Thursday, October 26, 2017

"How to Prolong Lithium-based Batteries" Article

Here is a very nice article about issues affecting battery lifespan from Cadex Electronics, a Canadian company that specializes in battery technologies:

How to Prolong Lithium-based Batteries - Battery University

The short list of takeaways about consumer Lithium-based battery use (from this and other resources I've read about lithium battery technology):
  1. Avoid overheating batteries 
  2. Avoid deep discharging as much as possible (don't let the device run all the way down) 
  3. Frequent partial charging is desirable (charge whenever you can)

However, this document is not presented as a how-to guide for consumers using electronic devices powered by lithium-based battery technology. Indeed, in their own self-interest, many consumer goods contain sophisticated battery maintenance and management mechanisms, which apply many of the specific principles discussed in the above article.

In EV applications particularly, any significant procedural or parametric choices regarding battery charging are strictly controlled and limited by the charging systems which are built into the cars themselves (with the exception of "DC Fast Charging" solutions, which typically involve a combination of systems internal and external to the car). In order to be able to offer a product with acceptable performance and to have acceptable warranty risk, EV batteries are aggressively underutilized, masking their actual capacities. So the "empty" to "full" battery capacity available to the car and displayed to the user as "0 - 100%" may in actuality be, say, 22 - 90% (or whatever range the manufacturer has decided presents optimum cost/performance/risk for the given application). This ensures that their entire life cycles fall within a statistical sweet spot for longevity, never deeply discharging nor fully charging the pack. A user's deliberately preventing their car from achieving an indicated "100%" charge (which is actually something far less) is therefore unnecessary, as that has already been protected by this artificial capacity range. While there might still be battery longevity benefits to further conservatism, I wouldn't concern myself with trying to stop charging my EV short of an indicated 100% every day.

Likewise, battery temperature control is such a critical issue that most EVs both cool and heat their battery packs during charging and operation, actually using not-insignificant power (and therefore affecting energy budget) to protect the battery pack and optimize its range performance. There's little that a user can do to improve upon this thermal management - indeed, many EVs will defend themselves with warnings and shutdowns when faced with conditions which threaten damage to their expensive propulsion battery pack.

That said, experts appear to agree that frequent "topping off" of a lithium-based battery pack whenever practical does contribute to prolonged capacity performance. Because we attempt to exclusively use our EV for transportation, my choice is to charge it whenever I'm home, regardless of its state of charge when I return. My sensibility is that in the event of an unexpected transportation need, I want as much range as possible as soon as possible.

When we got our first EV four years ago, I made spreadsheets to compare and evaluate several charging options, and determined that choosing to charge our EV on an automated schedule during off-peak utility hours when rates were lower yielded minimal benefits - on the order of $200/year if we drove 10,000 miles. This was my financial justification for Always Plugging In. Likewise, the cost of installing a separate utility meter so that we could qualify for an EV discount from our utility was so high that we wouldn't break even from the $1,100 electrical contracting work for 6-7 years of discounted electricity - and that EV was a 36-month lease. 

These same principles generally apply to portable consumer products - their internal charging mechanisms attempt to shield the battery from deep discharge and overcharge. It is still true that consumers can benefit from charging their phones or laptops as much as possible. And unlike cars, it's very easy to leave a phone or laptop in the sun in a window or car and irreparably damage or severely cripple the battery in one event.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Solar-Powered Electric Motorhome? Not Exactly

This recent article reported about the “e.home” concept motorhome being displayed by German leisure vehicle manufacturer Dethleffs.

Many casual readers might interpret this story (which is NOT in fact an actual product announcement, but only the debut of a “concept vehicle”) as suggesting that it is a “solar powered RV.” I hope to communicate here the reality of what is and is not possible regarding solar power and an electrically-propelled RV.

As an owner of a small diesel-powered motorhome and having exclusively driven electrically-powered vehicles as a “daily driver” for the past four years, I’ve frequently done hobby number-crunching to understand the realities of living with a motor vehicle which carries less stored energy than a single gallon of gasoline. I’ve also had to calculate our energy requirements when “dry camping” - going for days “off the grid” depending entirely upon the power stored in what amount to a couple of large automotive-style batteries.

The "home" part of a motor home has very modest power requirements - a couple of hundred watts worth of PVs (photovoltaic panels) can indefinitely maintain "house batteries" to allow frugal power use for lighting and modest ventilation, water pumping and communications/computing requirements. Heating and cooling the cabin beyond 20F differentials between ambient conditions and target interior temperatures requires thousands of watts of power. The Dethleffs e.home features a couple of nice ideas to address cooler climates (like Germany): a way of storing daytime solar warmth in the form of phase-change materials (like the resuable medical heat packs that can be activated on demand, and “reset” by melting their crystallized contents in a microwave oven) for release during cool evenings; and electrically-generated heat delivered to the users via radiant heat - as through warmed floors - which provides comfort in cool climates without attempting to directly heat the cabin air.

Our “small” 11,000 pound diesel-powered Class-C motor home is capable of 20mpg at 60mph - quite good in a category where similar RVs can get single-digit mileage. Driving electric cars around the streets of Los Angeles, we’ve averaged 4.5 miles/kilowatt-hour - this fuel efficiency can be represented as “151 MPGe.” “MPGe” is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s unit of measurement to allow consumers to compare the efficiencies of gasoline-powered internal combustion engines with those of alternatively-fueled vehicles. So the suggestion here is that our BMW i3 has been using stored electrical energy as efficiently as a gasoline-powered vehicle that could go 151 similarly-driven miles on a single gallon of gas.

The article mentions that the 3,000 watts of solar panels “help provide power to its electric drivetrain.” That’s a generous allowance, if potentially misleading. Pushing a small Class-C motorhome through the air at cross-country travel velocities using electochemical batteries is an ugly energy use proposition. The claimed battery capacity for the e.home is 228 amp-hours - about 4 times the capacity of today's typical 80-100 mile EVs, and about the same as a mid-sized Tesla Model S or X battery. Such a battery pack would likely weigh and cost 4 times as much (3K-5K pounds, and $25K-$40K) as typical EV battery arrays.

I estimate that pushing the e.home through the air on level ground at 60mph requires about 40kW (54bhp), which is using stored power over 40 times the rate at which it can charge from sunlight. (Aerodynamic loading is exponential, meaning that the power requirements square with the speed. So if it takes 10 horsepower to push the shape through the air at 30mph, it takes 40 hp to push it at 60mph.)

