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EV Adventure! 24 hours with an electric vehicle: What it's like to drive one, and what it's like to "Drive Now" in the Bay Area.

16 Aug 2013  |  Tags: , , , , ,

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day (24 hours) with an all-electric BMW ActiveE sedan. After having had the chance to also drive a friend’s Tesla Model S a few weeks prior, I must say that these electric vehicles the most comfortable and quiet cars that I have ever been in. I am definitely excited to see where “EV’s” are in 10-20 years, and if it weren’t for their current limited travel range (due to energy storage constraints), I feel like I could recommend them to everyone.

the BMW ActiveE sedan, parked on the side of a road

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 the users by the minute. It costs just $39 USD to join for a lifetime membership, and because they do not accept advance reservations, there are usually plenty of cars available. 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 gear lever) 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!

enter your Drive Now PIN

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. This 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. That’s an awesome deal!

The 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 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 for the entire reservation time. I’ve noticed that many people book Zipcars and don’t use them, or they will book too long of a reservation and the car will remain stationary yet unusable by any of the 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. It’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. Drive Now users, on the other hand, could drive a car to the airport and then “end” their reservation there. After leaving the vehicle, another Drive Now member could then use it to drive back home from the airport. Even cooler, right?

They even have a sweet "Drive Now" iPhone App that can be used to find cars that are available and observe their battery charge levels before picking them up:

The Drive Now iPhone App

Interestingly, though, Drive Now’s available vehicles may not actually have a fully charged battery. In the above screenshot, you can see that my vehicle “Madison” only had 11% charge remaining after I’d returned it. Someone else could still use this car if they really wanted to, though, even with such a very low charge.

The App always lets you know what a given vehicle’s charge level is before picking it up, but ultimately it’s your decision whether or not to take that vehicle out. If it fits your journey to take a car that only has a half charge left, go for it! Otherwise, maybe look for another one nearby. The cars take about 5 hours to charge completely, so it’s really essential to have a full charge if possible before leaving in my opinion.

BMW ActiveE low battery warning light notice

From here, I’ll tell the story of the EV journey in reverse. Only a few minutes before returning the vehicle, I was on the 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 can be 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 runs out of battery power. It’s not like someone can bring you a gallon of gasoline on the side of the highway and that will get you to the nearest gas station; 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 wouldn’t have made it. 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/hour but would have risked receiving a parking ticket after it finished charging while I was asleep. The reason for this is that leaving a fully-charged EV in a charging station is a ticketable offense due to it being reserved parking only for actively charging vehicles. To complicate things further, many “Chargepoint" stations are free to use, but each station’s host property sets that pricing on its own. I had been charging the vehicle at this particular Stanford University "chargepoint", and usually Stanford charges for visitor parking in general anyway. The difference here between the normal cost to park and the cost to charge the vehicle (per hour) ended up being negligible, but still risking receiving the ticket first thing in the morning for a fully charged vehicle being stationary was not worth it.

Plus, how do you use a Chargepoint anyway? 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 that’s separate from Drive Now account. You must configure your Chargepoint account separately with your valid billing information using their 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. Make sense? This is great since 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, tap the card again to stop the charger and then disconnect it from the vehicle. :)

BMW ActiveE charging at a chargepoint EV charge station

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. 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 on 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 amount of tech, wealth, and early-adoption in the area. Luckily, I did eventually find one close to the popular University Avenue area where my friend and I were getting dinner. I noticed a few other EV’s, such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and Telsa Model S, plugged in at a few of the charging stations I checked out. It was like we were suddenly part of a secret club!

BMW ActiveE charging in a parking garage with headlights on

As pictured, the vehicle’s beacon light mounted under its rearview mirror glows blue to indicate a charge in progress while the vehicle is stationary. Still pretty cool, right?

Chargepoint’s system is actually pretty cutting-edge, and offers you a live report of your vehicle’s charging progress from within their free Mobile 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.

FYI, BMW’s navigation system also offers its own database of charging stations in case you’re without your phone or if you’re trying to keep your phone free from “App Clutter”.

Chargepoint iPhone App for finding EV charging stations

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 2/3 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. 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? (especially if it’s a free charger!)

Driving the BMW ActiveE through a red wood forest on a winding road in Northern California

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 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 itself generally gets only about 80-100 miles on a full charge. We were going through hilly terrain (which uses more energy) and we had started with just about 75% of a full-charge on the car’s battery.

