Monday, July 27, 2015

The Nissan Leaf and EV FAQ

This post is in response to all of the questions I get about my 2013 Nissan Leaf and also to lend knowledge about electric vehicles to those curious about humanity’s automotive future. Make no mistake, electric vehicles (EVs) are here to stay. The days of the internal combustion engine (ICE) are assuredly numbered and after my experience with the Nissan Leaf I can say it won’t be missed. Driving an EV full time really spoiled my expectation of what a car should be. I’ve tried to capture in FAQ format what it’s like to own and operate an EV in order of most to least asked questions.

Q: What’s the range on that thing and how long does it take to charge?
It varies but the 2013 Leaf averages about 84 miles per charge. Yep, just about a quarter tank of gas worth of range in an ICE car. No, you can’t take it on road trips. It wasn’t designed or intended for that. It’s meant for a daily commute to work and grocery runs on the weekends. City driving will get you more miles per charge, highway driving less. Using the heat in the winter combined with the cold temps will drive that estimate down even further.
On a 30 amp 240v circuit (considered level 2 charging) it takes about 5 hours to charge from dead. It only takes about 2.5 of those hours to reach an 80% charge however due to the nature of how lithium ion batteries work. If you’re planning a 120 mile round trip somewhere you will likely have enough range to make it home after 30-60 minutes on a charger at your destination. A 120v circuit (level 1 charging) will take around 17 hours to fully replenish the batteries. Many owners only use the supplied 120v charger exclusively, which when used overnight is satisfactory for their commute distance. Some Leafs have the DC quick charging option (level 3) which will charge the car in about an hour, if you can find a compatible station.
I can accomplish about 90% of my family’s driving with the Leaf’s range, for everything else we have an ICE vehicle as well. Charging at one’s destination is often available, albeit with sometimes less than easily walkable distances. Still, it takes careful planning to use the Leaf when driving outside of your range comfort zone. After owning the car for a few months I can say my range anxiety is gone now that I know the car’s limits and where chargers are along my frequented routes.
This is most definitely an early adopter car. Chevy and Tesla have already announced their second gen mass market EVs, the Bolt and Model 3 respectively. Priced around $35,000 they will offer around 200 miles of range which I feel is enough for all but the most hardcore road warriors. As battery tech gets cheaper and lighter, range and charging will become all but irrelevant. I’m sure in 10 years time most EVs will come with around 300 miles of range at a reasonable cost.

Q: What’s it like to drive?
If you’ve ever driven an electric golf cart, it’s kind of like that except with all of the refinement and you’d expect from a modern car. With 100% of torque available at 0 RPM and no transmission between the accelerator and wheels there is an instant connection between your right foot and the road. The Leaf isn’t a fast car but it’s certainly quick off the line and in sprints under 60mph. It has no problem passing on the highway and moving up to speeds that would get your license suspended but all of the punch happens at lower speeds. You don’t have to wait for downshifts or for a torque converter to engage the engine to the wheels. Power is always there, instantly. I got used to this very quickly and driving ICE cars now feels strange and slightly disconcerting when pushing the go pedal does nothing for a half second while all of the drivetrain components spool up.
The Leaf is also super quiet and completely immune to the vibrations, rattles and undulations caused by ICE power. It’s so quiet that Nissan had to fit a new type of windshield wiper motor because the standard unit was jarringly loud. Similarly, those goofy looking headlights serve a functional purpose, to direct air up and over the side mirrors where there had been unpleasant wind buffeting noises in Nissan’s testing. It may not sound like a big deal but it’s amazing how quickly I got used to the silent running of the Leaf. It’s utterly peaceful sitting in traffic and at low speeds where you notice most how still and tranquil driving can be. To top it off the car doesn’t get hot or need to be warmed up in the winter. It just is, stateless until you will it to be otherwise.

Q: What’s the maintenance like, how long does the battery last and what does it cost to replace?
The short answer is there is very little that needs to be done outside of brakes and tires as they wear out. Brakes tend to last a very long time due to the aggressive regenerative braking available in “B” mode that most Leaf drivers opt to use. Of course the usual suspension components will wear just as any other car but you’re talking 100k+ miles before those things should need to be considered. The maintenance schedule consists of replacing the cabin air filter and rotating the tires, replacing brakes and tires as needed.
Nissan warranties the battery for 8 years or 100,000 miles. It is expected that the battery will lose 30% capacity over that time, anything greater will trigger a replacement under said warranty. The current cost to replace the battery pack currently is about $5,500. Just like any other lithium ion powered device (e.g. your laptop, tablet and phone) there are things you should (and must if you want to keep your warranty intact) do to maintain proper battery health. There is a “long life” setting that will only charge the car to 80%. This should be used when possible and especially when leaving the car for more than 24 hours. One should only charge to 100% when needed, just before long trips if able. Some EVs, like the Chevy Volt do this for you behind the scenes. The Volt actually has the capacity to go about 10 miles further than advertised on its battery pack if the car allowed the driver to charge it fully. Chevy shows 100% even though the battery is around 80% charged so it can maintain its advertised EV range throughout the bulk of the car’s life. Extended exposure to extreme ambient temperatures, 120+ and below 0 degrees fahrenheit are also detrimental to the life expectancy of the battery pack. The Leaf logs this information and your charging habits both for Nissan’s R&D department as well as to determine if your warranty claim is valid.
The Leaf is not a care free ownership experience but I believe it’s a lot less of a headache than an ICE vehicle. No fluids and belts to change, just a battery pack to maintain. Granted it’s a large expense to replace when that time comes but I’d be willing to bet most EV owners will jump at the chance to upgrade to a new EV with double the range when given the opportunity.

Q: What don’t you like about the Leaf and what would you change?
Admittedly this is more of a question I ask myself, since I have so much time to spend with the car. EV owners are typically gadget-centric, tech savvy people. With that in mind I wish Nissan had offered more settings to tweak and knobs to twiddle. Things like adjusting the aggressiveness of the regenerative braking and fleshing out the Carwings system and smart phone app with tighter control over the cars systems (e.g. granular charging timers, battery stats/diagnostics, push alerts for maintenance items, etc) would be really great. The building blocks are there and I’m sure we’ll see these changes in future models. If I could ask traditional automakers to take anything from Tesla’s playbook it would be pushing iterative improvements to customers as soon as reasonably possible. The software defined car model is one of Tesla’s biggest advantage. Keeping owners up to date on the latest innovations only encourages brand loyalty.
I only have the Leaf for another 12 months until the lease runs out. My plan was to purchase a Tesla Model 3 once it’s available but by the time Tesla gets around to shipping them, there will be some other compelling options on the road such as the next generation Leaf and Chevy Bolt. Time will tell but I can say with complete confidence that I’m done with smelly, polluting and slow ICE vehicles.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

2014 BMW i3


The BMW i3 is the marque’s first foray into the world of mass produced 100% electric vehicles. Though the category is small the i3 shares some diverse company. On paper it looks like something of a cross between the Tesla Model S luxury sport sedan and the economical Nissan Leaf. I was glad to have the opportunity to come to my own conclusions about the i3 through BMW’s extended test drive event. In the interest of full disclosure, I have owned a few BMWs and would consider myself a fan of the brand.

Equipment and Capacity
The model I was given is the “Electronaut” edition. It’s loaded with navigation, DC quick charging, heated seats, interior bamboo accents and blue Electronaut branding everywhere. Aside from the bamboo accents most of the dashboard and some other areas are covered in what looks like unfinished fiberglass. The result in look and feel gives a disappointingly cheap vibe. I’m sure it’s some sort of ultralight material but my past experience with the brand left me wanting a more up-market feel. The dashboard is enormous, mounting a radar detector took all of my 6’2” height and reach to complete. The cabin is spacious given the diminutive exterior dimensions of the car, it can comfortably seat 4 adults. The rear suicide doors and flat floor eases loading and unloading of children however if you have a rear facing car seat expect huge challenges getting your baby into it. Your best option if you only have one child is to sit in the opposite rear seat to load him or her. Attempting this from the exterior is very difficult as our seat left about an 8 inch sliver from its side bolster to the C pillar of the car with which to wedge a baby in sideways. Lighting in the back seat is dismal leading to lots of fumbling with seat belts and harnesses.
There is very little in the way of cargo space. The trunk can fit 2-3 medium luggage pieces and the front cargo compartment is only large enough to contain a bag with the charging adapter, air compressor and towing materials. This is probably for the best as that compartment is not protected from the elements. As far as I know the iDrive system is similar to what you get on other BMW models and is reasonably easy to control. As a car and tech nerd I was hoping BMW would provide a more connected experience with the i3. Wifi, a web browser, apps, Google/Apple integration, over the air updates and detailed diagnostic information are all missing from this iDrive system. Bluetooth audio and an aux jack is nice but I expected more from such a technologically advanced automobile.