Three kilowatts (3kW) of photovoltaic panels aren't really going to have much charging impact upon an estimated 72 kW/hours of propulsion battery storage. Even if the e.home were parked in the sun, in the summer, close to the equator, in front of a mirrored wall to expose all the panels at once, it would take at least two days (72kWh/3kW = 24 hours) to restore a fully depleted battery. In real life, days are partly-cloudy, one lives in an arbitrary region below the Arctic Circle and less than half the panels are exposed to the sun at any given time, and then at inefficient, oblique angles. During a 12 hour day, the average yield of 3 kilowatt array would be little more than 1kW. For every hour driven at 60mph, the e.home would require 40 hours of sunlight to replenish in those conditions. That would result in a very leisurely travel schedule. If the e.home were driven to full depletion (all modern battery systems actually preserve a significant proportion of the cells' actual charge to prevent damage), then stopped somewhere in the German countryside to allow the PV panels to top off the propulsion batteries in "mostly sunny" conditions, I guess that the the propulsion pack would achieve 100% charge about Day 8 (maybe Day 11 or 12 if it were short winter days , and maybe 14-16 if you were trying to heat the cabin very slightly with electricity).

The article does refer to a “plug-in motor home,” but again, this may be misleading. In the EV community, “plug-in” refers to motor vehicles which can be fueled by connecting them to the electric utiltiy. However, even this paradigm has its limiations. If a commuter drives 40 miles round-trip to work and home in a typical EV, the vehicle can be charged from any household outlet (so-called “Level 1” charging) in about 10 hours with no special equipment. Installing a “Level 2” EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) at one’s home or office allows charging at an increased rate so that the same 40 miles of battery use can be replenished in just two hours. Even at the higher Level 2 rate which is the most widely available public charging infrastructure, the e.home RV’s large 228Ah battery pack - similarly sized to the mid-sized batteries available in Tesla Model S and X cars - would take most of a day to fully replenish (~14-15 hours from depleted to full). (Most campgrounds have 30-50A power service at each RV site, allowing for similar or shorter EV charging times.) So even with plug-in charging rates 6-7 times higher than its solar panels can achieve, the e.home must plug in for at least 14 hours every 100 miles. (There is a faster commercial-only Level 3 charging infrastructure, but it is not widely distributed, and would almost certainly NOT exist along travel corridors conducive to camping.) If the e.home was plugged into a typical 6-7kW L2 charging station during a long summer day in the sunshine, the ~1kW contribution from its solar panels could shorten the charging time from depleted to full by an hour or so.

So this concept RV shouldn't be interpreted as a "solar powered vehicle" (the title of this article appropriately calls this a "solar-assisted" concept vehicle). Unfortunately, many casual readers won’t perceive that. There's a reason that those cockroach-shaped solar-powered vehicles you see college engineering students "racing" (at 50-60mph) across the Australian outback ride on bicycle tires, can be picked up (gently) by two people and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We reached a technological threshold some years ago beyond which it's been possible to build a vehicle which can propel a human at 60mph on level terrain using the sunlight that falls upon the approximate surface area of a conventional motor vehicle. That said, accomplishing this feat requires that such a machine be made of exotic, expensive materials to manage weight and reduce aerodynamic drag, and utilizes the most efficient photovoltaic panels and electric motors, with impracical cost implications for consumer products. The World Solar Challenge takes place across thousands of miles of sunless, hot Australia, and also exposes the drivers to vicious and even dangerous interior temperatures, yet no competitor risks adding performance-robbing weight with refrigeration systems. These vehicles also provide no specific protection in a collision with a conventional vehicle, which weighs 10 to 20 times as much.

So can an RV be propelled by sunlight generated by its own photovoltaic panels?

Photovoltaic panels for residential use currently cost ~$3/watt and achieve efficiencies of 8-10 watts per square foot. So a fantasy solar-PROPELLED RV equipped with 100kW of PVs (so that the 80kW motor can operate in overcast conditions, and can have some reserve power to accelerate and climb hills, in addition to a 40kW cruise demand) would cost at least $300K for the PV panels alone (not including physical support infrastructure, plus interconnecting wiring and control circuitry, or batteries for load surges). The PVs would take 10,000 square feet of surface area. Figure 20% loss in area to framing, so that 12,000 sq ft of area is necessary to mount the solar panels. The surface area of a 53-foot semi-trailer is 450 square feet, so 26.6 trailers - we’ll round that up to 27 semi-trailers worth of PVs would be required to support the 100 kilowatt array. Unfortunately, the mass added by those 27 trailers exceeds the power produced by the 80 kilowatt motor in the RV, which can no longer move the $2M, 1/4 mile long solar road train. Point is, a self-contained solar-powered RV isn't in our future. For that matter, we won't likely be driving cars that are directly powered by the sun. Electrical energy storage will always be a part of the EV model, whether chemical, mechanical or otherwise.
It's certainly possible to travel entirely on _stored_ energy generated by sunlight - we do that when we use gasoline and diesel fuels, which store years of sunlight collected by living plants and allow us to release that energy in a fraction of the time. In fact, wind and hydroelectric energy production are ultimately driven by our Earth's solar-powered weather system. Only nuclear power (which uses radioactive material produced billions of years ago) is a non-solar power source we currently utilize to propel our motor vehicles (in some municipalities, including ours).
So, like many such announcements in our our current age, and appropriate to “concept vehicles,” the Deffleths e.home concept RV is more of a promotional idea than a product. All RVs could benefit from many of the efficiency features touted in the showcase vehicle. But the dream of an electrically-propelled RV that can recharge from sunlight on a self-contained system will remain a fantasy.
I welcome the future in which a electrically-powered RV might exist. I've explored the idea as a Thought Experiment many times, and have commented that it will be a real landmark in EV battery, propulsion and charging infrastructure technology when and if it becomes economically viable to perform long distance leisure travel with the weight loads of an RV (in current practice, RV design goals of utility and comfort increase vehicle weight from 3 to 10 times as much as a passenger vehicle).

I hope to see that.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

How Cabin _and_ Battery Preconditioning Work on the BMW i3

Blogger Tom Moloughney wrote this nice post describing the behavior and functionality of the BMW i3's "preconditioning" features.

Importantly, the i3 has preconditioning functionality for both its cabin climate system - whereby making the cabin comfortable for occupants regardless of ambient temperatures outside the vehicle - and also preconditioning for the high-voltage (propulsion) battery - which can significantly improve battery performance in extreme operating temperatures. BMW has not been particularly helpful in describing these two separate systems to i3 owners, and it's far from obvious how to use them to best advantage.

