Conversions vs. Purpose-Built EVs

Electric vehicle purists love to argue, as does anyone with a strong belief in something. One of many arguments EV enthusiasts engage in is whether or not a car needs to have a purpose-built chassis or can it use a “glider” from a gas-powered car. Let’s look at the positives and negatives.

Purpose-built chassis

  • + Typically doesn’t have any odd intrusions into the cabin for the battery, motor, etc.
  • + Can have a more compact overall dimension because EV components take up less space than an ICE.
  • – For lower-volume vehicles (as EVs are currently), the price of making a new chassis is not cost-effective.

Conversion

  • + Costs less because you can modify an existing chassis to fit your needs.
  • + Can use body panels and parts from the high-volume gas-powered car, saving money.
  • – Many times, conversions have intrusions into the cabin for the battery.

At the current time, there are only a handful of manufacturers making purpose-built chassis for their EVs: Nissan (LEAF), Tesla (Model S), and BMW (i3). Even the i3 has a negative for the EV version — the space allocated for the range-extending ICE is left empty! (They should have put an auxiliary battery pack in that space, IMHO.)

These manufacturers are seen as committed to electric vehicle technology because of their use of a purpose-built chassis. The other manufacturers are seen as going into the EV field as an afterthought.  Maybe that’s why conversions aren’t seen or rated as positively as purpose-built cars.

What Will the Future Bring?

The lease on my i-MiEV ends in January, 2015. Due to my dirt-cheap lease offer, my lease residual (the amount of money I would have to pay to buy the car at the end of the lease) is already $10,000 north of what its Blue Book value is. From what I’ve read, Ally Bank doesn’t negotiate on residual amounts, so my car is most definitely going to be returned.

This presents an interesting problem for Ally: They are going to have a flood of i-MiEVs being returned in January, 2015. What will they do with them? They’ll probably be sold at a loss, meaning some very inexpensive i-MiEVs may be available. Another person suggested that Mitsubishi will take them back and resell them as fleet vehicles. Who knows?

So what options will be available in 2015?

  • Nissan LEAF — the long-standing king of electric cars will definitely still be around in 2015. It’s the no-brainer choice.
  • Honda Fit EV — as I don’t live in California or New York, this vehicle isn’t currently available to me. However, if Honda does get around to selling them in Texas, it’s a contender. I’ve always liked the design of the Fit.
  • Fiat 500e — another “compliance car”, it’s not sold outside of California. The Fiat is a little too small for my tastes. I like a 4-door car, especially since I have a child.
  • Chevy Spark EV — although fast, it’s ugly. And tiny. This would require another i-MiEV-like lease deal for me to drive it. It’s also a compliance car.
  • Ford Focus EV — this car always felt like a half-assed attempt at an EV by Ford. Take an existing ICE car, slap a huge battery into the trunk, taking away most of the storage space and pass-through capability, and call it a day. Between that and their “stop safely now” problems have taken the FFE completely out of the running, barring an insane lease rate like the i-MiEV. Hell, I’ll drive an electric Trabant for $69/month.
  • Tesla Model S — I freakin’ wish.
  • Tesla Model E — this car is slated for a 2016 introduction, so the likelihood of this car being available in January is nearly nil. Shame.
  • Tesla Model X — again, a pipe dream.
  • Toyota RAV4 EV — another compliance car, the likelihood of this car coming to Texas is nil.
  • Mitsubishi i-MiEV/CA-MiEV — if they’re available, I will definitely consider them. There is a laundry list of things I would improve on the i-MiEV, but it’s still a good car. If they come out with the CA-MiEV show car, I’ll be even happier.
  • Kia Soul EV — this is the wildcard. I like the Soul. It’s funky, but has plenty of usable space without being too large. An EV version would have the same aerodynamic penalty as the ICE version, but I mostly drive in the city. Could be a contender. Could also be a compliance car. Ugh.
  • BMW i3 — I don’t expect this car to be within my budget. Not to mention it’s only nominally larger than the i-MiEV with a MUCH larger price tag. Sorry, probably not.

You may have noticed I didn’t list any hybrid or plug-in hybrids like the Volt. Sorry, guys, I want to stick with an all-electric vehicle. Any other suggestions?

Edit: Talk about a timely post. Kia has confirmed that the Soul EV will be launched in 2014.