However, things quickly got better. Since we’d been going uphill for quite some time, we eventually began to go back downhill as we approached the sea. This downhill travel actually charged the battery again. Like hybrid cars, the ActiveE recharges in place of braking, and the battery meter in the car actually began to increase during this part of our trip.

I 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 with about 20-25% of the car’s charge remaining. I was then able to charge it sufficiently for free during that dinner using the town-provided charging station.

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 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 gas-powered flatbed 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 EV’s at this time.

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 ending 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 problem given the current freedom of movement people have come to expect from today’s gasoline-powered vehicles. Still, this issue I’m sure will get better in the future, and driving this car sure was a blast otherwise.

"DRIVE NOW" VERDICT

Would I use this service for more than $30/day? It’s really tough to say. This 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 ability and instant fleet availability from lack of advance reservation “block out”. However, once the novelty of the electric car passes, you start to question the efficiency of using one. Imagine being on a roadtrip with your friends, and their gasoline car keeps going while you have to wait for 5 hours for your next charge to complete!

If we all lived in Singapore, where an electric car would dominate given the country’s small geographical footprint, EV’s would be a different story. America, however, has developed with presence of the automobile for nearly a century, and entire communities are developed around it with an otherwise lack of suitable public transportation options. While an EV would be ideal for operating within said communities, leaving that community 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 productivity. 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.

An EV seems best if you can charge it conveniently at your home to ensure the full 100-mile range and a central point of return for constant battery replenishment. Planning any trips outside a certain radius of that can be risky, and requires a significant time commitment for advance analysis. Given that with Drive Now it isn’t your own personal vehicle, you probably won’t own the charging cable or hardware to bring with you or have it already installed in your home. So, you’re most likely relying on publicly available charging stations during your adventures, which can be slightly unpredictable.

Normally the advertised maximum charge for Drive Now service is $90/day, not $30/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. https://us.drive-now.com/rates-and-fees/?L=2&language=en_US — They charge you less per-minute when the vehicle is parked, but the total charges will never exceed that maximum each day except for traffic violations or extremes such as returning a dirty vehicle to a non-designated “Drive Now” location, for example.

With this membership, I now have 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, though, is the inability to reserve a car in advance. This also is a perk of the service that increases availability and spontaneity, but creates additional risk for the average consumer that needs to be able to plan ahead. It’s completely impractical for anything important that you absolutely must be able to travel to, for example, because a car might not actually be available at that time. To expect that a Drive Now car will always be available without a confirmed reservation is completely unrealistic, and they don’t currently offer this ability.

Drive Now green light = OK to use this car!

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.

Bonus tip: If you can’t get the car to lock after driving it, make sure that it’s actually turned off. EV’s don’t make any noise. :)

E.V. PRACTICALITY

While driving through the hills and forests of South Bay, we saw another ActiveE electric BMW traveling in the opposite direction. I saw numerous Tesla Model S cars as well, and even a few Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts. EV’s are around, and are really catching on with some people. With that said, though, I bear the perception that it is many folks’ second vehicle, or even just a toy/novelty vehicle. — The saddest thing about an electric car is that in the instance of needing a car where public transportation specifically won’t suffice due to distance or destination, usually the range of the vehicle is not enough for the job … either. :(

Without being constantly parked at an EV charging station at any chosen destination, the entire advertised range of the vehicle is never accessible. It feels like you’re always driving around with a half a tank of gas that you can’t easily replenish, except that it’s actually a half-full battery. This realistically calculates your range capacity/radius to just ~40-50 miles in most EV’s once you’ve left the vicinity of a charger on your first stop. It’s just not enough flexibility unless you really police it, and once you get below a certain charge level you might not even be able get back to a charger or where you had been before. Given how poorly some people handle the charging of their smartphones, I imagine that many people can’t handle this sort of nuisance and will end up stranded somewhere.

This judgement would suggest that EV’s are currently only suitable as an auxiliary mode of transportation or, as suggested prior, a second car in a household that doesn’t travel very far from a charging station. This is a huge barrier to most purchasers in terms of practicality, as most people don’t own two cars. Furthermore, in some areas where there are not enough charging stations to meet current demand (such as downtown Palo Alto), the nuisance of trying to keep your car going conveniently can outweigh the cool and “green” factors.

