The Hybrid Tipping Point

One of the questions I often get asked about my car is, “Is it all-electric, or is it a hybrid?” For most EV owners, the answer to that is easy, but for the BMW i3, it’s a bit more complex. You see, it is a hybrid in the sense that it does have a petrol engine, but it’s also completely different from most of the Toyotas, Mitsubishis, Hyundais, etc. out there.

The i3 has a ‘Range Extender’ option (known as the REX), which is a little 650cc scooter engine, not much bigger than a melon, and a two-gallon petrol tank. The engine never drives the wheels directly, and in fact, it doesn’t even really recharge the battery, but it can keep the battery at a constant level of charge while you’re buzzing along. So if I have a battery range of 70 miles and I need to go, say, 120 miles with no charging points en route, here’s what I normally do: I put my destination into the satnav, and then glide silently out of town and onto the motorway. When my battery has depleted to about 50%, I turn on the REX, and use a bit of petrol until the remaining satnav distance is less than my remaining battery range, at which point I turn it off again. This means I only get the (small amount of) extra noise on the highway, where there’s plenty of other noise anyway, I keep pollution away from the populated areas, and I arrive silently at my destination, having used the minimal amount of petrol.

For me, it’s the perfect combination. I’ve now done about 12,000 miles in this car, and I’ve used less than 12 gallons to do so, which means my average MPG is still in four digits. In 5-10 years’ time, we’ll have much bigger electric ranges, without having to pay Tesla prices, and charging points will be sufficiently common that the petrol bit will be unnecessary. (Unless I move to a remote part of Colorado or Australia, I think I have probably purchased my last fossil-fuel-burning car.) At some point between now and then, one of the major petrol companies is going to install rapid chargers on all their forecourts. There’s a rumour that it might be Shell. This will be a brave thing to do, because it will instantly make EVs massively more attractive to the ordinary driver and will make a dent in the revenues of all the oil companies. On the other hand, this process is inevitable, so you want to be the company that does it first. I watch with interest…

But let’s get back to the hybrid discussion.

The challenge that plug-in hybrid designers face is how wholeheartedly to embrace the battery. You see, there’s a tipping point: you can’t sit on the fence. For most hybrids, you are building a normal car, and adding all the cost, weight and complexity of batteries and an extra motor. You don’t get enough electric range to use it as a real EV, though you might get some pretty impressive MPGs if, say, you charge each night and have a short commute. But when you’re running on the battery, you’re dragging around a lot of unnecessary metal and liquids. When on petrol, you’re carrying a lot of heavy battery. You need to keep a big enough engine to do everything people expect of a traditional car as well as fitting in a big enough electrical system to make the battery bit worthwhile. Minimalism it ain’t.

The beauty of pure electric vehicles, in contrast, is just how simple they are: no gearbox, exhaust, piston rings, tappets, crankshafts, oil sumps, filters, radiators, fuel-injectors, spark plugs, catalytic converters… all that messy stuff just goes away. I had originally planned to get a plug-in hybrid; the Golf GTE caught my eye when it came out, and I enjoyed test-driving one of the first ones in the UK, but I’d been spoiled by that point, because I’d also driven a couple of proper EVs, and I realised that they had to be the future. I often tell people that if you have (a) another car and (b) a driveway on which to charge, there’s no real reason now, when choosing a second car, for it not to be all-electric. The Nissan Leaf or Kia Soul EV are great vehicles, and I started to think I could get something like that for my normal day-to-day use and park my old Golf out of town somewhere, to be fetched when needed for long treks.

But for us, it would be silly to have two cars, which is why the i3 was the perfect solution. All the benefits of an EV, with no ‘range anxiety’ and very little extra complexity. Unfortunately, in Europe at least, BMW are currently the only company making this combination, which means that to get it, you have to pay BMW prices: quite a change for someone like me who spent much of their life crawling under elderly Minis or Beetles. I hope some other manufacturers catch on soon, but in the meantime, I do at least get the satisfaction of driving what Munro Associates described, a couple of years ago, for a whole range of reasons, as “the most revolutionary car in terms of creative engineering and manufacturing since Henry Ford’s Model T”.

A quarter-century on…

On Friday, I was interviewed by phone for the Dublin-based Moncrieff radio show on the Newstalk network.

A fun, light-hearted 10-minute phone discussion about the origins of the webcam on what, I realised, must be very close to its 25th anniversary.

Altruistic Autonomous Vehicles

One of my shortest recent posts generated quite a lot of discussion, both here and on Facebook. I wrote:

When we have proper and affordable self-driving vehicles, will that be the end of the railways?

Clearly there are some things that railways will do better for the foreseeable future, like long-range high-speed links, or carrying heavy freight. And don’t get me wrong: I like train journeys. But it seemed to me that the key reasons people currently take trains for normal day-to-day journeys — wanting to read en route, a lack of parking at their destination, avoiding congestion — could very soon be overcome when, for example, your car can go and valet-park itself after dropping you off at the office.

And the disadvantages of train travel: the fact that instead of going from point A to point B, you have to go at least from point A to point B to point C to point D, possibly waiting on a cold platform at point B for an indeterminate period, and not being sure whether you’ll get a seat from point C to B on the return journey. Will it be worth the hassle?