Successful National Plug-In Day 2013

Here are a few photos I took from National Plug-In Day 2013 in Dallas, Texas. (I’m having some technical difficulties posting more than 4 pictures. I may have to break this into multiple posts. Stay tuned…)

Even with the threat of a downpour, and a few small showers, the show must go on! Not only did we have EV enthusiasts there, but we also had many curious people. As the only customer-owned i-MiEV there (one i-MiEV was there from EvGO), I had a LOT of people approach me with questions.

I also got to take a ride in a Tesla Model S, P85 model (the highest performance model) with a driver willing to really take off. O-M-G! That car is FAST!

Click on the thumbnails to see the full-sized picture:

My i-MiEV next to a Ford Focus Electric

My i-MiEV next to a Ford Focus Electric

One of more than a dozen Nissan LEAFs

One of more than a dozen Nissan LEAFs

Volkswagen Golf electric conversion -- took 4 years!

Volkswagen Golf electric conversion — took 4 years!

Teslas as far as the eye can see!

Teslas as far as the eye can see!

See ya next year!

National Plug-In Day

As I live in Dallas, I’ll be attending the National Plug-In Day in Dallas. In fact, it’s only a few miles from my home, not that range anxiety has any part of my life.

So far, there are 16 (!) Tesla Model S cars scheduled to be there. I’ve seen 2 on Dallas roads, including one who gave me a thumbs-up for recognizing his vehicle. It should be amazing to see so many Teslas in one place. Two Tesla Roadsters are scheduled to be there too. I wonder if the id Software employee who owns one will be there.

There are also scheduled to be 14 Nissan LEAFs. (Leaves?) This is a good showing, especially since Nissan is one of the sponsors of National Plug-In Day, and the fact that we have a Nissan company building not too far away in Irving.

Guess how many Mitsubishi i-MiEVs there will be? No, guess. Got your guess? Yep. One. Mine. That’s okay. I’ve printed out a spec sheet and some other documents for people to look over. I plan to have the rear engine bay open for inspection too. There’s really not much to see — an inverter, a motor, a reduction gear, a brake pump, a coolant pump, and that’s about it.

My i-MiEV's "engine room"... loving the direct Japanese translation

My i-MiEV’s “engine room”… loving the direct Japanese translation

The part I’m most excited about? Hopefully getting to sit in, or possible ride along, in a Tesla Model S. I wish I could afford one of those cars. Guess I’ll have to wait for the Model E in 2015 or so.

Race Car?

When I told my dad what kind of car I have, I didn’t come right out and say it. Instead, I gave him hints and made him guess. On paper, you can make the i-MiEV sound like a race car!

Mitsubishi-i-MiEV

  • Wider tires in the back than in the front
  • Rear-engine (motor!)
  • Rear-wheel drive
  • De-Dion rear suspension
  • 9,900 RPM redline
  • Does 81 MPH in first gear

My dad, a long-time car nut, did a very good job of guessing. He thought of the Mazda RX-8. Although it doesn’t have a De-Dion rear suspension or a rear-mounted engine, the Rotary engine does have a 9,000 RPM redline. Good guess!

What is Regenerative Braking?

Since there is a very small cache of electrons in the battery, we have to squeeze out every possible efficiency. There are several ways we can do this:

  • Better aerodynamics — wind resistance of the car moving through the air is energy lost. There is no way to retrieve this energy. What’s worse, the amount of power required to move a car through the air goes up as a square (power of 2) of the speed!
  • Lighter weight — the less mass we have to get moving, the less power it will take. This is somewhat of a battle, since batteries used in EVs are relatively heavy.
  • Regenerative braking

The last point, regenerative braking, is one of the easiest ways to get back a portion of the energy you’ve expended getting your vehicle to move. How does this work?

In regular vehicles, friction brakes are used to slow the car down. The energy of the car moving (inertia) is disbursed as heat in the friction brakes. That heat cannot be captured and therefore is lost.

In electric vehicles, we have an electric motor that gets us moving. What some people don’t realize, is that the motor can also be used as an electrical generator. If there is an electrical load on a generator, it takes more effort to turn the generator. With regenerative braking, a load is put on the motor/generator to charge the batteries. This creates more effort to turn the motor/generator, creating a braking effect. This would be similar to us being able to capture the heat energy in friction brakes and using that to power the car.

batavia-regen

Tests with regenerative braking put the maximum braking power at around 1G of stopping power. That’s very good. However, most regenerative braking systems aren’t that aggressive with the recharge. It would make the car very difficult to drive smoothly. Instead, the vehicle manufacturers add friction brakes to supplant the regenerative capabilities of the motor/generator. Additionally, regenerative braking is not nearly as effective as friction brakes at low speeds.