Tom Moloughney's BMW i3: Understanding How Preconditioning Works

Saturday, September 17, 2016

California Lifts Limit on Green Clean Air HOV Decals

Per California State Bill 838, signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 13, 2016, the limit on Green Clean Air Decals allowing qualifying single-occupancy vehicles to use High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV)-only lanes on California highways has been lifted. 

Previously, the green decals (issued to vehicle's satisfying California Air Resources Board's requirements for Transitional Zero-Emission Vehicles - primarily plug-in hybrid vehicles) were issued in finite batches. 40,000 decals were initially provisioned, and three subsequent state bills have issued extended the number of decals issued to a total of 85,000 as of June 2015.

Excerpted from SB-838:
Existing federal law, until September 30, 2019, authorizes a state to allow specified labeled low-emission and energy-efficient vehicles to use lanes designated for high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs). Existing federal law, until September 30, 2025, grants similar authority with respect to alternative fuel and electric vehicles.
Existing law authorizes the Department of Transportation to designate certain lanes for the exclusive use of HOVs, which lanes may also be used, until January 1, 2019, the expiration of a designated federal authorization relating to HOV facilities, or until the Secretary of State receives a specified notice, by certain low-emission, hybrid, or alternative fuel vehicles not carrying the requisite number of passengers otherwise required for the use of an HOV lane, if the vehicle displays a valid identifier issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Existing law authorizes the DMV to issue no more than 85,000 of those identifiers. A violation of provisions relating to HOV lane use by vehicles with those identifiers is a crime.
This bill would delete the maximum number of identifiers that the DMV is authorized to issue. The bill would extend the operation of the above provisions for super ultra-low emission vehicles and ultra-low emission vehicles, as defined, to January 1, 2019. However, with respect to vehicles that meet the state’s enhanced advanced technology partial zero-emission vehicle standard or transitional zero-emission vehicle standard, the provisions would be operative only until the earlier of January 1, 2019, the date of the federal authorization, or the receipt date of the notice by the Secretary of State. The bill would require the Department of Transportation to prepare and submit a report to the Legislature by December 1, 2017, on the degradation status of high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the state highway system.
So green decals will again be issued, beginning with applicants who had already submitted paperwork and have been in a queue awaiting the possible issuance of additional decals. 

California Clean Vehicle Rebate Program (CVRP) Gets Funding for 2016-17!

The California Clean Vehicle Rebate Program encourages residents of the state to drive zero-emission or plug-in hybrid light-duty vehicles by providing cash rebates of up to $2,500 for EVs (and up to $5,000 for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles). 

In June of 2016, funding for the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Program stalled as the State of California failed to resolve its budget. CVRP applicants were informed that they would be placed on a waitlist, and if the state eventually approved funding, checks would be issued to waitlisted applicants in chronological order.

On September 14, 2016, California lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 1613, which provides $133 million in new funding to cover waitlisted CVRP applications and applications made during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Checks will begin to be issued immediately to waitlisted applicants, according to a CVRP representative I spoke to yesterday at AltCar Expo

AB-1613 will also introduce income cap restrictions on CVRP applicants, apparently in response to complaints that CVRP funds were being inequitably sapped by high-income households purchasing Tesla Model S and Model X products, thus depriving low- and middle-income families from participation (which was particularly pointed when the program actually ran out of funding). Effective starting November 2016, CVRP rebates will only be available to filers with joint income under $300,000 and individual filers with incomes under $150K.  

$80 million of the newly approved California budget will be directed toward the new Plus-up Program, which provides rebates of $5,000 to $9,500 (an additional $2,500 rebate is available to purchasers of new eligible zero-emission vehicles - California's incentive to put more EVs into the ecosystem) to lower-income applicants who turn in higher-polluting vehicles (over 8 years old, which must then be scrapped) and purchase low- and zero-emissions replacement vehicles. Eligible participants choosing not to replace their vehicle can opt for a mass-transit voucher worth $2,500 to $4,500, depending upon income level. 

Funds for AB-1613 are generated by cap-and-trade revenue, wherein the State of California penalizes corporate entities for exceeding greenhouse gas quotas, and purposes those funds for pollution-reducing projects such as the CVRP.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Japan Has More Electric Charging Stations Than Gas Stations

According to this article from Transport Evolved, Japan now has more public and private charging points than gas stations. The article says Nissan claims 40,000 charging sites, versus 34,000 gas stations.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Attending the 2015 AltCar Expo

September 18, 2015, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium

• • • • • • •

This year marked our fourth attendance of the AltCar Expo Ride & Drive in Santa Monica, California. Attendance was a little light, but it was a Friday during business hours. There seemed to be a little less manufacturer participation as well, but there were also a few new players, notably Kia and Audi. Next month marks the beginning of our final of three years of our Ford Focus Electric’s lease, so we’re considering the possibilities.
Here are the cars I drove at this year’s event, in no particular order:
Toyota Mirai - This is the first-ever mass-produced hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to be made available to the public for purchase. The Honda FCX Clarity and the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell are both limited-production developmental projects which have been available for lease in specific geographic markets.


As you can see in the photos, the Mirai isn't a beauty - distinctly Japanese and with a bit of show-car bravado. But I agree that these shouldn’t be mistaken for ordinary vehicles - I don’t know if Toyota plans to make money with these, but their promotional value as a technological milestone for consumers has value. Driving the Mirai was similar to the other fuel-cell vehicles I’ve driven: they feel like a lightweight electric vehicle. Most BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles, using only batteries for energy storage) have noticeable mass for their size (though this has been improving in the last few years). Fuel-cell vehicles don’t lug around big batteries (though they still have a small “hybrid”-sized pack - see note below), and it results in noticeable lightness compared to their BEV cousins. The Mirai had peppy performance (as much as we could tell circulating our one-block test circuit, in heavy Santa Monica traffic), and felt like a modern car. Notably, brake/regen harvesting transitions, which only a few years ago resulted in unexpected surges during traffic stop braking, were absent from the all vehicles I test-drove at this year’s AltCar event. Fit and finish on the Mirai was slick, as it should be for a $57,500 car. Toyota will also offer a $500/month lease program. Potential purchasers/lessees will have to qualify based upon their geographical proximity to hydrogen fueling stations (all current fuel-cell vehicles offered to the general public use gaseous hydrogen stored at pressures approaching 10,000-psi).


Toyota offers complimentary fuel for three years for purchasers of Mirais, and both buyers and lessees are eligible for a $5,000 California incentive rebate. Toyota failed in an initial application round for a Federal $10K rebate, and is re-filing. Availability of the Mirai will be the last quarter of 2015.

