Notes from a First Time Electric Vehicle Owner

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I have for some time been pondering buying an electric vehicle such as the Tesla Model S. It is an awesome car. For starters, it is capable of driving itself in an almost fully autonomous system called Autpilot, as well as having the fastest acceleration on the planet capable of 0 – 60 MPH in just over 2.2 seconds. It will also park itself in your garage or a public parking lot autonomously for later retrieval via your corresponding smart phone app (regulations permitting).

It costs virtually nothing to run, as to charge its batteries to its maximum 300 mile range, costs about £5 on cheap rate electricity (about £10 on daytime rates), or £0 if you have your own solar panels. On top of that, use of the Tesla network of superchargers is completely free for early adopters and partially free for all other users. These can charge your car from nearly empty to 80% in about 20 minutes.

It has 7 serviceable parts; 4 tyres, 2 windscreen wipers and the windscreen washer fluid bottle. The first engine service is at 500,000 miles (yes that is a correct number). The batteries should last for around 200,000 miles and when reduced at that time to some 70 – 80% of original capacity, can be removed and replaced. The old batteries can be repurposed and used to power your home as a UPS and solar store, providing capacity to run a typical home without topping up for around 5 days.

I test drove a Model S a couple of months ago and was in awe. I got to try its bonkers acceleration in the rain going from 0 to 60 MPH in just under 2.9 seconds and I engaged AutoPilot version 1, allowing the car to navigate around the country roads fully autonomously, with the occasional touch of the steering wheel to reassure the car I was still there.

However, range, despite efforts to placate, has always been an issue for me. The Tesla has a drivable range of around 250 – 300 miles (variant dependent) and my typical long journeys are frequently that mileage. Thus to save running out of electricity, access to Tesla’s Superchargers or other payable 3rd party chargers, must be seamless and factored into journey times.

With much soul searching I decided, this time at least, to go for a hybrid. This decision alleviated my range issues, but left performance and autonomous driving unfulfilled dreams. After much research, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV had received good reviews and after a couple of test drives, appeared a good option.

 

So a few weeks ago, I went to pick up my new car and drove it away with a full tank of petrol and a full charge of batteries.

Overall it is an excellent car with the PHEV variant costing no more than the diesel or petrol versions allowing short journeys to be conducted with cheap rate electricity. This is at a fraction of the cost of petrol, both in monetary and planet saving terms.

However, almost immediately I found disappointing, unexpected compromises and design flaws:

 

Problem 1.

Firstly, the car does have the ubiquitous corresponding SmartPhone App. This allows you to remote control features such as charging schedule, climate control scheduling, allowing you to warm up or cool down the car at a certain time each day ready for your commute to work or back home. It also allows you to monitor the battery. If you are using a public charger you can see if it has completed its charge cycle.

Great, I loved it. That was until I realised how they’d implemented the solution. Mitsubishi in their infinite wisdom, chose to turn the car into a WiFi hotspot, allowing you (with the correct passcode) to log into the car via WiFi to control it.

Hmm, slightly strange. So here are the problems with that concept, and Mitsubishi, take note. As a car company, you should have consulted somebody from the Internet industry before you make these uninformed decisions.

WiFi only works at a range of about 50 feet. So my car, parked in front of my Garage 100 feet away from my office, and 200 feet away from my house, doesn’t work. I have to walk to the Garage to control the car. So, I’m now standing outside the car, in the cold or rain with my smart phone trying to schedule the charging or climate control, instead of sitting in my home or in any bar or cafe setting this up at my leisure. So why not just sit inside the car and use the larger centre console instead?

But it’s worse than that. Now, when I’m within a few feet of my car, my phone logs into the cars WiFi automatically. This I can’t stop it doing without either, deleting the WiFi access point from my phone, or turning off WiFi on my phone. Both impractical options. And here’s the problem…. My car’s WiFi is not a gateway to the Internet, so my car has become an Internet dead zone.