Many electric vehicles now have different levels of regenerative braking that can be user-set. For example in my Mitsubishi, the shifter has “D”, “Eco”, and “B” settings.

2012-Mitubishi-i-MiEV-shifter

  • D is for drive, where the car behaves very much like a regular, gas-powered car. This mode has the least amount of regenerative braking.
  • Eco slows the accelerator to help reduce power to get the car moving, and slightly increases the regenerative braking effect.
  • B is for braking, which gives you full power like D mode, but gives aggressive regenerative braking effect. This is great for stop-and-go traffic, because you can virtually drive the vehicle using only the accelerator, rarely touching the brake.

This graph shows the regenerative braking strength for the three modes:

Regenerative braking modes in the i-MiEV.

Regenerative braking modes in the i-MiEV.

You can clearly see that D has the least amount of regenerative braking, Eco has a bit more, and B has the most amount of regenerative braking.

Why wouldn’t you want to drive in B mode all the time? Well, it’s difficult to control the car. In a gas-powered car, when you release the accelerator, the car coasts for quite a distance. In B mode in the Mitsubishi, it’s like the brake is being pressed with light pressure. It takes some practice to drive in B mode all the time and be smooth about it.

That being said, I drive my i-MiEV in B mode all the time. I love a challenge.

i-MiEV: The Car of Contradictions

I have owned many cars in the past, each with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, but none of them have been such a mix of high-end features and low-end cost cutting as the i-MiEV.

Very much like my i-MiEV...

Very much like my i-MiEV…

To be fair, Mitsubishi started off with their Japanese kei car — a very low-cost, small-engined car designed to stay under specific parameters to get cheap insurance rates. Kei cars must have 660cc (0.6 liters!) or smaller gasoline engines, for example. While these tiny, relatively underpowered vehicles seem odd to North Americans, they are incredibly popular in Japan. Since the cities are densely packed, you don’t need to go far or fast in Japan.

The Mitsubishi i was then converted to the electric i-MiEV in Japan in 2009. (The gas-powered model is still sold.) Since much of the rest of the world wanted an electric vehicle, Mitsubishi started selling the i-MiEV in other countries. To sell the car legally in the US, Mitsubishi had to make some significant modifications, including increasing the width, length, and height of the car. The major benefit was being able to sell the vehicle in California, allowing Mitsubishi to collect emissions credits and sell their other vehicles in that state.

When I received my i-MiEV, I was surprised with it, especially since I got the cheapest model there is. The sheer lack of noise while driving makes the car seem like a higher-class vehicle. In truth, only the Smart ForTwo is smaller. The car was painted in a beautiful, pearlescent white that, on other cars is an extra-cost option. It features a heated driver’s seat, power windows, power locks with remote, motorized side mirrors, and a specialized remote control that allows you to pre-heat or pre-cool your car. It even has automatic climate control. Fancy!

On the other hand, the rear-view mirror doesn’t have a dimming function. The passenger’s side sun visor has no mirror, though the driver’s does. There are front speakers with separate tweeters in the dash, but no rear speakers. The wires are there and functional, but no speakers.

Although the i-MiEV started off life as a gas-powered vehicle, it doesn’t have the problems many conversions have. The Ford Focus EV loses about 2/3rds of its cargo space for the battery. The Honda Fit EV loses its “magic seats”. The i-Miev has none of those problems. Cargo space is unaffected, which is impressive given that its motor and reduction gear are under the rear cargo area. The seats fold completely flat, leaving a very large, flat load floor. Impressive, Mitsubishi!

Is the Chevy Volt a EREV or a PHEV?

Mac versus PC. Console gaming versus Windows gaming. Mayonnaise versus Miracle Whip. Imperial versus Metric. Toilet paper over or under the roll. Squeezing toothpaste from the bottom or middle.

All these things have polarized people, up to and including divorce. The latest debate — at least on the Internet — is whether the Chevy Volt is an extended-range electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid.

Chevy Volt: EREV or PHEV?

Chevy Volt: EREV or PHEV?

For some background, let’s talk about car types that we aren’t polarized on:

  • Gas powered cars have an engine that runs through a transmission via a clutch to run the wheels. Many EV enthusiasts call gas-powered cars “ICE” (internal combustion engine) vehicles.
  • Purely electric vehicles have a battery and an electric motor that, through a simple reduction gear, runs the wheels.
  • Hybrid vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, have an ICE with a small electric motor on the same drivetrain which goes through a transmission and clutch to drive the wheels. While the ICE can be turned off allowing for low-speed EV driving, that’s not typical of how the Prius works.
  • Plug-in hybrid vehicles are like regular hybrids, but with a larger battery and the ability to charge from an external electrical source. This allows them to drive farther in electric-only mode than their hybrid cousins.