HYDROGEN FUELING
We live 4.5 miles from the nearest station in Burbank, California - that’s pretty darn close, given the scarcity of these facilities. Range of the Mirai is EPA rated at 312 miles. Talking to a Mercedes rep about hydrogen stations, he said that the Burbank station was “old,” and I told him I’d looked at the Google Street View of the site and seen that it was very industrial. Such is life at the bleeding edge. But he commented that a few new sites “in the area” (the next closest is 30 miles away) were opening this year. In talking about infrastructure, he indicated that because of the state’s commitment to hydrogen vehicle research programs, it was possible to travel almost the entire state of California. But making the trip to Las Vegas was short by a single fueling stop, because California and Nevada couldn’t decide who would build the border-adjacent station. The Mercedes rep also said that this fueling station was also busy, and that was a problem because “if there are other cars in front of you, you have to wait for the fueling station to make more fuel.” I didn’t ask what this comment meant, but I’d never heard reference to “making hydrogen” at fueling sites. As it turns out, the Burbank fueling station is in fact extracting gaseous hydrogen from natural gas.
Chevrolet Bolt - That’s not a typo, that’s the name of Chevy’s just-announced BEV (good luck to Chevy service reps talking to “Volt” and “Bolt” owners on the phone).






What we saw at AltCar was the Bolt show car which debuted at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show this past January, and we weren’t allowed to touch it, much less drive it. (I talked to their factory rep, and the show car can actually move up to 5 mph under its own power - “to drive on stage,” I said, and he laughed.) Shortly after the Detroit show, Chevrolet officially announced that it will put the Bolt into production. I asked the rep for any details, and the only two bullet points that they are committing to are price and range: $30K and 200 miles. Most of today’s EV offerings have ranges hovering around 80 miles, dictated by battery cost and weight. The Tesla Model S claims a range of up to 270 miles, but that vehicle costs over $90K and weighs 5,000 pounds. In our experience, with our lifestyle, our Focus Electric’s nominal 80-mile range has served us well for the past two years. But extending the travel radius on a single charge to almost 100 miles would obviously accommodate a considerably larger audience (some sources claim Americans drive an average of under 40 miles daily). I like the show car’s look, but I know better than to expect much of that to make it to production. The Chevy rep allowed that production probably wouldn’t be until at least the 2017 model year, and maybe not even then.


2016 Chevrolet Volt - When we were car-shopping in the Fall of 2013, the Volt was on our short list of candidates. Its estimated 38 mile battery-only range really makes a difference with regard to our lifestyle - other plug-in hybrids claiming 20-21 miles would come just short of a round-trip we make frequently. Its unusually large battery was probably cleverly sized by GM to qualify for the maximum federal and state incentive refunds - at the time, it was the only gas-electric hybrid to qualify. My wife and I both liked its appearance, and we felt good about GM's commitment to making an "electric car with an engine," rather than the many electric-assisted hybrids which had existed for some time.
An early production prototype of the 2016 Chevrolet Volt 

The test-drive Volt was a 2015 model 

However, there were a couple of unexpected deal-breakers, and both involved forward visibility. Like a lot of contemporary American sedans, the 2013/14 Volts featured a high beltline, sinking the driver down below a surrounding wall of doors and dashboard. Along with its raked windshield, this made for a gun-slit forward view from the front seats, and little sense of the locations of the forward corners of the vehicle. My wife is vulnerable to motion-sickness, and when someone has this propensity, of paramount importance is that they have a constant visual reference of the horizon. Having the forward view obscured by something at shoulder-height means that the slightest downward tilt of the head results in loss of visual contact with the horizon through the windshield. We test-drove a Volt a second time in 2013, and by raising the passenger seat to maximum height, it ameliorated the problem, but not enough. For me, the Volt’s combination of massive A-pillars, an opaque windshield border applique and a windshield rake that put the A-pillar almost a foot from my head created an obstruction which could obscure an entire motor vehicle only a few car-lengths away. Together, these characteristics took the Volt off our list of potential candidates. When we sat in a 2016 production prototype at AltCar Expo, my wife thought the windshield base/dashboard top looked noticeably lower. We then drove a 2015 demonstrator and concluded that Chevrolet had made changes which diminished the gun-slit effect. I still find the Volt’s interior (indeed, every GM vehicle I’ve driven in decades) somehow ill-fitting, banging my head into the roof above the door opening, and poking my elbows with the center console and door interior panels.
During our test-drive, I was asking for a refresher about available driving modes, and the Chevy rep said that because people had been driving it all day, the Volt’s battery was depleted, so we wouldn’t be driving on battery-only mode. What? I’ve previously mentioned the Volt’s Mountain Mode, a too-complicated-for-consumers option to force the Volt to retain and build up battery charge for an upcoming grade ascent (as though people knew when a slope was approaching). And the Volt has a gasoline engine which primarily drives a generator to propel the vehicle via electric motor (and under special circumstances, propel the vehicle via a sort of physical connection to the wheels). Though I understood that Volts might deplete their battery during a prolonged high-speed run or hill climb, why should a car that’s cruising around the block all day and idling between kill its battery?

Wow. I just discovered this Consumer Reports article about the Volt’s Mountain Mode which describes it in a completely different way than any article I’ve ever read. And it makes the most sense. They’re saying that due to the EPA’s (and thus GM’s) priority on environmental impact, the Volt is programmed to utilize the stored battery energy first to minimize emissions during vehicle evaluation - so that’s how Chevrolet configures it. This explains why the battery on the test vehicle I drove yesterday was “dead” - in Normal and Sport driving modes, the Volt depletes the battery first, then switches to gasoline. Engaging Mountain Mode merely “hides” 10 miles of range from the system, so that it switches to gas while there is actually more capacity left in the battery (and in truth, all battery-powered vehicles don’t come close to discharging completely, in the interest of battery longevity). Later in a journey, when the Volt owner needs extra oomph to make a grade at speed (or just to cruise around a little town square silently), you switch back to Normal or Sport, and the reserved battery capacity is available. The article mentions that non-U.S. Volts (and some other plug-in hybrids) not bound by EPA goals have a “Preserve” mode which allows the user to save and utilize battery power on demand.

The 2016 Volt will have a higher-capacity battery (18.4kWh vs 17.1), increasing its battery-only range from a stated 38 miles to 50 - not insignificant at all, when the goal is to accommodate the daily range of a potential customer (and with the fudge-factor of the Volt’s gas engine, a far less critical parameter to get absolutely correct than those of us with electric-only propulsion). Chevy has also lopped 200 pounds off the car, which I find impressive. The 2016’s exterior appearance is the most dramatic change in the car’s history. The new bodywork is nice and swoopy, but I still find the original a handsome shape.