Performance and Handling
Having driven a wide variety of cars I would classify the i3 as quick. In sprints from a standstill there is a very brief hesitation when fully depressing the go pedal and then the torquey electric motor quickly places you into your seat. It’s not about to blow the doors off of a Porsche 911 but it’s more power than I was expecting. The instant torque and lack of transmission makes the car a blast to drive if you can manage not to concern yourself with range. 20-40 and 40-60mph dashes are dealt with in a blink of an eye. The instant acceleration drops off somewhat as you reach highway speeds but the i3 certainly isn’t lacking in the passing power department.
It’s clear BMW took great care in developing the regenerative braking system deployed by the i3. The vast majority of my driving was done with a single pedal. Lifting off the accelerator completely will cause alarming deceleration at first but after about 30 minutes of driving it becomes second nature. The car slows so quickly with no throttle input that the brake lights illuminate. Provided you are a good driver and leave enough space from the car in front, you should never have to touch the brakes unless someone pulls out unexpectedly.
At speed through corners the i3 performs as you would expect a BMW to, flat and composed. The car approaches its grip limits rapidly however. Most sane drivers will never find these limits commuting to work but those that like to drive a BMW as the ultimate driving machines they are may find the i3 to be a bit less ultimate than they expected.
The i3’s steering is super sharp, almost like it’s overcompensating for the lack of the feel a traditional rack and pinion setup provides. There is no dead zone, moving the wheel a millimeter to the left or right off center will have immediate results. Around town and during spirited jaunts it’s quite nice, the steering wheel feels well connected to what the front tires are doing. Highway is a very different story. I needed extra focus to keep the car in the center of its lane, subtle course corrections caused my passengers to sway more than I would like. I wish BMW had softened up the steering for speeds above 50mph. The car is also highly susceptible to crosswinds and tractor trailer wash.

Range and Charging
The i3 gives three economy modes to choose from, Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro Plus. Comfort gives the best throttle feel and response, it’s linear and predictable. Eco Pro deadens the go pedal. It feels like the first half of the accelerator pedal’s travel is really only giving 20% power. This mode is good if one can’t control their lead foot. Eco Pro Plus is downright dangerous and provides no perceived benefit over Eco Pro in my testing. While traveling down the highway I slipped the i3 into Eco Pro Plus and experienced rapid deceleration. Panicked, I pushed the accelerator down harder yet the car kept slowing until the pedal reached the floor which caused the car to rocket forward. Thinking it was a fluke I tried the switch a few more times, making sure there was no traffic behind me. Each attempt on the highway yielded similar results. Around town Eco Pro Plus deadens the throttle so much you could find yourself in a tight spot when pulling into traffic, only to hit a burst of instant torque when your foot hits the floor and the computer relents. I kept the car in Comfort most of the time and used Eco Pro when trying to make it an extra mile or two to a charger.
I feel it is disingenuous to show 86 miles of range when the battery comes off the charger in the morning. As soon as I touched the climate controls the estimated range dropped by about 10 miles, unavoidable in sub freezing temperatures. Even if I wanted to drive with no heat it was necessary to run the defroster at all times to avoid fogging. I averaged about 50 miles of electric range the four times I drive the car to depletion. To be fair most of my driving was highway miles. The model I tested came equipped with the optional range extender. This added approximately another 50 miles of range with a 2 cylinder gasoline generator. While driving around town it’s quiet enough. I had gotten used to the car being dead silent so the rumbling range extender never completely faded into my subconscious. During spirited or highway driving the range extender’s decibels roar to angry lawn mower levels. This alone was enough for me to want to stop for charges on long trips as I didn’t want to deal with the racket. While it’s nice to have the option to use fast filling and ubiquitous gasoline I would much prefer BMW stuff that compartment with more batteries to boost the EV range. The least they could have done was outfit the extender with a reasonably sized gas tank. Doubling its capacity would go far toward alleviating charge anxiety during trips that push the the car’s limit.
The car I tested had the fast DC charging option but I was unable to test it as the nearest capable station was over 400 miles away. Even at 240v the i3 takes several hours to reach just 80% charge. I charged it for 12 hours on a 120v outlet at my home and it only reached about 75%. To my disappointment the provided charger pulled less than 12 amps on every 120v plug I tried, despite some being 30 amp circuits. The car has options to limit its charging rate but everything was set to max on my attempts. Driving the i3 anywhere but around town takes careful planning and frequent charging. A 240v charging station in your home is a must.
BMW offers a free year of access to the ChargePoint network which primarily uses standard 240v EV plugs. It sounds like a generous offer but finding power while out and about was challenging to say the least. None of my travel destinations had charging available for the i3. One shopping area had a Tesla charger but they are incompatible with other EVs. My town has 2 ChargePoint stations which is nice but ultimately not very useful. With the i3’s limited range, charging at your destination is necessary if you want to avoid dipping into the dino fuel.

