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.

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.
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

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.