According to this Car & Driver 2016 Volt article, the drivetrain sounds as though it’s been completely changed. A different engine, two smaller electric motors versus the previous large/small motor arrangement, and chain(!) drive from the motors to the diff are some of the changes. C&D refers to the 2016 model as the “Volt II.” I don’t know if that’s an official Chevy line or their own.

The Car & Driver article says that the 2016 Volt has a “regen paddle” on the steering wheel, which allows the driver to momentarily switch to an aggressive regen mode by fingertip gesture. I like this - I’d like to have explicit control over regenerative braking in an EV (see my comments about driving our Focus Electic in “Low” mode below).
While just looking up the 2015 Volt’s stated range, I noticed something I’d forgotten about - the Volt’s onboard charger has only been a 3.3kW device, upgrading to 3.6kW for 2016. But most BEVs since 2013 have featured a minimum 6.6kW charger. What does this mean? That when those of us with 6.6kW chargers anticipate charging times, we use “20 miles per hour” as a rough guide. If we’re traveling 110 miles during a day, I’ll figure a 10+ mile pad, so 120 total miles. The ~80 mile range of our full battery means we need 40 additional miles, or 2 hours x 20 miles/hour of charge time - a long meal while the car is plugged in. A Volt would take twice as long - 10-11 miles per hour - but then a Volt doesn’t actually HAVE to charge to complete its journey - a BEV does. 
An EV blog author interviewed a GM Volt engineer in 2011 about the behavior of the Volt’s powertrain. The engineer was evasive about describing the true nature of operation, because he correctly assumed that the details were beyond the audience’s comprehension. Unsatisfied, the blog subsequently published a presentation of the Volt’s powertrain theory of operation by Pamela Fletcher, Chief Chevrolet Engineer for Global Voltec and Plug-in Hybrid Systems. The video is a handheld camera shooting a projected presentation, but the content is worth the watch. Most interesting to me is the complex way that the Volt’s IC engine can contribute to mechanically propelling the vehicle: by engaging two of the system’s three clutches, the IC engine can then apply torque to the rotor the smaller of two motors (diagram), and that in turn can only apply torque to the stator housing of the larger propulsion motor. Only by energizing the stators of both motors (with power from the battery pack) can the IC engine’s torque be transmitted to the road wheels, and then only under special conditions. GM engineer Andrew Farah made it sound as though the Volt engineering team had realized that this mode was possible without intending that as part of the original design. I think that the 2016 Volt may use a different strategy.

Volkswagen e-Golf - The 2015 e-Golf is essentially unchanged from the first-year 2014 model (which I drove at last year’s AltCar, but never reported about).



I don’t have any strong impressions about this year’s drive - it’s a typical modern EV, with light controls (overboosted steering, light pedal effort), and competent performance. It’s the only modern Golf I’ve ever been in, and as my wife said, it’s kind of a “clown car” - very roomy on the inside. A very German touch (that I like very much): there are four levels of regenerative braking mode aggression.

Kia Soul EV - The Soul EV actually debuted in the 2015 model year, and I’ve seen the same one twice in public (in our medical center’s parking garage, all the EVs compete for a pair of 120VAC outlets which they’ve discovered at the end of a row).



What the Soul EV brings to the EV market is its unique form-factor (previously occupied by the Toyota Rav4 EV, a limited-production vehicle from 1997-2003, and a second-generation product using a Tesla powertrain from 2012 to 2014) and a class-leading range of 93 miles (while most EVs in the price class have around 80 miles of range). The Soul EV is also relatively inexpensive at $31,950 (before the $7,500 Federal tax credit). The interior feels like most modern vehicles, with lots of shiny plastic and fancy bezels around things that feel like consumer high-tech products. The interior space is as generous as the exterior suggests.


The Soul EV was a competent vehicle to drive, with pretty good control feel (my metrics about EV driving have changed after two years as an EV owner - but many idiosyncratic qualities of EVs have been addressed in the last two years). The Soul EV incorporates the fastest standardized class of charging technology, providing a CHAdeMO port for this so-called “Level 3” charging, in addition to the more common SAE J1772 “Level 2” port.
MORE ABOUT CHARGING: 
Chargers - In modern EVs, the hardware which conditions incoming electricity to a form appropriate for the battery pack and which manages the process of adding electrical charge to the electric vehicle’s battery is incorporated into the vehicle itself. Charging technology monitors the battery pack’s charge state and temperature - in many modern EVs, actually heating and cooling the pack to compensate for ambient temperature as well as increased temperatures from charging.

EVSE - This acronym for Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment may often be inappropriately referred to as a “charger,” but the EVSE - the box that mounts on the wall and sports a long, thick cable to the connector that plugs into the car - acts as an electrical liaison between the electrical supply source and the EV’s on-board charging system. Among the EVSE’s functions, it serves as a safety device for human users, only energizing the high-current, high-voltage connection after it has communicated with the device to which it is attached and determined that it is an electric vehicle. During this “handshake” interaction, the vehicle and EVSE communicate their specifications and requirements, after which the EVSE begins to flow current and the EV’s charger only pulls as much maximum current as the EVSE has reported it can provide. 
Connectors - The most common connector standard between EVSEs and EVs is currently the SAE J1772. J1772 jacks have been in common use by EV auto manufacturers since 2010, and the plugs can be found on all public EVSE stations, as well as the Level 1 EVSEs included with EVs. Higher-power DC Fast Charging was first provided via the massive and ridiculously-named CHAdeMO connector. More recently, the SAE’s new “Combined Charging System” connector (also massive) has begun to appear (on the Chevy Spark EV and BMW i3). Sometimes referred to as a “Combo J1772” (not an official moniker), the connector combines a backward-compatible J1772 jack positioned above a pair of 200-amp pins for high-voltage DC. Tesla uses a proprietary connector for its ultra-fast Supercharger technology, but provides adapters for 120VAC (NEMA 5-15 - the common household AC outlet), 240VAC (NEMA 14-50 - typical of electric stoves) and a J1772 adapter. Tesla also sells adapters to plug your Model S into just about any kind of AC power outlet you might encounter in your travels. 
Level 1 charging refers to charging via familiar household 120 volt AC outlets. These EVSEs draw less than 15 amps, allowing users to plug EVs in almost anywhere. Almost every plug-in EV includes a Level 1 EVSE stored in the vehicle. However, at this power level, charging takes place at a leisurely rate: L1 charging typically adds something around 4 miles of range per hour of charging. This might seem impractical for EVs with 80 miles of range (never mind the nearly 100 hours it could take to top off a fully-depleted Tesla Model S), but the actual goal of fueling is to reach one’s target destination, and not necessarily to completely top-off the energy storage medium. So adding 35 miles of range during an 8 hour work day while plugged into an outdoor outlet at one’s workplace may be all that’s necessary to complete an otherwise impossible round-trip to home.

Level 2 charging represents the common public EV charging infrastructure, as well as the highest rate of charging that consumers can install at home (L3 is not available to the consumer). Level 2 charging typically adds around 20 miles of range per hour (varying with vehicle weight, efficiency, and charging station current) from a 240VAC connection drawing about 30 amps (the Tesla Model S charger pulls 40A; Tesla owners who install a $2,000 “dual charging” option to their Model S can pull 80A, adding almost 60 miles of charge per hour). As of 2015, most current EVs have on-board chargers supporting 6.6 kilowatt charging.

For owners of “plug-in hybrids,” who have much smaller battery packs and the option of continuing their journey with traditional hydrocarbon fuels and have ranges of typical petroleum-fueled vehicles, I’d advise against the not-insignificant cost of paying an electrician $400-2,000 to install an $800-$1,500 Level 2 EVSE at their home. It’s not worth the benefit of charging a 20-mile range battery in 1 hour instead of 5 hours, since a plug-in hybrid user can immediately begin any unanticipated journey on petroleum fuels, even with a fully-depleted battery.

As an owner of a Battery Electric Vehicle, my priority is to have maximum range available as soon as possible, so I consider maximum charging rate critical. Likewise, I eschew the modest benefits of “off peak charging” (my research revealed that it would take us over six years to offset the $1,100 cost of adding the separate power meter required for off-peak discounted electricity. Ultimately, I realized that I was happy to spend an extra $200/year for the worst-case scenario of on-peak electricity rates, so that our EV would be ready for maximum range service at any given moment.
Level 3 “DC Fast Charging” - only provided by public infrastructure, this system supplies up to 500 DC volts at up to up to 125 amps. Completely bypassing a vehicle’s built-in charging infrastructure, DC Fast Charging stations do conversions from AC to DC off-board in commercial-only hardware, and connect directly to batteries on vehicles supporting the standard. Very few DC Fast Charging stations currently exist, and I find it little incentive to make a vehicle purchasing decision at present. Even if you found one of the rare DC Fast Charging stations mid-way between two waypoints you needed to travel on a regular basis, the consequences of a station being non-functional would be catastrophic (your 30-minute “top off” could become a 4-hour charge, provided that you found a Level 2 charger nearby). Vehicles currently providing DC Fast Charging include Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Spark EV, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Tesla Model S, BMW i3 and Kia Soul EV.
There seems to be no disagreement that charging batteries at DC Fast Charging rates is detrimental to battery longevity. Most manufacturers advise against “regular use” of DC Fast Charging. From page CH-7 of the 2013 Nissan Leaf owner’s manual: “NISSAN recommends using normal charging for usual charging of the vehicle. Use of quick charge should be minimized in order to help prolong Li-ion battery life.” Recent studies have suggested that the effects of regular DC Fast Charging have not proven as deleterious as originally thought. 
Diminishing Battery Capacity Over Time - even though this is a familiar characteristic of battery-powered devices, it presents a strange new paradigm for automobile operation. A vehicle which might have perfectly accommodated someone’s regular commute in the first years of ownership might no longer work as the vehicle’s batteries age. Consider a scenario where the owner of a new EV with a typical 23 kWh battery pack commutes round-trip to work 35 miles away on a mixed highway/surface-street route, returning to their home driveway at night with 9 miles of estimated range remaining. The remaining charge provides enough pad to make a 10-mile side trip, which on low-speed surface streets still leaves 5 miles showing on the range gauge when arriving at home. Four years later, the same battery pack has lost 15% of its capacity, and the EV can no longer complete the round trip reliably. Consider, too, that battery performance varies dramatically with ambient temperatures - another reason that California is a hotspot for EVs. Between battery temps and cockpit heat range impact, EVs operating in colder climates start off with a huge performance handicap. For some perspective: Nissan’s battery warranty for the Nissan Leaf’s propulsion battery only guarantees “nine bars” - which journalists quote as being “70 per cent” of full battery capacity. 
An interesting page about a UK automotive blog’s staff Nissan Leaf and its battery capacity history. I had not given much thought to battery charge times increasing with age - not a problem for some EV lifestyles, but for those actually trying to charge mid-trip, something to consider. 
Watch this nice explanation of how lithium-ion batteries lose voltage and capacity over time. 
A Leaf owner community Wiki which is aggregating battery-capacity reports.

BMW i3 - I’ve been sort of gushing about driving an i3 ever since last year’s AltCar Expo. Not because of its extreme aesthetic choices, inside and out (I’m OK with the i3’s appearance - my wife, not so much), or because of the caché of its brand, but because thus far, the i3 has the most unique and aggressive approach to regenerative braking control.




When driving our Ford Focus Electric, regenerative braking activity is indicated by a spinning indicator on one of the Focus’ three LCD displays. If the “Braking Coach” feature is enabled, the Focus reports a braking score at each full stop. While the Braking Coach helps to train the driver how to most efficiently harvest some of the vehicle’s momentum when braking, the driver never really knows how much braking is being done by the motor in generate mode and how much energy is being converted to heat by the conventional friction brakes. There is no feedback to indicate where the regen/friction transition takes place in the pedal travel (although I think the first inch of travel or so probably signals that regen can begin to contribute). I choose to drive in the Focus’ “Low” shifter position (presumably designed for hill descent, the owner’s manual basically says to put the car in “D” and not worry about it) almost full-time, to give me readier access to regen at the expense of perhaps too-sensitive off-throttle motor-braking. In “Drive,” most EVs exhibit no motor-braking at all at throttle lift, coasting freely on low rolling-resistance tires and low drag bodywork. This freewheeling can be an alarming experience for the typical driver - at lower speeds, it can feel as though the vehicle’s cruise control is active. In the more-aggressive regen modes, EVs tend to motor-brake with the resistance I’d liken to engine-braking with a 5-speed manual transmission in a ratio between 2nd and 3rd. It takes a little practice to educate your foot/brain to adapt to this much off-throttle braking. During the rare opportunities to engage the Focus’ cruise control (traffic is rarely that predictable here in Los Angeles, and we’re never taking long trips in the EV), I’ll shift to “D” mode, so that cancelling Cruise doesn’t result in the somewhat sudden loss of speed which would occur if in “L” mode.

In the BMW i3, regenerative braking is the most aggressive I’ve ever experienced. At lower parking-lot speeds of 10-15mph, abruptly lifting off throttle actually nose-dives the car, more than lifting in 1st gear in a 5-speed. As speeds increase, the deceleration is somewhat more gentle. There is noticeable “gear whine” at lower speed off-throttle, and I wonder if BMW are using a continuously variable transmission to allow maximum harvest at any speed. BMW chooses to go even further, however - the i3 can be driven in traffic with no brake pedal use at all. Both times I’ve driven an i3, I drove aggressively in busy traffic, and only in the most extreme cases had to resort to using the brake pedal. For the rest of my short test drives, all full stops were accomplished by modulating the accelerator pedal alone. Perhaps because of this, the i3’s pedal effort for accelerator and brake are quite high - and far more than the too-light pedals of all the other EVs I’ve driven. I asked the BMW rep last year if the i3 was displaying brake lights when I was simply lifting off throttle, and he said yes. So that’s a bold choice - even a paradigm change in driving - which BMW have decided to make. And it’s that bold choice that makes it one of my favorite EVs. I love the idea that if I’m willing to adjust to a novel vehicle behavior (which I’ve already done to whatever degree our Focus Electric does regen), the EV is able to recapture as much energy as it can.



For almost $4,000, you can buy in i3 with a Range Extender option, which is a two-cylinder, 647cc gasoline engine driving a 34 hp generator. This increases the claimed range of the i3 from 81 miles to 150. Why so little difference? Last year, I don’t think I ever heard that the gasoline tank was only 1.9 gallons. Had I heard that figure, I’d have wondered why it was so miniscule. I’m still not sure what the whole answer is, but something I overheard from a BMW rep talking to a group of AltCar Conference attendees (concurrent to the Ride & Drive event, there are paid presentations by industry speakers) was eye-opening. I heard him say, “you can’t drive it to San Francisco” and something about the Range Extender engine not being intended to run for extended periods of time. So BMW thinks that users would be willing to pay $4K to sometimes be able to go 70 miles further than the battery’s 80 miles. Actually, in our experience, living where we do, and going where we go, that 150 miles pretty well defines the handful of maximum-distance trips we’ve undertaken in the Focus Electric, which required no small amount of pre-planning (finding a primary, secondary and tertiary charging location, all with something to eat or do while we charged) regarding a mandatory mid-trip refueling stop. I don’t think we’ve yet done a journey that required TWO charging stops. Would I pay $4K more for the Range Extender? Yeah, If I were already into the $43K for the i3. Sure. (Our 2013 Focus Electric’s MSRP was $39,995, which dropped to $33K in 2014 and is now $30K. $7,500 Federal and $2,500 California rebates apply, and there are some smaller incentives from energy special-interest groups and electric utility companies.)
I mentioned this “limited operation of the Range Extender” story to a friend recently. He has a relative who is a BMW dealer mechanic, and he reports that a current issue is that some i3 owners - in defiance of BMW’s instructions to limit the operation of the Extended Range engine - are driving the vehicle as far and as long as they like. As a result, BMW dealerships are seeing a significant number of failures related to those tiny engines, and have been struggling with holding the owners responsible for violating their recommended restrictions on operation. 

The BMW i3 was - in the wake of the demise of the Fisker Karma - the only pure series hybrid electric vehicle on the market. This describes a system (like a diesel-electric locomotive) in which all propulsion is provided by electrical motors, and the internal-combustion engine serves only to drive an electrical generator, the output of which can be utilized to propel the vehicle or charge the battery pack. No mechanical connection exists between the IC engine and the road wheels.

I would be remiss not to mention the bizarrely-sized wheels and tires on the i3. In profile, they look like any modern low-profile tire on a big 19” wheel. Only they’re not as low-profile as they seem. Walk around to the front or back, and you’ll discover that the tires are Datsun 240-Z width 155/70-19s on 5-inch wide wheels. The i3’s base curb weight is a mere 2,799 pounds, so there’s less of a disadvantage with those skinny tires than, say, our Focus Electric’s low rolling-resistance 225/50-17, which have to deal with the FFE’s noticeable 3,640 pounds, as well as its impressive torque.
This Car & Driver article talks about i3 owners performing a software “hack” to increase the capacity of their tiny (1.9 gallon) gas tank (in the “range extender” models).

BMW i8 - BMW wasn't giving test-drives of their $135K plug-in hybrid semi-exotic, but as with most alternative fuel events we've attended in the past two years, they did have one on display.


Here's a brief clip of the i8 Safety Car from this year's inaugural Formula E race in Long Beach :

Chevrolet Spark EV - When we first drove the Spark EV in 2013, and subsequently considered buying or leasing one, there were three big bullet points: low cost, BAGS of torque and a cheesy, plasticky interior. Actually, a fourth bullet point was that it was one of the few vehicles with DC Fast Charging, but since there were almost NO DC Fast Charging facilities (there still aren’t many), we dismissed that feature from our decisions.
The 2013 Spark EV’s interior was monochrome plastic, with visible body-color painted metal surrounding it. “Cheap,” we kept saying. I didn’t want to care about that - the car leased for only $199/month, after all - but boy, was it cheap. The interior of the 2015 Spark EV we drove was significantly improved - just some simple ideas with two colors of plastic, and a bit of the piano-black and chrome that plagues many modern car instrument panels - but the overall effect was notably improved.


Did I say “bags of torque?” The 2013 Spark EV weighed just under 3,000 pounds, and the motor was rated at 399 foot/pounds of peak torque. Yes, that’s right, a number that’s as big as 400 cubic-inch V-8s used to make, but available at ANY RPM, if the speed controller allows it. To compensate for the inevitable problems of peak torque at 0 RPM, all EV manufacturers profile their motor’s speed controllers to limit torque at lower speeds. Despite that, getting the 2013 Spark EV’s tires to spin at speeds up to about 30mph was just a matter of dipping the throttle pedal a bit - it was a blast. This year, Chevy quotes the max torque at 327 ft/lbs - so they’ve dialed the character of the car down a bit. The stubby little econobox drove well, and much better represents the entry-level EV market that Chevy hoped to get. The 2015 Spark EV features the new SAE Combo Connector, which replaces the CHAdeMO connector of earlier models. It’s still not much of an incentive for us, but perhaps when we are replacing our Focus in a year, the charging infrastructure picture will have improved in this regard.

The Spark EV's SAE Combo Connector combines the ubiquitous J1772 connector with two additional pins which carry high-voltage current for DC Fast Charging

Mercedes F-Cell - The F-Cell program began in 2002 (we saw one of these at an Alternative Fuels event in 2003). Starting in 2010, Mercedes-Benz leased 70 of these hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles in California (and as many as 500 in Europe) as part of a research and marketing program. Today, about 60 of those California vehicles are still in service, and M-B is still offering a 2-year lease program. I think the Mercedes rep said that the lease was now $299/month (it was twice that two years ago, and it was $849 in 2010), and includes fuel. There aren’t many hydrogen fueling stations (the F-Cell stores gaseous hydrogen at up to 10,000 psi), but we live 4.5 miles from one. Unfortunately, the F-Cell lease program will probably be closed to new lessees by the time our current lease ends October 2016.





The F-Cell is a nice car. I don’t have any point of reference about contemporary Mercedes-Benz vehicles, and it’s not exactly posh, but it’s tidy and competent. Like other fuel-cell vehicles I’ve driven, the electric propulsion seems like any other EV, but because it lacks the mass of a full-sized battery pack, it feels more like - well, a normal car.

A photo of a first-generation Mercedes-Benz F-Cell that I took at an alternative fuels event in Griffith Park, Los Angeles in 2003

BATTERIES IN FUEL-CELL CARS
Only during this year’s event did I realize that all of the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles offered thus far also employ traditional batteries. I believe that the purpose is two-fold (at least): to provide the benefits of regenerative braking; and to provide vehicles with more peak current for acceleration than is supplied by the fuel-cell stack. This reduces the output requirements of the stack to something more than maximum sustained cruising (plus some specified road grade). During my test-drive, I noticed a gauge in the F-Cell labeled “F-Cell” which indicated values from 0 to 100. When I asked the road-test rep what that gauge indicated, he said that it was “how much charge the F-Cell had,” and that its current indicated 100 meant “that it was fully charged.” I think this means that when the vehicle is “run” mode, the fuel-cell stack tops off the lithium-ion pack whenever it has opportunity, preparing for a maximum-load acceleration/climate-control demand.


Audi A3 Sportback e-tron® - my friend Nathan (an Audi owner) received an “invitation” from Audi to test-drive this new 2016 offering a few weeks before AltCar Expo. When he forwarded the invite to me, it was the first I’d heard of the product. The A3 e-tron will be Audi’s first plug-in hybrid, and I’ve just read that they announced their intentions to offer plug-in hybrid versions of all their vehicle categories - the plug-in Q7 will debut next year.



Driving an A3 e-tron at an alternative fuel convention is a standout experience, especially for a gear-head. Every other vehicle at these events is either attempting to invisibly behave like any other internal-combustion commuter vehicle, or because of their electric-only propulsion, simply doesn’t seem like what most citizens have experienced automotively. Hardly anything at these events could be considered remotely “sporty” - many play to the tree-hugger community, and others try to hide their green intentions under a bushel.


The A3 had a typically Teutonic interior - black and purposeful. On the road, it’s got a taut suspension, and although Car & Driver say it weighs 750 pounds(!) more than a conventional A3 (actually, C&D’s own publications give the same weight for the e-tron and conventional A3, but Audi’s website says 3,616 vs. 3,175), the A3 e-tron didn’t feel heavy. In the “Dynamic” driving mode, we had very brief, exciting blasts from two stoplights under full gas and electric power, with the DSG gearbox (my first-ever time with a dual-clutch system) popping off two lightning shifts in about 100 yards before I had to brake for mid-city traffic.
The base price for the lowest trim A3 e-tron is $37,900. The Audi rep who went on the test-drive with us quoted something four thousand lower, which got me unnecessarily excited (in retrospect, I think he was quoting a hopeful post-federal-rebate price - an all-too-common marketing practice among EV manufacturers now). Even though both our Ford Focus Electric and the Chevrolet Volt had MSRPs of $40,000 two years ago, they have both fallen in price dramatically - the Focus is now under $30K, and the 2016 Volt MSRP is $33,170. However, the Focus Electric and Volt both qualify for the maximum Federal Tax Credit for Electric Vehicles incentive of $7,500 (smaller incentives are awarded to certified vehicles with smaller battery capacities), and up to $2,500 from the State of California. The Audi rep said that there had been some stumble in qualifying the A3 e-tron for Federal Tax Credit - articles online mention that they “expect” a $4,138 tax credit, but that’s obviously not certain. Even if they do qualify for Fed and CA incentives, the A3 e-tron will still be $5K more than a Volt.

Very german.

The Audi’s 8.8 kWh battery pack provides enough capacity for Audi to quote a 31 mile electric-only range - which equals the outgoing Volt, and is more than most plug-in electrics, which typically provide around twenty miles of battery-powered propulsion.
• • • • • • •

The current landscape of alternatively-fueled vehicles is a mixed bag. Some manufacturers are holding still, doing the minimum to fulfill California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) quotas (so-called “compliance cars”) - of these, some claim they are selling at a loss. Other manufacturers seem truly committed to a future of ZEV production, and apparently intend to profit from them. IC-electric hybrids have been commonplace for some time, and appear to actually be instrumental in allowing auto manufacturers to achieve mandated efficiency and emission goals. The number of plug-in hybrid offerings seems to have grown beyond being a curiosity. Here in California, a unique alternative-fuel vehicle market in terms of legislation, special-interest support, climate and consumer mentality, I see several BEVs and plug-in hybrids a day. This doesn’t reflect the attitudes or practicality of operating these vehicles for the rest of the country - as I’ve mentioned, operating a BEV in cold climes would be a lose-lose (running the cabin heat in our Focus Electric reduces range by as much as 30 per cent, and battery efficiency in that kind of weather would also be severely diminished). 

Are these “early days?” Maybe. It’s hard to guess whether the current models of automobiles using something other than refined fossil-fuels represent the beginnings of what the general public will be driving in decades to come. Much of the current alternative-fuel market plays to a customer base who want to affect environmental and political change. Some customers perceive alternative-fuel car ownership as a financial benefit (the amount we’ve spent on electricity is less than 20% of the amount of money we’d have spent on gasoline on our old daily driver). A small segment are just interested hobbyists. Whether it’s to meet federal/state mandates for fuel-efficency or emissions, public relations, or actual profit, auto manufacturers continue to develop new offerings. Succeed or fail, we’ll all learn something from the results.