Cold Climate Ability
I had the opportunity to put my i3’s optional snow tires to the test as we received about 6 inches of the fluffy white stuff during the weekend I had the car. Annoyingly for experienced New England drivers it isn’t possible to completely disable all driver assists. Even with the traction control off, the stability control remains on. This is probably for the best however, the car definitely has the tendency to rotate when the rear wheels lose traction during acceleration. The stability control quashed this behavior nicely, at the expense of forward motion. In spite of this I was able to get around reasonably well on poorly plowed roads. The defroster worked well at the great cost of range. It’s not a Jeep but the i3 shouldn’t leave any competent driver stranded in a typical New England winter.

Final Thoughts
In a competitive and economic vacuum I give the i3 an B+. It’s fun to drive, its range is ok for current battery technology and interior room and accoutrements are acceptable for owners without small children. Though it wears a BMW badge it would be unrecognizable as one without it. There are hints of its Bavarian roots when it comes to performance but it’s painfully obvious everything else about it is geared toward trimming the fat. The result is a cheap feel that probably won’t jive with brand loyalists. If the car were just $5,000 less I might be a bit more forgiving but with a starting MSRP of just over $42k BMW set my expectations high for overall fit and finish. What I want from an EV in this price range is something that looks similar to regular 3 series but with an EV powertrain. Why traditional auto makers insist on saddling EVs with quirky styling is beyond me. I suspect BMW is going to have a very difficult time selling this car once Tesla’s Model 3 is released. Assuming Tesla makes good on its promises, a 200 mile EV range for $35k in a package that will have Tesla’s styling DNA is a much more appealing proposition. If one absolutely needs an EV with a BMW badge and cost is irrelevant then the i3 is a fine choice. Otherwise it’s hard to justify the i3’s slight performance edge and brand cache when you can get similar range, capacity and equipment from its much less expensive competition.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Motorola Nexus 6