One of my assumptions is that traffic congestion will become less of an issue when cars are smarter, of course, which may not be a valid one, especially if lots of train travellers take to their cars instead.

There’s an interesting question as to whether lots of small independent agents trying to meet their own goals are going to result in an optimal solution for road congestion as a whole. We may start off with vehicles that are pretty autonomous initially, but become less so in due course, as the road infrastructure starts to adapt to them. Network packets on the internet know their destination, but it’s the routers (the junctions) that tell them which exit from the roundabout to take.

Will the Department of Transport manage overall use of the network better than each individual car? Well, that depends on who has the better computer scientists, of course! But it also depends on the amount of knowledge each vehicle can get about the overall road network, and, of course, on how selfish your car is: will it decide that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one (or the few)?

Perhaps we need Altruistic Autonomous Vehicles? (You heard it here first!) There could be financial incentives to encourage this. You get lower road tax if your car agrees to obey centrally-prescribed rules at times of high congestion. Perhaps you get to use the high-speed autonomous-only lanes if you’re willing to hand over to the cloud-based algorithms. Of course, this could open up all sorts of wonderful opportunities for hackers, too. Remember the movie?

Anyway, perhaps congestion will be less of an issue, but for a completely different reason. If you can be having a coffee, working on your laptop and taking Skype calls while you slip quietly along in your electric car, you may be more productive than if you’d got to the office on time.

Fall from Olympus

I’ve written elsewhere about the cost of the Olympics, so was struck by this poignant sequence of photos of former Olympic buildings, and this one found via Jessica Bloom’s article here.

Sarajevo ski jump

A Sarajevo ski jump

Admittedly, these images are mostly from places that have been through difficult times recently. I’ve visited various Olympic stadia over the years — Munich, Montreal, one or two others — and have been struck by their complete emptiness and eery silence, but I don’t think were in the state of disrepair that seems to beset Athens. It’s ironic, really; the Greeks used to be quite good at this kind of thing!

QVqCplC

An Athens swimming pool

I still haven’t seen any of the London Olympic facilities (not even on television) because I was a bit busy when the games were on, but perhaps I should go and take a look before they end up like this. On the other hand, they’ll probably make more interesting photos in a few years’ time 🙂

Today

It occurs to me that if I were to suffer a minor injury today, perhaps through careless use of a carrot-peeler or (more likely) a soldering iron, it would have the compensation that thereafter I could strip my sleeve and show my scars and say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day!”

Almost seems worth it. Especially if some of my friends would agree to hold their manhoods cheap in consequence…

Tomorrow

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say…

On recycling…

We’ve been doing a big clear-out recently, and have got rid of a lot of stuff, and there’s more to go, to the extent that I’ve developed a strategy for getting rid of things.

Here, for what it’s worth, is the Status-Q guide to a more minimalist lifestyle, tuned somewhat for the Cambridge area:

If… Then it goes to…
Nobody likely to want it/impractical to get it to them Local dump/recycling centre
Somebody might want it enough to come and pick it up Freecycle group (now via TrashNothing.com)
Somebody local might want it enough to pay something for it, or, it would be tricky to ship. Gumtree
Somebody might want it enough to pay something for it, but probably not the sort of people who read Gumtree. Nearby charity shop.
Somebody might want it enough to pay something for it but probably not the sort of people who read Gumtree, and it’s electrical. British Heart Foundation shop, or the local Emmaus community.
Somebody might be willing to pay more for it, but they’re harder to find locally. eBay

There are, of course, variations on this theme, and many tricks of the trade.

  • How do you know whether people might pay a reasonable amount for it, or what might be a reasonable amount to ask? Go to eBay and search for the closest thing you can find, then select the option on the left that says ‘Show only… Sold listings’.
  • I’m fortunate to have a Post Office very close by, but for anything larger than, say, a book, a courier is generally cheaper these days. I recommend Parcel2Go as a quick way to find a cheap one.
  • Packing stuff for shipping can be a pain. If you know you’re going to be doing this, hoard your cardboard boxes and bubblewrap for a while beforehand, or find a local store and ask them to keep some for you. Buy yourself a proper packing-tape dispenser and lots of tape. Even the basic dispensers can work well. Big Jiffy bags are also useful.
  • If you want to get rid of stuff quickly, you can try more than one method in parallel. You can put stuff on Gumtree and eBay simultaneously, for example, until you get a bid on eBay. Somebody local might show up first and save you the problem of shipping.
  • But often, things go in series for me. Nobody local want it? Try eBay next. Then with international shipping options. Nobody want to pay for it? Try giving it away.
  • Oh, and you know the stuff we used to call bric-a-brac? It has a new name, now: vintage. Try sprinkling that through your advertisements…

Sometimes you get pleasant surprises. The old HP calculator that’s been gathering dust on my desk and getting in the way for a few decades turned out to be a collectible item, and has just sold for £56! In spite of donating quite a lot of it to charity, I’ve made about 400 quid over the last few weekends by getting rid of stuff I wasn’t using, and gained a lot of floor space as well.

But, really, it’s not about the money. It’s about not wasting stuff when somebody else would value it more than you do. I’ve been finding decluttering refreshing and liberating, even though some of the items had sentimental associations. Mmm. Perhaps getting rid of those is actually the most liberating?

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser