plugged-in soon and that the estimated driving range remaining was just 11 miles. — Naturally, this situation was somewhat nerve-wracking because, under Drive Now's “Terms & Conditions,” the driver is responsible for any towing to get the vehicle to a charging station if it runs out of battery power. 😱
It's not like someone can bring you a gallon of gasoline on the side of the highway. The vehicle has to be left at a charging station for several hours in order to be able to drive any reasonable distance with it again!
Earlier in the morning, I'd charged the vehicle for about an hour to extend its range for my return trip into the city. If I hadn't done this, I definitely wouldn't have made it back! — I hadn't been able to charge the vehicle overnight due to the only nearby charging station to my friend's house being a “pay” station… where I not only would have been charged $2 USD/hour to leave it, but also would have risked receiving a parking ticket after it'd finished charging while I was asleep. 🤨
Leaving a fully-charged EV parked at a charging station is a ticketable offense in California due to it being “reserved parking” only for actively charging vehicles.
Charging the car with a Chargepoint
Drive Now actually gives you a complimentary Chargepoint access card with your membership. I believe this can actually be used with any EV at any time given that it's linked to your own Chargepoint account (which is separate from your Drive Now account).
Since these accounts aren't linked, though, you must configure your billing information separately on both using each service's mobile app. — Drive Now attaches their own RFID sticker to the front of the Chargepoint card, which is what actually allows a member to unlock accessible Drive Now vehicles. So, it's like two cards in one, and you'll only have to carry one card in your wallet.
Anyway, when you get to an available charging station, just tap your Chargepoint card on its front panel and it should activate immediately. — When you're done charging, just tap the card again to stop the charger and then disconnect it from the vehicle. 👍🏻
10 hours prior to this, and also 10 hours into my reservation, I'd been eating dinner in Palo Alto with the vehicle charging in a nearby parking structure for free. The Chargepoint app tells you where nearby chargers are, and if they're already in use by someone else. — As long as you can get to the charger before someone else does… you can usually charge up at no cost and for as long as you'll need to. Unfortunately, there's no 15-minute “hold” feature like there is with Drive Now for picking up the cars, so someone else can take the charger a few seconds before you arrive at it. 😕
The app also tells you if the charger costs a fee to use, and you can search specifically for free stations instead of paid ones with the map.
Of course, Palo Alto would be one of the only places in which I'd actually expect to have to compete for an EV parking spot… given the high-level of technology adoption and wealth in the area. — Luckily, I did eventually find a spot close to the popular University Avenue area where my friend and I were getting dinner. I noticed a few other EVs parked there, too, such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and Tesla Model S. It was like we were suddenly part of a secret club!
Chargepoint's system is actually pretty cutting-edge, and offers you a live report of your vehicle's charging progress from within their app. I was really impressed!
I believe it even notifies you when the vehicle has finished charging, but unfortunately I never was able to test this because a charge takes 5 hours and I wasn't ever able to stay at a charging station for that long during the 24 hour period.
FYI, BMW's navigation system also offers its own database of charging stations, too. 👍🏻
Making use of “parked time,” and downhill regeneration
As mentioned, I wasn't able to complete a full charge at any point during my adventure with the vehicle. — This “dinner charge” in Palo Alto was the most significant battery charge that I was able to complete within these 24 hours.
Initially, I'd driven from San Francisco to Palo Alto starting with about 96% on the battery, and about two thirds of that remained afterward. During lunch immediately after, I was able to charge the car back to about 80% over the course of about an hour and a half, though.
The concept of making use of your vehicle's “parked time” at first felt very foreign. I never really thought about the benefits of leaving the car parked for an extended period of time. When it's attached to a charger like this, why rush to leave unless the battery is completely full already? (… Especially if it's a free charger?)
My friend and I set off from Palo Alto to the beach for the rest of the day. — Our route involved winding roads through the hills and a redwood forest, which the car handled beautifully… as I imagine any BMW would and should. Though a delightful drive, I was conscious of the quickly decreasing “battery” gauge. 🔋
This battery gauge, of course, is in the absence of a “fuel” gauge in a typical petrol-powered car, but functions largely in the same way. — At first, most of this leg of the journey was uphill and the battery range was dropping fast. I was worried that we wouldn't be able to complete the trip back to Stanford after reaching our destination!
It was about 25 miles to our destination from Stanford, and the car generally gets only about 80-100 miles on a full charge. We were traveling through hilly terrain (which uses more energy) and had only started with about 75% of a full-charge on the car's battery, so this was pretty concerning. 😱
However, since we'd been going uphill for quite some time, we eventually began to go back downhill as we approached the sea, and this downhill travel actually charged the battery again! Like hybrid cars, the ActiveE recharges in place of braking, and the battery gauge in the car actually increased during this part of our trip. 😃
… I also became curious as well where this energy would go if the car had been charged at the top of the hill at first, and then driven down to the sea. 🤔
Needless to say, at the end of the day we made it back to Palo Alto without issue and still with about 20-25% of the car's charge remaining due to the regenerative braking!
I was able to charge it sufficiently for free during that dinner using the town-provided charging station as we'd done before, and things were looking pretty good for the next morning. ☀️
What it's really like
As you can probably tell from the story, the biggest drawback to an EV currently is that you need to plan your day around where the charging stations are if you're doing a lot of driving. — This can be a real issue if you need to drive 120 miles, for example, and the range of your car is typically around 100 miles.
- If the only charging station on your route is in the very beginning, you won't make it there and back.