Unless you’re a die hard Android fan you've probably never heard of the Nexus line of phones. Google contracts various manufacturers to produce reference platform devices to showcase “vanilla” Android. Owners of these devices generally enjoy running the latest Android updates, sent straight from Google. History has shown the devices themselves have been a mixed bag in terms of performance, reliability and build quality. The previous generation Nexus phone, the Nexus 5 is generally lauded as one of the best Android devices to date. Built by LG, it hit the sweet spot right in the middle of performance, good design and price. After about 2 months of ownership I feel qualified to comment on how its successor compares.
Form Factor/Cost
At first glance it's clear the Nexus 6 took a hard left from where it left the Nexus 5 in Google’s product road map. The 6 is huge, it eclipses a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (albeit only just) and is quite thick in the center. The size is great if you can handle it, literally. Once you go to this size display it’s very difficult to go back to even a 5” screen. The readability and real estate are addictive. It’s pocketable in my large men’s jeans but only just. Anything bigger and I’ll need to start carrying a murse. The gently curved back helps with holdability but it’s annoying that it doesn't lie flat. An “OK” response is challenging to issue if the phone is sitting on a desk. The other most significant departure from the outgoing model is the price. At $650 it’s nearly twice as expensive as the Nexus 5. The 2K screen and other top tier components force it to compete with high end devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and iPhone 6. While this sounds fair on paper it was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to the Nexus community. The Nexus line is no longer the budget friendly path to excellent, well supported devices.
For its tip top specs and cost I expected blistering performance in day to day use. Unfortunately the reality is far from this ideal. The phone struggles to do something as simple as launch an app without delay. Frequently I’ve tapped app icons a second time when the first press didn’t seem to register, only to have the app open as soon as my finger comes down the second time. The multitasking card view also takes an unreasonable amount of time to load. Most surprisingly, certain applications perform more slowly on the Nexus 6 than on my 2013 Moto G (MyFitnessPal and Slickdeals come to mind). I’ve read most of the performance issues I’ve experienced are due to the software based full disk encryption Google uses on the Nexus 6. Their minds were in the right place by making the phone more secure by default but the performance hit is unacceptable. It wouldn’t be as infuriating if I could simply turn off the encryption but this is not an option, at least not without rooting the device and jumping through a few hoops.
The camera on the Nexus 6 is the best of any Nexus to date but that’s not saying much. As someone who frequently uses an DSLR to take photos of fast moving objects (e.g. kids) the Nexus 6 camera produces inconsistent results in anything but perfect lighting conditions. I’d estimate only 1 in 6 indoor shots I take of my kids produce a result where faces are not an unrecognizable blur. Autofocus is slow and light metering is frustrating in the Google camera app. Third party apps remedy this somewhat, especially now that Lollipop gives API access for them to directly control the ISO and shutter speed as well as capture in RAW format (Camera FV-5 deserves a mention here) but the “stock” experience is mediocre at best. So much so that I usually grab my wife’s iPhone 6 any time I need to take a photo on the run.
Battery life is only barely acceptable. It’s a good thing Motorola includes a turbocharger that can boost the from from dead to 80% in something like 10-15 minutes. Equally important for this power hungry beast is its support for the Qi wireless charging standard. I have two Qi pads, one at work and one at home. If I don’t top off my battery half way through the day I’m in trouble if I have a late night out planned. It boggles the mind how a 3220 mAh battery can be so insufficient. It would seem the 2k screen used in the Nexus 6 is the culprit. Despite also using a similar AMOLED display the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 achieves nearly double the on-screen time of the Nexus 6 in the benchmarks I’ve seen. I don’t know how this is possible but I would gladly take a 1080p display if it meant twice the battery life. Maximizing off charger time clearly wasn’t a focus for Motorola and Google and it shows.
It needs to be said I’m on my third Nexus 6. I purchased the AT&T variant when it became available for preorder. The device I received was subject to one to three random restarts per day as well as bouts of unreachability, inbound calls would go straight to voicemail despite the phone sitting on my desk with full cell service. The second device I received suffered from the same issues. The 3rd Nexus 6 came with a green dot on the box, indicating it was from a new production run. While AT&T and Motorola never officially acknowledged a problem with the first run of devices it’s clear by this mark that something tainted a not insignificant number of first-run devices. Despite the third phone being a much more stable experience, my confidence in Motorola as a competent device maker has been shaken.
This phone is clearly the result of mismanagement and lack of vision. It feels like it exists mostly as a release vehicle for Android Lollipop and as a statement that Google wants Android on large screen devices destined for (Google Play) media consumption, everything else be damned. The poor battery life, QA problems and disk performance all point to a product that was rushed and/or not given enough resources to develop completely before a hard ship date. That being said, it’s the only way to get stock Android on a device larger than the Nexus 5. If another vendor announced a 5.5-6.0” device with unadulterated Android updates as they were released from Google I would jump ship from this mess of a device without hesitation, assuming there’s enough resale value in it to break even.