Now, let’s talk about the Chevy Volt. When the vehicle was first introduced, Chevrolet said it would be an extended-range electric vehicle (EREV), where the ICE has no direct connection to the drivetrain. Wonderful! That is the definition of an EREV. This is exactly how the BMW i3 and the Fisker Karma works. Only the electric motor runs the wheels.

However, after doing efficiency testing, Chevrolet found that certain conditions — especially during high-speed driving — that it was more efficient to have the electric motor and the ICE powering the drivetrain. To facilitate this, Chevy designed a clever 3-clutch system.

Illustration of the drive motor, charging motor, and the ICE.

Illustration of the drive motor, charging motor, and the ICE.

The Volt can be powered directly from the drive motor, like an EV, when all the clutches are opened. However, when all the clutches are closed, there is a direct connection between the two motors and the ICE to the drivetrain. This fits the definition of a plug-in hybrid, or a “parallel hybrid” system.

See how the three clutches work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80E1fOp95rA

In conclusion, the Volt is a wonderful vehicle, making electric driving available to the masses. Only a slight technicality makes the Volt a PHEV instead of an EREV.

National Plug-In Day 2013

Interested in electric vehicles? Want to know what makes them tick (or stay nearly silent)? Want to talk with others who are passionate about EVs? Participate in National Plug-In Day. Even if you don’t own an EV, you can still go.

From the 2012 meeting.

From the 2012 meeting.

They have ride-along events so you can experience the smooth, quiet ride that you get in an electric vehicle. Best of all? It’s FREE for everyone.

To find out more, visit the official National Plug-In Day website here: http://pluginday.org/index.php

What to Expect When Buying an EV

As mentioned on a previous post, I moved from a gas-powered Mazda 3 to a Mitsubishi i-MiEV. What should you expect when considering purchasing an EV for yourself?

The first thing you need to consider is if your lifestyle is suitable for an electric vehicle. Because of range limitations of electric vehicles, along with relatively long charging times, most EV owners do not travel farther than a single charge distance from their homes.

The i-MiEV has the shortest range of all the EVs on the market currently, meaning 62 miles of EPA estimated range. That means I could travel 31 miles from my house and return on a single charge. Does this sound short to you? Then maybe an EV isn’t for you.

Do you have more than one car? An electric car is a wonderful second car. This way, if you do need to travel farther distances, you have another vehicle to rely on. You can also consider renting a car. I am fortunate to have a car rental agency within walking distance of my home.

Next, do you live in a home or apartment? Finding a place to charge your electric vehicle is easy when you have a home. Most garages have electrical plugs inside. Many homes have outside-accessible sockets, too. Apartments? Not so much. You need to consider how you are going to charge your EV. While all EVs have the ability to charge from 120V sockets, the time to charge is very long — up to 22 hours! Adding a high-voltage charging point helps reduce that time significantly, but is usually only something you can install if you own your home. Most people charge at home rather than a public charging point.

At this point, you’re certain that your life fits well with an EV. Time to visit the dealership.

Your first choice: Buy or lease? Buying your EV will allow you to break even against a similarly-equipped gas-powered car in about 5-6 years. Keep your car for that long and you’ll be saving money. Leasing means you pay for only the portion of the car you use. It also means that you don’t have any principal value built up.

With those negatives, why do most people lease their EVs? Because the technologies are improving so quickly that yesterday’s EVs are already outdated. Leasing allows you to have the latest and greatest technology. In electric vehicles, most of the time this means additional range or features, even a lower price.

Your salesperson may or may not have any knowledge in electric vehicles. Fortunately, when I visited the Mitsubishi dealer, they had a single salesperson certified to sell the i-MiEV. If he wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have been able to go home with my new car. Really.

Next, be prepared to be sold away from an electric vehicle. Why? Because the general public really doesn’t know about or even understand electric vehicles. The salesperson is trying to keep you from making a big mistake. Once they know you understand the limitations, they will happily sell you an EV.

Leave a bit of time for the dealership to fully charge your new EV and to teach you how to drive it. The i-MiEV is about as similar to a gas-powered car as you can get, but some cars, like the Nissan LEAF, have some different controls. Learn all you can and even take notes. When you get home, read your owner’s manual. Really.

Note: Having compared notes with other EV owners, I see that — for the most part — my experience is typical.