- Even if there is a charging station in the middle of your journey, you'd need to stop for at least an hour to make the most of it.
- If there's no charging station anywhere near your destination, you might be stranded! (Worst case, you're on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck to come get you and your car.) 😕
… Between waiting for the charger or waiting for a tow, you might end up wasting a bunch of time and money if you're not planning ahead!
Some trips just simply aren't possible or realistic at all in EVs right now. None of these worst case scenarios happened to me of course, but I was still nervous about it. — The worst thing that actually did happen was that, at one point, I drove in to use a charging station that was reported as “available” but then ended up finding that an EV was parked there but not actually connected to it or using it. …How rude! 🤬
Regardless of how you view EV practicality, not having the ability to refuel almost instantly is a real disadvantage given the current freedom of movement that people have come to expect with gasoline and diesel powered vehicles. I'm sure this situation will improve significantly in the coming years, as there are big advantages to electric cars minus the tradeoffs.
“Drive Now” verdict
… Would I use this service for more than $30 USD/day? It's tough to say right now.
The promotional pricing is extremely appealing, even given the inconvenience of finding charging stations and planning your day around them. — Some perks of the service are great, such as one-way travel and instant fleet availability from the lack of advance reservation “block out,” but, once the novelty of the electric car passes, you start to question the efficiency of using one when your routine is less consistent than when owning a car for a known primary purpose.
If we all lived in a tiny country like Singapore, an electric car would be a different story. The USA, however, has developed under presence of the automobile for nearly a century, and entire communities are spread out with an otherwise lack of suitable public transportation.
While an EV would be ideal for operating within said communities and immediately around them, leaving the primary area of operation and visiting another just to be stuck there for up to 5 hours waiting for your vehicle to charge can put serious restrictions on your movement. — Given that you pay by the minute with Drive Now, getting stuck somewhere can end up costing you an arm and a leg just to be charging their vehicle!
An EV seems best if you can charge it conveniently at your home to ensure the full 100-mile range when starting out and also a central point of return for consistant battery replenishment. Planning any trips outside a certain radius of that can be risky, and requires a significant time commitment for advance analysis and during the trip for charging.
Normally the advertised maximum charge for Drive Now service is $90 USD/day, not $30 USD/day. The service's actual minutely and mile-y costs tally constantly until they reach this total after a few hours, and then they stop until 24 hours have passed or 180 miles of driving has been exceeded. — The service does charge less per-minute when the vehicle is parked, but the total charges will never exceed that maximum each day currently, except for in the case of traffic violations or other extremes… such as returning a dirty vehicle to a non-designated “Drive Now” location, for example.
With this membership, I now have both Drive Now and Zipcar to choose from when traveling semi-locally, and may choose to use Drive Now instead in the future as long as an EV fits practically within the limits of my journey. — I actually want to use this service, too, because it's cool! 👍🏻
What makes me slightly nervous about Drive Now, though, is the inability to reserve a car in advance. This also is a perk of the service… in that, it increases availability and offers spontaneity, but when you actually do need to make plans, it introduces additional risk for the average consumer with somewhere to go at a specific known time.
It's completely impractical for anything important that you absolutely must be able to travel to with no alternative, for example, because a car might not actually be available at that time, or it might have a dead battery. — To expect that a Drive Now car will always be available without a confirmed reservation is completely unrealistic in this configuration. 😢
However, Drive Now is just very simple by nature, and that's a good thing! Any DriveNow vehicle with a green light can be used instantly by any member as long as you have your membership card with you. Just tap the card on the green light, enter your PIN number on the Android smartphone in the car, and start your journey.
… Hopefully, somebody else wasn't just about to walk over and try to use the car for something really important! 😉
BMW ActiveE driving tip: If you can't get the car to lock after driving it, make sure that it's actually turned off. …EVs don't idle or make any noise when stationary! 🔒
Without being constantly parked at an EV charging station, the entire advertised range of the vehicle never feels accessible. It's like you're always driving around with a half a tank of gas that you can't quickly replenish.
Realistically, this means that your range is more like 40 to 50 miles in the BMW ActiveE sedan once you've left the vicinity of a charger… since you always need to be able to return to one.
The BMWs are really nice cars, though. — They are fully loaded with features and options, unlike most Zipcars:
- There are heated seats! ♨️
- Don't forget your smartphone USB cable, because it pairs perfectly with the stereo and charges the device's battery as you're driving.
- I do wish the cars had a sunroof, but I imagine that this omission was for weight reduction, which in turn improves the EV's driving range over the vehicle's lifetime.
… All in all, I think that the coolest thing about driving an EV is that you never have to go to a gas station. It's also its biggest downside, though. ⛽
There is no infrastructure (yet?) to give your EV a “super-quick refueling,” versus gasoline offering a near instant replenishment just about anywhere. EVs, however, are a cool look into tomorrow's world… and you can experience it for yourself right now with Drive Now.
I've heard of new technologies that allow quicker EV charging, and Tesla was also considering a plan to swap batteries in minutes with robots at strategically placed “swap stations,” but none of this really seems to solve the problem of running out of battery power in the middle of nowhere, though. — It's not like anyone can just bring you a gallon or two of gasoline to get you back on your way. 😕
Hydrogen cars and fuel cells do offer the potential to store electrical energy in a quickly replenishable manner, but that technology has major safety and economical concerns, so that's not really a solution necessarily either.
I'm excited that EVs are increasing in popularity and becoming more widely available so that more engineers can also be working on these projects, but there are definitely still some challenges to overcome! ⚡️