6 months in an EV

In October last year, I bought a BMW i3. The pure electric version, to be precise. Six months on, I’m presenting here a series of thoughts — design challenges, both big and small, that EV usership and ownership creates. While partly driven by the specifics of the i3’s design, these are bigger picture issues, representative of electric cars generally. They warrant addressing if the industry is serious about large scale market adoption of EVs. 


1. A better way of displaying range — Range anxiety remains the biggest hurdle for electric cars among the car buying populous. It’s amazing how quickly this goes away in the real world — although I am insulated by owning another petrol car — which means I never need to push the limits of the i3’s range. But as a slew of EVs hit the market, and their owners grow beyond people who are passionate, patient early adopters, forecasting range more accurately remains one of the industry’s biggest challenges. Most significantly here, is the impact of three key elements on the real-world range:

While it might seem obvious these factors have an effect, their impact is far more apparent than in any ICE-powered car. For instance, last weekend with an air temperature of 20 degrees outside, and with the climate set at 19 on a low fan, my i3’s predicted range sat at 134 miles. 8 miles of city driving later, it stood at 133. Compare that to the winter, when a -4 cold soak overnight and no precondition left the range at 86 miles. Or how, when I set off with a nominal range of 103 miles last week, and then blasted the heater up to 26 degrees and on fan speed 4, it dropped to 78 miles, in an instant. This is the kind of thing that is going to freak ordinary drivers out. The sort of people who never like to let their petrol level drop below a quarter full. When they buy that 2018 Jag i-Pace expecting a reliable 250 miles range, and discover it’s only 170 in the winter with the heater on, there’s going to be trouble. 


2. Understanding distance (or how we don’t) — Related to the issue of range, is the concept of distance — and how the i3 has made me realise the most people’s concept of it is poor. 100(ish) miles of range is just perfect for me, because it’s 8 miles each way from my house to the office, which means I can drive to the office and back every day for a week without re-charging. But could I get from London to Cambridge? Leeds to Sheffield and back? I’ve really not a clue. I don’t know how far the distance is between these places is in miles, because I just don’t need to think about that normally. My wife is concerned the car won’t get her to my parents’ house and back reliably (it’s 22 miles each way). 

Just what can car makers do about this, I hear you say? It’s difficult because people need to undergo a mindset change — but a starting point might be to present range in a more relative way — if I set a destination on the sat nav, it’s a fair bet to assume I want to come back to my original start point (usually home or the office). Telling me if I can complete the round trip, comfortably on the range the car has, is at this point the only piece of information I really need.


3. Speed freaks — The i3 is quick. Up to 40 or 50 miles an hour, you’ll need a Porsche to lose it off the line. This is hugely amusing and one of the core appeals of driving it for me, but it also means you’re only a mash of the pedal away from doing license-losing speeds in urban areas. Sure, this is true of many performance cars, but the critical difference is that in an EV you’ve not got the aural cue from the engine sound or input from changing gears. Because it’s silent, you also don’t look anti-social to onlookers if you drive it hard. The result is that it is very easy to be cruising along 15-20 mph above the speed limit, and the only clue you’ve got is that everyone else appears to be going rather slowly. So EVs like the i3 would be a prime candidate for a rethought speedo. Perhaps one that scales or changes colour — as a cue when your speed goes over a certain threshold above the limit. Our reimaging the cluster concept with UsTwo (above) would be a prime candidate for application in an EV.


4. Seeing charging status — One benefit of having an EV is no longer needing to visit fuel stations. But charging up isn’t the doddle it should be, for several reasons. The first basic issue is being able to understand if the car is actually charging when you plug it in. When you fill up with fuel, you’re aware petrol or diesel is going into the car by the roll of numbers on the pump and the gushing noise accompaniment. But you can’t see and hear electricity, and every time you plug in, things don’t always go to plan. 

The i3 makes it relatively easy to understand what’s going on — there’s a light bar around the charge socket which glows different colours for different statuses — it flashes blue as charging is establishing, and goes solid blue once charging has started. Green means it’s fully charged. So you know when it’s plugged in if the charging has worked (rapid red flashing means the charge has failed). However, the light goes out after a couple of seconds. Also, blue doesn’t always mean it’s actually charging — because if the car’s set to charge on a timer (like in the middle of the night), the socket still glows blue — so you think it’s charging, — but the process might actually be paused. A consistent, reliable and clear way of ‘seeing’ charge status from the outside of the car would be very useful indeed.


5. Make public charging easy — That last point becomes especially important when you’re charging in public places. Frankly, in the UK — and in most countries right now — the charging infrastructure is a mess. If you want access to every charger, you’ll need to sign up to about 10 different providers (with different charging cost scales). Plus, charging spaces get blocked, the chargers themselves are frequently broken, and they are all different and slightly fiddly to use in their design. It’s this last point I believe is the most solvable issue. 

Right now, just getting the car to ‘shake hands’ with the public charger and start charging can be like trying to throw a six to start. The superfast ‘CCS’ chargers installed on the highways here in the UK actually require you to physically lift up the unit and hold it on to the car for a few seconds as you connect it to the port, giving it a helping hand. If you don’t do this, the charge always fails. After repeated abort attempts, I only found out this trick via a forum. 

Similarly, my wife’s tried to charge in a couple of public locations locally and simply given up. With a (often crying) baby in tow, when the charge hasn’t established first time, she’s not had the patience to remove the cable, flash the RFID card again on the charger unit, wait for its prompts, and then connect to the car and see if it’s worked. Call that impatience if you want, but for a public weaned on petrol stations which are standardised and just work, EVs are going to need the public charging infrastructure to be standardised, failsafe, and fool proof in order to really take off. Right now it’s a million miles away from any of those things.

6. Being warm is nice — sell the benefits — I’ll finish on a positive note. Right now, with perhaps the exception of Tesla, the public still generally aren’t aware of the multitude of positives EVs and plug-in cars offer over many of today’s ICE cars. The environmental thing is oft cited as the key benefit, but with little, measurable benefit to individuals, I’m convinced it’s the wrong selling point. The big wins range from the prosaic — the lack of noise, the addictive acceleration and the fact you never need to visit a smelly cold fuel station again — to the human, emotive things you instantly miss when you go back to an ICE car. Like never having to de-ice the car, because an EV can be set to precondition and this melts the ice and snow on it. Or never needing to step into a freezing cold, or boiling hot car again — because you can cool or heat the cabin before you get in, without needing to start a fossil fuel engine. From your phone. While at the breakfast table. To tease out, illustrate, and better hold up these benefits is — in my view — a design challenge. 

In fact, all of these issues are. While many of them might appear peripheral to what we today consider car design (they might be called marketing challenges or sit in the domain of a third party supplier), if the industry truly want EV sales to take off — speeding adoption as corporate emissions and fuel economy averages start to bite in the next few years — it needs designers to explore some of these 'easy win' issues first.