Not the end of the world for when I’m near my Garage, but it is a massive problem when I’m in my car driving. Even in the strongest 4G areas of the countries motorway system, I get no Internet connection. Because my phone is automatically logged onto my cars WiFi and that WiFi is just used to control the car. So no streaming of Spotify to the car radio, no Google traffic status and no browsing the Internet or social media when I’m a passenger.

 

Totally Bonkers……..
Problem 2.

Range, YES range….

The electric batteries have a realistic range of only 25 miles, which is enough for a lot of local journeys, but the petrol fuel tank is only 45 litres and the 2 litre petrol engine is very inefficient at only 30 MPG. This gives about 300 miles on a tank with an extra 25 miles of electric power.

Now, apart from my classic car, I haven’t driven a car in over 10 years with a range less than 500 miles. Who cares? you say. Well I do. If I’m doing my typical round trip journey of 250 miles, I don’t want to have to plan to stop every time I do it. It’s annoying and does add time and inconvenience. It’s not such a large an issue as supercharging a Tesla every 200+ miles, but it is that same inconvenience that stopped me buying a Model S in the first place.

Also, to get the advantages of the electric motor, I should be able to charge it for an appropriate cost using public chargers. On the motorway network, I fully expect to pay to plug in my car. But while it costs me 50p to charge at home, on night time electric rates (less than 10% the cost of petrol), it costs a staggering £6 to charge my car from companies like Ecotricity.

Their cost is based on pure electric cars with a battery range from 100 – 300 miles, not hybrids with a 30 mile range. Also, rapid chargers only charge up to a maximum of 80%, a pre-defined limit from rapid charger designers to protect the battery. This is an unrealistic solution to use for a plug in hybrid and actually works out more expensive than petrol. Public charging networks need to understand hybrids and give effective solutions for these vehicle types.

 

Problem 3.

Charging an electric car, even a hybrid, needs a lot of power, so most public chargers use very heavily engineered dedicated charging stations rated to work at much higher voltage and currents than a typical home supply can cope with. To fully charge your car, while it can take as little as 20 minutes on a high capacity public charger, can take days using a domestic 3 pin plug.

However, because the Outlander PHEV is a hybrid and its battery is only designed for a range of around 30 miles, charging from a standard home socket should be possible within 5 hours or so. That had huge appeal to me, as it meant I didn’t have to install a dedicated charger. So after collecting the car and driving it home, almost entirely on electric power, I plugged the car into a wall socket in my garage to start charging.

A couple of hours later and with a degree of curiosity, I popped back out to my garage to inspect progress, only to discover the 3 pin plug is red hot. I turn off the socket immediately and unplug the cable to inspect the damage. With a heavy heart, I discover that one pin of the plug has melted and the white plastic under casing has turned brown from heat damage. I am distraught and annoyed. So, as a historically qualified electronics engineer, I immediately start investigating the cause of this problem. Some research later and I discover the charger pulls down a whopping 3.7KW of power across a 15A socket, compare this to a typical 13A plug or socket. This is more than the most powerful home electric heaters and can easily cause the kind of damage I had observed. Luckily, I have a good electrician who was able to replace the plug with an upgraded, safer option.

I realised then, that home charging across a domestic socket was not feasible and I would have to arrange installation of a dedicated home charger system in my garage.

A car home charger, typically comes in two power variants, 16A or 32A. My car only accepts 16A input, but for future proofing, a 32A charger would allow charging of a purely electric car to be achieved much quicker than the 16A option. However after closer inspection, my garage, which is separated from the house by about 100 yards, is fed with a 20A supply, so I have no option but to install the lesser 16A charger option.

This is a crushing blow as I have a Tesla Model 3 on order and it needs a 32A charger to be feasible as an everyday car.
i.e. If I expect to drive the car on a daily basis it will take more than 2 full days on a 3 pin plug to fully charge from empty.

So here’s the thing, it would be a major project and a huge expense to dig up the path to the Garage and the driveway, to lay a new higher rated electric mains cable. Also, my entire house supply is only rated at 80A, so allocating anything more than 32A to charging is unrealistic.

What if all my cars were electric. I currently have 3, but often have 4 main cars at any one time. If they were all electric and all required charging concurrently at 32A, I would need a 128A supply just to keep my cars fuelled. Bearing in mind my house has an 80A supply currently, that would mean upgrading to a 200A mains supply.

More than that, at 32A a purely electric car with a battery range of 300 miles would take around 15 hours to charge. If the car is plugged in at 6pm and unplugged at 8am, then we are not going to be able to fully charge it at home on a daily basis.

 

Future options:

As an attempt to solve some of these problems in the longer term, I’ve looked at solar panels and a Tesla Powerwall to supplement and add to my home electricity supply, as well as potentially feed back to the national grid for additional income. However solar panels are ugly and I have a beautiful cotswold stone home which would be disfigured by traditional solar panels. Tesla are introducing solar roof tiles which blend in and can replace your existing roof with solar tiles, but these aren’t yet available and I don’t need to replace my roof at present.

The Tesla Powerwall, may be flawed too. After much research, the device appears not to function as a home UPS. This means that if there were a power cut, as there often is in my village, the powerwall wouldn’t not automatically switch in. While you should be able to switch to the powerwall supply, it would temporarily plunge my home into darkness. All my electronic devices would reboot, digital clocks would loose time , TV recorders would fail and my Broadband Internet connection would cease to function. It would also cause the house alarm to go off.

 

Conclusions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines and home batteries, but as with the iPhone and social media in the past, I realise I am not so keen an early adopter to allow significant compromises to my life style. I generally wait for the technology to overcome it’s initial teething problems before I introduce it into my day to day life.

 

Roll on the “Tesla Model Z”, “The UPS Powerwall” and “Solar Film”.

 

 

Addendum:

 

I’ve had some feedback asking questions about the national grid and the ability of it to cope with a future full of electric cars.

Firstly, the future of self driving electric cars is not one of personal car ownership. Currently cars are sat idle for 97% of their time. Increasingly wealthy nations such as China and India could not possibly sustain our consumption levels for cars. Just the raw materials to produce them, would become exhausted very quickly.

The future is a fully autonomous electric car on demand, which will drive you to where you want to go, then drive somebody else immediately afterwards with overnight charging flattening out national power generation on the grid.

 

The article wasn’t really on the future electric grid, so I didn’t really explain some of the industry understanding. However, technologies such as solar panels, EV’s and Home batteries will be able to stabilise the grid supply.

The problem isn’t capacity or supply it is peak capacity, which in the UK is between 6pm – 8pm. With an intelligent decentralised grid. You home battery and electric car will actually be able to supply your home with its peak demand as well as feedback power to the grid when it needs it, recharging at night when demand is low.

This is widely thought to have a beneficial affect, with analysts suggesting that an increase of 1 million EV’s plugged into the national grid will allow over 5 power stations to be closed permanently.

Of course, you’ve probably seen all the solar and wind farms popping up everywhere. This will only increase to gradually take over from fossil fuels. There are a few interesting events that happened recently. About 2 months ago, the UK’s national grid had it’s first coal free day since the industrial revolution. Further more, about a month ago, the power provided by renewables exceeded fossil fuels for the first time ever.

Germany is an unlikely pioneer in home solar panels. Barely a street passes by without at least a handful of properties using solar panels. Total solar production in 2016 in Germany amounted to 6.9 percent of total grid generation, with most homes having solar panels requiring almost no drain on Germanys’ national grid.

There is some concern over future land use and the allocation of land to solar and wind farms. But with modern farming methods, shipping containers, bizarrely, turn out to be more efficient growing resource than land for many crops and insects may replace meat as the primary source of protein.

 

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