Where EV’s do make sense, though, they can make a lot of it. Recharging them is insanely cheap compared to our current fuel costs, and the drivetrain is so much simpler to maintain. Battery maintenance and such related costs are questionable, though, and this may become a longterm snag. From an environmental perspective, the eventual e-waste from disassembly and recycling the battery packs’ chemicals are not something that can be ignored, either.

I’m not sure if a “low-range” electric vehicle could ever catch on for the masses unless it was something really cheap to buy so that it could be an auxiliary form of transportation for its owner. There are some people that can simply afford to own, store, and maintain multiple vehicles, and many of them are buying EV’s now. For others, a gasoline vehicle offering an extended driving range for the same price or less are still more appealing and affordable. Storing enough electrical energy in a small passenger vehicle remains an engineering challenge today, and yet one of the major merits and conveniences of owning a vehicle in the first place is to overcome the limitations of local public transportation. For those that tread solely in the middle ground, an EV is practical and fun. However, this tension of EV range practicality is what fuels the continued dominance of the petrol car.

CONCLUSION

One must really consider what they actually use a car for. If it’s mostly for short distances, then maybe this really is a practical choice for you and you might not be familiar with the idea of it. Services like Drive Now might help you discover this option for yourself in the future, or at least open your mind to it to recommend to others. Just keep in mind that you’ll be looking for charging stations wherever you go.

Drive Now low battery charge notification on highway

Given that to rent this beautiful, all-electric ActiveE BMW Sedan from Drive Now was just $30 for a 24 hours and up to 180-miles, I believe this also fits into the practicality criteria above of being “really cheap” for the consumer, but only as long as this option remains available. I would pay $30/day to rent a BMW even if it wasn’t electric. This model in particular is insanely comfortable and fun. The combustionless powertrain provides a whisper quiet driving experience on the highway and offers a ton of torque on demand. It’s deceptively fast, yet feels efficient + “green”. It’s fun to try driving something new, and I’m glad to be a Drive Now member.

Still, at the end of the day, if I could drive a Zipcar for the same price that included complimentary gasoline, I would consider it more strongly just because of the subtracted stress factor of finding a vacant EV charging station at wherever I was going. The luxury of the BMW is relaxing and does help with this, but knowing that I won’t have to plan my entire day or trip around which areas have charging stations is appealing to me. Also, one must consider that any charging stations that require a fee to use almost defeat the purpose of an electric vehicle in the first place, especially when Zipcar offers free gasoline refills. Using a paid EV charging station increases the overall costs of using Drive Now, too, if you’re only able to park in those particular areas to charge the vehicle. There are definitely a lot of variables to consider besides just the cost of either service, but none of them are major dealbreakers … just added complexities.

BMW ActiveE USB Aux connector plug 1 series sedan

The BMWs are really nice cars, though. They are fully loaded, unlike most Zipcars! Don’t forget your iPhone’s USB cable because it pairs perfectly with the stereo and charges its battery as well. I do wish the cars came with a sunroof, but I imagine that this omission was for weight reduction, which in turn improves the EV’s driving range on a single charge.

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 one of the downsides, though. There is no infrastructure to give your EV a quick “refueling”, versus gasoline offering a near instant replenishment almost anywhere. EV’s, however, are a cool look into tomorrow’s world and you can experience them for yourself… right now.

I’ve heard of new technologies that allow quicker charging, and I’ve heard of Tesla’s plan to swap batteries within minutes at strategically placed “swap stations” using robots. There are some great ideas being considered, but none of them seem to solve the problem of running out of battery power in the middle of nowhere. As mentioned, it’s not like anyone can just bring you a gallon or two of gasoline to get you back on your way, and properly towing an electric car to the nearest charging station can be quite expensive. Hydrogen cars and fuel cells do offer the potential to store electrical energy in a quickly replenishable manner, but with this there are still safety concerns and we have also yet to find a way to actually harvest the hydrogen gas at a lesser cost than its energy itself. Most likely, the EV’s that we will end up driving in the future will still require some sort of a “gas station”, but this could be a hydrogen station when that technology improves. Some sort of quick replenishment would allow EV’s to go mainstream, but better battery technology may also bring it there as well.

I’m excited that EV’s are gaining popularity, and that more engineers are working on these projects, though. I hope to see more charging stations installed, and for more people adopt an EV-minded and EV-capable lifestyle and mindset. I’m sure that EV’s will continue to become more convenient over the next few years! — Definitely check out Drive Now if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, and keep your eyes peeled for electric cars of the future on the roads near you.

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