My first electric fortnight

20151126-09345001-600Well, I’m just over two weeks into the world of electric car ownership, and enjoying it very much so far.

I’ve driven about 400 miles in my i3, and since some proportion of my charging has been at free public charging points, the ‘fuel’ cost to me so far has been about 4 quid. If you conveniently ignore the enormous purchase price and future depreciation of an almost-new BMW, the cost of actually running an electric car is less than going by bus, a lot less than using traditional car, and phenomenally cheap when compared to a train.

What I didn’t realise, though, when I first started this, was that I was taking on a hobby as well. There are many reasons why people buy electric cars (and here I’m talking about purely- or predominantly-battery-powered, rather than hybrids). I think a large group — the relatively silent majority — buy, say, a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe as a second car, charge it in their driveway each night, and use it for all their around-town day-to-day stuff, but rely on the Volvo diesel for going on holiday or for anything much beyond the range of a single charge. That, at present, is an exceedingly sensible use of an electric vehicle.

Then there are people like me. Some of us are tree-huggers. Some are gadget enthusiasts. But we feel like real pioneers because life is a bit harder out there on the frontier. We depend much more, perhaps entirely, on our batteries. We know acronyms that you don’t know. We measure efficiency in miles-per-kWh. We understand how best to handle the chaos that is the current public charging infrastructure, and we know when the charging stations at Leicester Forest East or South Mimms are out of action. In short, it’s an enthusiasts’ club, and it reminds me more than anything of the days in my youth when I used to go sailing, or caravanning, or hang-gliding; when people with beards would gather in out-of-the-way places to discuss windspeeds, safe harbours, and the various cunning hacks they’ve made to their equipment, or their lifestyles, to allow them to pursue this interest more effectively. It’s actually a big part of the fun. Most of these communities are now on Facebook or other forums, of course, and they are exceedingly good-natured and informative. One completely unexpected change for me is that I now consult Facebook once or twice a day because it actually contains stuff that interests me — in the past I seldom ever looked at it except in response to messages or comments from others. And it’s fun that there are occasional real-life meetups too, like the one I visited last month.

Unlike hobbies such as sailing, or classic-car restoration, though, this really is pioneering, in the sense that what we’re doing is clearly anticipating the future and trying to live in it a bit earlier than is perhaps sensible. In my case, for example, I don’t have off-street parking, so I have to jump through some hoops to charge in the street without inconveniencing my neighbours. And since my outdoor fast charging socket won’t be installed for another week or so, I currently refuel my car by running an extension lead through my letter box a couple of times a week! This seems like a hassle, but it actually takes less time than visiting those big smelly petrol stations I remember from the past. If I were really sentimental, it might occur to me that my cute little car prefers coming back in the evening for comfort and refreshment at home, rather than going to one of those brightly-coloured flashy bars that some other cars go to, where the drinks are so expensive. But I’m not that soppy, so it didn’t occur to me at all.

My situation does highlight a challenge that governments are going to have to face soon, though: the places that will benefit most from electric vehicles are the cities, which are also the places where the smallest proportion of residents will be able to charge at home. I think a key part of making this work will be ensuring plentiful opportunities for occasional casual charging in car parks, on the street, at businesses, cafes, pubs and supermarkets. We need to start thinking about a power infrastructure that allows the majority of parking places at your local Tesco to provide a few kilowatts, rather than just one or two specially-marked spots in the corner.

And the i3 is proving an interesting venture for BMW, too. Whether it’s a financial success overall remains to be seen, but articles like this one yield some intriguing statistics: more than 80% of BMW i3 buyers worldwide have not been BMW customers before, for example, (including me), and in Norway (where almost all electricity is from renewable sources), the i3 is the best-selling BMW across the entire range…

Anyway, going back to my original thread, you might point out that claims of being a hardy pioneer are a bit rich coming from someone with nice heated leather seats in his BMW. And you would be right. There are others who have been doing this for years, in less capable vehicles, and who depend on it for a daily commute. I cannot even claim to have cut the fossil-fuel umbilical cord completely because my car does have a ‘range-extender’ – a small built-in generator in the back with a couple of gallons of petrol, which can maintain the battery charge at its current level in situations when charging really isn’t an option. The i3 is not really a hybrid, it’s an electric car with an optional safety net accessory – something to get us through the next five or ten years while the charging infrastructure solidifies – and in my case, something which allows me to consider an electric vehicle as our only car. I haven’t actually used the range extender yet, except for demonstrating it briefly to friends, so I can still use a nice phrase I saw online recently: “It’s good to get my MPG back into four figures.” No, my only real claim to hardship at present is in the sudden and rather dramatic change in my bank balance, comparable to if I had decided to buy a modest boat or motorhome.

What I’d really like to do is follow the example of some EV enthusiasts who charge their cars primarily from solar, and can claim to drive around the country powered only by sunshine. But that would involve moving house to something with off-street parking and a roof facing in the right direction. No. Not yet. But as I was ticking off the miles cruising home in comfort down the motorway at 70mph yesterday night in the rain, it did occur to me that even this was a quite remarkable ability to have achieved from that little cable I occasionally run through my letterbox.

You see why we’re enthusiasts?

Gone with the wind

Here’s my new toy, charging up at the Birchanger Green service station on the M11 yesterday.


Now, I’m no eco-warrior, but it’s very satisfying to think that the great majority of the 250-or-so miles I’ve driven in it so far have been powered by wind, thanks to Ecotricity.

And the total fuel cost to me has been under £1 so far. (I topped it up at home one night.)

Also, it has cool doors!


Best. Gadget. Yet.

On Thursday evening I got a new mobile device, and this time it wasn’t from Apple.

It has two displays, a variety of inputs, front and rear cameras, GPS tracking, and remarkably good audio output. The internet connectivity is built in; I guess there’s an embedded SIM somewhere but I don’t have to worry about it. It has a touchpad, and reasonable speech recognition.

All of this takes a fair amount of power, so it has a largish charging cable – it’s one of the few mobile gadgets I’ve bought recently which can’t be charged via USB. This is inconvenient, but I’m working out ways to deal with it.

Anyway, all in all, it’s great fun, and there’s a software update coming out sometime in the next couple of weeks which should make it even better.

Oh, and here’s a photo.

Quote of the day

I like this one:

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.

— Bill Gates


pulpitHere’s a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) idea after chatting with a vicar friend the other night…

Writing sermons is a time-consuming business. Not all clerics are particularly good at it, and there’s a long tradition, in certain circles, of reading other people’s classic sermons to your congregation, or re-using your own ones in other places. Has this been brought up to date?

Somebody should create, if they haven’t already, an online repository where you can upload your sermons, in text, audio or video form. They would be searchable by subject, biblical reference, etc and you would be free to download others and deliver them yourself. The only obligation would be that somewhere (e.g. on the service sheet) you would have to acknowledge your source: ‘Based on SermonSite sermon 4569 by Revd Joe Bloggs.’ You could then provide feedback, further notes, and ratings. More importantly, any members of the congregation who have downloaded the SermonSite phone app could also rate it, and Joe Bloggs would get appropriate credit.

Sermons that achieved a high-enough rating might migrate into the ‘SermonSite Pro’ category, where they were only accessible to those paying a larger subscription, and where the authors could be compensated for their use. Vicars who proved particularly gifted at this sort of thing could be commissioned to provide exclusive material for Sermonsite, so supplementing the meagre income provided by most ecclesiastical institutions, and so on…

Of course, I’m a bit out of touch, but I imagine that the average sermon-listening congregation these days doesn’t contain a high proportion of people who know how to download and use smartphone apps. That could be a problem.

Still, I offer the idea for what it’s worth. Maybe it’s something to think about, say, during a dull sermon…

SermonSite: Bringing the most powerful preaching to a pulpit near you.

A tale of three cities


We watched My Old Lady tonight, starring Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott-Thomas. I thought it quite good, though slow-moving; a play that never quite stopped feeling like a play despite being rewritten for the screen. That’s both a criticism and a compliment. Paris, the city, is noticeably a real character in the film, too. This is true in many other movies as well, of course; the city somehow seems to lend itself to that.

The only place for which this is perhaps even more common is New York, which immediately makes me think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or almost anything by Woody Allen, or… well, you get the idea. I don’t just mean that a movie is set there, but that the director was in love with the place, and its essence permeates every aspect of the story.

And that made me think about London. I realised that, somehow, it doesn’t seem to feature in films this way. It’s a very similar city, and of course many movies are filmed there, but I don’t think of people composing love letters to it in quite the same way as for Paris or New York. Rose thought that the films which come closest to having London as a central character are some of the old Sherlock Holmes ones. My only other suggestion was Mary Poppins!

If I’m right — and feel free to disagree — then why would that be the case? Is there something fundamentally different about London? Is it just that it’s filled with the British?

Shakespeare’s iPhone?

I found an iPhone this morning… a very elderly one, with some inkstains on it. It was locked, but I managed to unlock it with the code 1415. The first thing I did was to ask Siri a question about what the owner might have been doing just before he lost it…

Today is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

Driverless ethics

Thanks to Richard Owers for pointing me at an article from the MIT Technology Review entitled Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill. (Doesn’t that make you want a custom licence plate on yours? BOND007 – programmed to kill?)

We talked earlier about the ethical challenges of driverless cars and how many of these are variations on Phillipa Foot’s classic Trolley Problem.

The MIT article takes it further and raises a nice conundrum or two:

How should the car be programmed to act in the event of an unavoidable accident? Should it minimize the loss of life, even if it means sacrificing the occupants, or should it protect the occupants at all costs?

As they point out, who is going to buy a car which is programmed to sacrifice its owner?

Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?

One way to approach this kind of problem is to act in a way that minimizes the loss of life. By this way of thinking, killing one person is better than killing 10.

But that approach may have other consequences. If fewer people buy self-driving cars because they are programmed to sacrifice their owners, then more people are likely to die because ordinary cars are involved in so many more accidents. The result is a Catch-22 situation.

One way to approach this is that adopted by a group at the Toulouse School of Economics. They used ‘experimental ethics’, which roughly means crowd-sourcing the answers to difficult questions and seeing what the majority think.

In general, people are comfortable with the idea that self-driving vehicles should be programmed to minimize the death toll.

Makes sense, but…

“[Participants] were not as confident that autonomous vehicles would be programmed that way in reality—and for a good reason: they actually wished others to cruise in utilitarian autonomous vehicles, more than they wanted to buy utilitarian autonomous vehicles themselves”

Ah – understandable, I guess! And…

If a manufacturer offers different versions of its moral algorithm, and a buyer knowingly chose one of them, is the buyer to blame for the harmful consequences of the algorithm’s decisions?

Lovely stuff. I wonder how we’ll deal with this.

Of course, some of these kind of decisions are always being made by anyone building or using potentially dangerous machinery. Did your car’s manufacturer install the most expensive and reliable braking system available when they built your car, or did they base their decision partly on cost? Perhaps they did so to spend more money on the airbags, which protect the occupants instead of pedestrians and cyclists?

Similarly, those who design medical systems, drug-dispensing machines, prescription printers, and so on make decisions which could be life-or-death ones, and we somehow cope with that. But the driverless car does throw some of these questions into sharp relief.

Update: thanks too to Laura James who pointed me at the Principles of Robotics.

Thinking electric


I’ve been test-driving electric and hybrid cars recently. I’ve tried the all-electric Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf, and the plug-in hybrid Golf GTE. All of these are excellent cars, and a pleasure to drive. I’d recommend anyone thinking of a second car to have a look at them; a used Zoe with very few miles on the clock will set you back about £8000, and since Renault have a battery-leasing scheme you need to add about £4000 to that if you keep the car for five years. I enjoyed driving it. The Leaf is even better, but a bit bigger and more expensive – it’s a really nice car. The manufacturers have gone out of their way to make sure that driving one of these has as few surprises as possible for anyone used to any other vehicle. We’re thinking about a replacement for our main car, though, and we’re not quite ready to go all-electric for that. In 5 years’ time, that will be completely viable, but not yet, not for us.

So, ever since I heard first about the Golf GTE, I thought that might be the answer. Our current Golf has been probably the best car I’ve owned, the local dealer is very good, and this would let us venture into the hybrid/electric world while keeping our feet safely on the ground. And VW have some very nice extras like automatic parallel parking, and a good adaptive cruise control. When people talk about cruise controls I tend to think about motorway driving, but what’s possibly even cooler is its ability to keep you a constant distance from the car in front while crawling through slow-moving traffic. I really liked that.

But there’s a problem.


The problem is that in the middle of this process, I drove the BMW i3. For those of you not acquainted with the i3, it’s an electric car designed from the ground-up, built with various lightweight, innovative (and often recycled) materials, in a factory powered almost entirely by renewable energy, and so on. It’s quirky, and great fun, though it also comes with a BMW price tag. Ouch. Still, there are some used ones available now, and at least it’s not a Tesla.

But the i3 has an optional extra that almost everybody buys: the range-extender (known to the cognoscenti as the ‘REx’). This is a little 30HP 600cc engine tucked away below the boot which can charge the battery from a two-gallon petrol tank and extend the roughly 90 miles of normal electric range for another 90 miles, or, in fact, for as far as you like if you don’t mind stopping to fill up every hour and a half! So I could, if wanted, drive from here to the Lake District in the opposite corner of Britain with just a couple of stops even if all the (increasingly plentiful) electric charging points en route were full or inoperative.

So it’s not a true hybrid, in the sense that the engine is never intended to be the main thing driving the car. In fact, many owners use the REx so rarely that the car will switch it on briefly every few hundred miles just to keep it happy. But, for me, it’s the thing that lets you have an innovative and almost all-electric car and yet bridge the next few years until the charging infrastructure is more fully developed. And after driving it, other hybrids like the Golf seem, well, rather compromised: packing two full engines into a car that therefore only has an electric range of around 30 miles, when the 90 electric miles or so available from a more thoroughly-electric car would almost cover me for a typical week on a single charge. (This may be important, since I have no off-street parking at home.)

I like living in the future – or at least, trying to. (Shaw was right.) Even Rose, who’s an historian and likes living in the past, can see the attraction of this. Imagine you’re thinking of buying a boat. The sensible thing to get is a motor yacht, because it can go anywhere in almost any weather. But it’s so much more romantic, and beautiful, and pioneering, and quiet, and environmentally friendly, to get something with sails instead, even if you then have to plan a little bit more about where you can go, and when. Well, this is a sailing boat, but with an outboard motor, for when you need it, but with the added interesting twist that it can out-accelerate almost any other speedboat in the harbour.

So yesterday I went (with my friends Michael and Laura, who have one) to a gathering of i3 owners near Milton Keynes to find out more. There were about 34 i3s there, and a couple of i8s, which means the combined battery capacity was approaching a megawatt-hour. Your physics assignment for this morning is to work out what kind of fun things you could do if, say, you discharged all of that over five or ten minutes. (I’m thinking about, for example, using some wind-turbines as fans…)


It was a happy gathering despite the yucky grey weather, and some very helpful, knowledgeable and cheery BMW staff had turned up from the North Oxford dealership (thanks, guys!) even though they probably guessed they weren’t going to make many sales, since everybody but me already had one!

Still, who knows, they might make one more sale before too long…

Macs are expensive, but…

IBM has started allowing their employees to use Macs, as reported in this piece by Daniel Weber.

Previn says that Gartner believes the optimal number of IT to employees should be 1:70. Previn noted that the average is 1:242. And IBM is currently hovering around 1:5,400 for their Mac users.

The driverless car is coming

When I express my enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles, which I’ve done on this blog recently and to many patient friends over lunch tables in the last few weeks, they sometimes respond with skepticism:

“Well, I can see we might have better cruise controls, or smarter braking and automatic parking systems, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to take our hands of the wheel completely.”

“But the car is still a relatively recent invention, and look how far it’s come already”, I reply. “It’s only a little over 100 years since the Wright brothers first managed to fly 100 feet, and we pretty much have self-flying airliners. Do you really think that in 100 years we’ll still be pointing these deadly human-controlled missiles at each other on narrow roads?”

That, at least, is the neat turn of phrase I might employ if the lunch hasn’t involved much wine or beer by this point. And they usually admit that, yes, maybe, perhaps I have a point.

“And so the question isn’t whether we will get driverless cars, but when, and what the route is between here and there. It will start with smarter cruise controls — it already is, in fact — and then maybe certain highways will have special lanes in which you can take your hands off the wheel if you’re appropriately equipped. Maybe some airports will allow self-valet-parking cars in the car parks. And soon, as we’re resurfacing country roads, we’ll be building in the wires that will make the whole driving process cheaper and easier and less dependent on complex maps and camera systems. But whether you think it’s going to be in 100 years, or within my lifetime, or — as I sincerely hope — before I retire, it is going to happen.”

This is pretty much the point that Matt Honan makes in this Buzzfeed article, but, of course, he does it better than me even without beer.

And he can speak more authoritatively about Google’s cars, because he’s actually been in one.

Thought for the day

Reading a second Dan Brown book constitutes the triumph of hope over experience.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser