Category Archives: Electric Vehicles

Behind the Tesla ‘Full Self Driving’ system

If I were giving advice to somebody considering buying a Tesla at the moment, it would be (a) buy it and (b) don’t believe the ‘full self-driving’ hype… yet.

You’ll be getting a car that is great fun to drive, has amazing range, a splendid safety record, a brilliant charging network, etc… and, in the standard included ‘autopilot’, has a really good cruise control and lane-keeping facility. One thing I’ve noticed when comparing it to the smart cruise control on my previous car, for example, is that it’s much better at handling the situation where somebody overtakes and then pulls into the lane just in front of you. Systems that are primarily concerned with keeping your distance from the car in front have difficult decisions to make at that point: how much and how suddenly should they back off to maintain the preferred gap. The Tesla, in contrast, is constantly tracking all the vehicles around you, and has therefore been following that car and its speed relative to yours for some time, so can react much more smoothly.

The dubiously-named ‘Full Self-Driving’ package is an expensive optional extra which you can buy at the time of purchase or add on later with a couple of clicks in the app. At the moment, it doesn’t give you very much more: the extra functionality (especially outside the US) hasn’t been worth the money. If you purchase it now, you’re primarily buying into the promise of what it will offer in the future, and the hope that this will provide you with significant benefits in the time between now and when you sell the car!

But at sometime in the not-too-distant future, the new version –currently known as the ‘FSD Beta’ — will be released more widely to the general public. ‘Full Self Driving’ will then still be a misnomer, but will be quite a bit closer to the truth. YouTube is awash with videos of the FSD Beta doing some amazing things: people with a 45-minute California commute essentially being driven door-to-door, for example, while just resting their hands lightly on the steering wheel… and also with a few examples of it doing some pretty scary things. It seems clear, though, that it’s improving very fast, and will be genuinely valuable on highways, especially American highways, before too long, but also that it’s likely to be useless on the typical British country road or high street for a very long time!

What Tesla has, to a much greater degree than other companies, is the ability to gather data from its existing vehicles out on the road in order to improve the training of its neural nets. The more cars there are running the software, the better it should become. But the back-at-base process of training the machine learning models on vast amounts of video data (to produce the parameters which are then sent out to all the cars) is computationally very expensive, and the speed of an organisation’s innovation, and how fast it can distribute the results to the world, depends significantly on how fast it can do this.

Last week, Tesla held their ‘AI Day’, where Elon Musk got up on stage and, in his usual way, mumbled a few disjointed sentences. Did nobody ever tell the man that it’s worth actually preparing before you get up on a stage, especially the world stage?

However, between these slightly embarrassing moments are some amazing talks by the Tesla team, going into enormous detail about how they architect their neural nets, the challenges of the driving task, the incredible chips they are building and rolling out to build what may be the fastest ML-training installation in the world, and the systems they’re building around all this new stuff.

For most people, this will be too much technical detail and will make little sense. For those with a smattering of knowledge about machine learning, you can sit back and enjoy the ride. There are lots of pictures and video clips amidst the details! And for those with a deeper interest in AI/ML systems, I would say this is well-worth watching.

There are two key things that struck me during the talks.

First, as my friend Pilgrim pointed out, it’s amazing how open they’re being. Perhaps, he suggested, they can safely assume that the competition is so far behind that they’re not a threat!

Secondly, it suddenly occurred to me — half way through the discussions of petaflop-speed calculations — that I was watching a video from a motor manufacturer! An automobile company! If you’re considering buying a Tesla, this is a part of what you’re buying into, and it’s astonishingly different from anything you’d ever see from any other car-maker. Full self-driving is a very difficult problem. But this kind of thing goes a long way to convincing me that if anybody is going to get there, it will be Tesla.

You may or may not ever pay for the full FSD package, but it’s safe to assume much of the output of these endeavours will be incorporated into other parts of the system. So, at the very least, you should eventually get one hell of a cruise control!

The livestream is here, and the interesting stuff actually starts about 46 minutes in.

The sound of bubbles

Late last summer we were in Cornwall and spent a delightful day on the Helford river in a boat we rented for the purpose. It had a motor, which was very convenient, but having driven an electric car for the last 6 years, I was very conscious again of just how much noise a combustion engine makes, especially when it’s in the form of an outboard sitting right behind you. Since that day, I’ve been desirous of an electric-powered boat.

Well, today we were able to try out a couple of recent purchases. Our new vessel, Tiddler, is an inflatable that comes somewhere between a RIB tender and an inflatable kayak — and we paired it with an ePropulsion electric outboard, which is a marvellous thing that can be put in the back of the car without any risk of petrol spills. In fact we can just about get the boat, the pump, the engine, the battery and the oars in the boot of our saloon car without needing to fold the seats down.

It took some research to find a combination that would do that, but I was keen to try because it turns out that Teslas are ridiculously dependent on their very low drag coefficient for their range, and doing reckless things like putting something on a roof-rack or towing it behind has quite an impact, so keeping things inside is a good idea if you can.

Anyway, we had a rather idyllic but high-tech day, zooming from our house to the little harbour just over an hour away, along a highway that took us almost all the way, so the car did the vast majority of the driving. Then pottering around the estuary mostly in sunshine and mostly in silence, mooring near a famous waterside pub that we knew to serve excellent fish and chips, and then heading back home the same way. This simultaneously proved two things to my satisfaction: firstly, that most forms of transport can be improved with the addition of a good battery, and secondly, that despite all this technology there’s still nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Great news for the UK’s electric-vehicle driving community (which will soon be all of us)

The above photo, taken in 2015, was the first time I had charged an electric car at a public charging point: one of the stations installed by Ecotricity as part of the ‘Electric Highway’.

At the time, pumps were scarce, battery ranges were about 70 miles, and charging was free. This meant that you had a real sense of achievement when you reached one, like getting to the end of the rainbow and finding a pot of free gold, I used to think, though perhaps a better analogy is of a parched man finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Anyway, we were pioneers, spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri … well you know the rest.

All of this gave many of us a fondness for Ecotricity, because they truly enabled the adoption of electric driving here, several years before it would otherwise have been viable. Admittedly, they gained a monopoly on the motorway service station locations as a result, and I believe the installation was heavily subsidised; I’m not sure the figures have ever been made public. In 2016, they started charging for charging. I did some crude analysis and defended the pricing, which some people thought too high. Still I doubt they’ve ever made any significant money on it, and it was probably a loss-leader, partly to connect people with their other offerings.

Over the years, though, fondness for Ecotricity has waned, because the network was poorly-maintained and unreliable, the ‘rapid’ chargers were, by modern standards (a whole five years later!), slow and cranky, and nobody now heads for an Ecotricity charger if there is any other viable option. A recent Zap-Map survey of the UK’s 16 charging networks — yes, there are actually 16 — placed Ecotricity at position… ahem… 16.

If you compare them with some of the newer installations I’ve visited, like this one from Polar:

or this from Instavolt:

then they just can’t compete. And that’s before we even start looking at Tesla superchargers.

Yet Ecotricity still maintained the monopoly on the motorway service stations, so the places where you needed the fastest and best chargers had the slowest and the worst.

Until now.

Yesterday, there was an announcement that this monopoly was going to end.

And today, joint announcements from Ecotricity and Gridserve say that they’re going to collaborate on renewing the Electric Highway. (Did Dale Vince jump, one can’t help wondering, or was he pushed?) Anyway, this is excellent news.

Gridserve, for those who don’t know, created the UK’s first fully-electric forecourt, which I visited soon after it opened. Like everybody else, I was suitably impressed, so it’s great to see them grow.

The Fully Charged Show has an interview with the CEOs of the two companies.

The key item to take away here is that most of the UK’s motorways will soon be well-equipped with 350kW chargers capable of adding vast amounts of range to the big batteries of today’s newer cars, in the time it takes to visit the loo and get a coffee.

The Gridserve forecourt was actually the last place I charged my old BMW before replacing it, so in a sense, this merger of its first and last charge-suppliers seems somehow appropriate, and my ownership of that car is a bit reminiscent of the early days of the web: it spanned the era from when EV-driving was new and exciting to when it started becoming mainstream, in a very small number of years.

Which is all excellent news, but it means I’ll have to find something else to do now, to maintain that feeling of being a pioneer…

Tom, Dick and Harry now all have Teslas

Looking back through my posts about electric vehicles, I came across my brief entry from five years ago, when I got my first electric car. How different things were back then! Those who have seen my more recent posts or YouTube videos will know that I’ve just exchanged my BMW i3 for a Tesla.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning, in case you associate the word Tesla with extraordinary wealth, that this was a Model 3, and, though they are very far from being cheap, they are also about half the price of a Model S or Model X, so if you have figures in mind from old episodes of Top Gear, they might need to be revised downwards a bit! In my case, this — my first-ever brand new car — was bought almost entirely with the combined proceeds of selling a second-hand i3 and a second-hand campervan. Well, third-hand, by the time I sold them!

But I always like trying to live in the future, and the Tesla is several years ahead of most of its competition on almost any metric, especially when you think of it not so much as buying a car but buying into a transport ecosystem; combining an OK car with the best software and the best charging network available. So I took the ridiculous step of buying a brand new car — something that sane people don’t usually do — and of buying a car without a hatchback — something no sane person should do, and certainly no sane person with a dog.

Even after five years of electric driving, though, I thought I was still doing something slightly unusual and pioneering. But it turns out I was mistaken. In December 2020, the Tesla Model 3 was the top-selling car in the UK. No, you didn’t read that wrong: not the top-selling EV, but the top-selling car overall, ahead of the VW Golf and the Ford Fiesta. Here’s the list from the SMMT:

Now, there are all sorts of factors to take into account here, when interpreting this.

Car sales as a whole were significantly down last year, EV sales, by contrast, tripled their 2019 numbers. It’s worth noting that the Tesla doesn’t appear at all in the top 10 for the year as a whole, though it was also head of the charts in April, so this isn’t just a one-off occurrence. And Tesla had a big push at the end of the month because they wanted to hit the magic figure of half-a-million cars produced globally in 2020, helped on by their new production facilities in Shanghai.

It’s also encouraging to see the the VW ID.3 — another fine vehicle — came in at number 4, so soon after its general release. This no doubt also reduced the Golf numbers significantly.

So the figures need some interpretation, but any street cred I might once have had as an EV pioneer who had to write his own software to interface to his car (e.g. here and here) is clearly long gone. Everybody’s getting ’em.

Now, I can just say that it’s one of the nicest computers I’ve ever driven.

Your electrons, sir. Will that be all, sir?

When I was young, you didn’t put your own petrol in your car. Self-service petrol stations were still a novelty in the UK, and you just drove up to the pump, wound down the window and said, “Fill her up with four-star, please!” (That’s a phrase, I realise, that would be unknown to anyone under about forty years of age here.) It was terribly civilised… assuming that an attendant was available when you needed them. Interestingly, in New Jersey (and one or two other small areas of the States), self-service fuelling is illegal. I had this explained to me by the attendant when I tried it once…

Of course, a visit to a petrol station today is often simultaneously smelly, messy and expensive, which is why I’m glad that it’s been a very rare experience for me in the last five years: most of my refuelling comes from just plugging my EV in at home. This has, however, been considerably easier since I had my own driveway; for the first couple of years I had on-street parking only.

About 40% of the homes in the UK don’t have any off-street parking — the vast majority of those being in inner cities — and this does make EV ownership much harder. It’s a lot better than it used to be, today’s cars having much larger batteries and recharging much more quickly than when I started. Going to the charger once a week for a quick top-up is more viable now, if you can’t, say, charge at work, but it’s still not as handy as plugging in your car overnight at home.

So I was interested to receive an email this week from a new service called Zumo. They will appear at your doorstep on their e-scooters, take your car away overnight and return it to you, fully charged, in the morning. I have no idea how commercially viable this is in the longer term, but I think it’s a great idea, and I applaud their ingenuity. The opportunity to add extra services, such as cleaning, checking the tyre pressures and the washer fluid etc — maybe even an overnight MOT test — could make for a very low-hassle car ownership experience!

Eventually, of course, cars will be able to go off and charge themselves. Five years ago, Tesla released a little video (below) showing how they might be able to plug in when they get to the charging station. Cunning, but a little bit creepy!

In the meantime, however, I wish Zumo every success, and I hope they can find a pricing model that works.

Where have you bin all my life?

I have a new car. It’s rather clever. As I’m driving along it can recognise nearby vehicles, people, cyclists, traffic cones…

But I was somewhat amused yesterday to discover that it can also recognise wheelie-bins.

(Click for a larger image.)

I’m trying to imagine what I would have thought, back in the days of my old rusting Minis and Hillman Imps, if you’d told me that one day my car would have a built-in ability to recognise and draw pictures of the waste-disposal facilities it was passing…

Driving from the past to the future

Yesterday was an interesting day for me: I part-exchanged my old electric car for a new one, and got a vision of the future.

I had a great fondness for my old BMW i3, despite its foibles; we had been through a lot together in the pioneering early days of EV ownership (that is, about five years ago!) But it definitely represented the past, and, given that part of my plan here has been to try living in the future, it was time for a change. Before selling it, I charged it at the new Gridserve Electric Forecourt (and almost had a charging experience reminiscent of the early days!). But everything worked out in the end.

Here’s a video.

If you don’t want to see me reminiscing about my experiences with the i3, you might want to start 7 minutes in!

The light of the charge brigade?

The British county of Essex is often the butt of jokes here, since it has a few notably unappealing areas, but this is unfair. In general it’s a lovely county with some particularly pretty spots. Just at the moment, though, it has a different kind of jewel in its crown, at least from my point of view, because it’s also home to what looks like one of the coolest car-charging areas on the planet. If you want to see what the future of car travel might be, the place to go is probably the Gridserve Electric Forecourt near Braintree, which opens formally next week.

It has no fewer than 36 rapid chargers, and most of them are very rapid; there are a dozen that can supply 350kW (which almost nothing can actually consume, yet, but they’re future-proofing). 350kW, to give you an idea, would gain you about 25-30 miles of range for every minute you’re plugged in. There’s a bank of the Tesla v3 superchargers, too, which can do up to 250kW.

Now, you might well ask, how can you supply this quantity of electricity, even with that many solar panels? Well, the answer is that, as well as a good grid connection, they have an enormous battery pack next door and a solar farm just down the road. While you’re charging, there are cafes, loos and shops available.

I haven’t visited yet, but it just so happens I’ll be in that area next week, so I may well take a look.

Oh, and they’re hoping to build 100 of these.

In the meantime, there’s a Fully Charged video about it, which will probably be available to the general public about the time you read this:

Air Power

We’re staying in a throughly delightful B&B in Devon, on a working farm. This is the view from the front door:

Sheep peacefully grazing

Rose was greeted by the welcoming committee in the car park.

We drove down here in our little electric car. We’ve had it now for nearly five years, and have clocked up 30,000 miles, which I realise means we’ve put about eight megawatt-hours through its battery! That sounds like quite a lot, so I should point out that it represents total fuel costs to us of about £20 per month, and in our case that fuel was almost entirely from renewable sources; mostly hydroelectric, with a bit of solar and wind. So for the last five years, we’ve been driving around powered by sun, wind and rain.

One thing that helps with the efficiency is keeping your tyres pumped up to the correct pressure. I carefully did that a couple of days ago before setting off. But I couldn’t help noticing this morning that our very genial host, Rob, was doing the same, but he has a rather more powerful tyre pump than I have!

More of Moore?

I note that the number of public electric car charging points in the UK has roughly followed Moore’s Law recently: doubling about every two years.

Zap-map stats

I don’t think that can hold true for quite as along as the original law, but it’s encouraging none the less!

Shifting to electric

In the U.S.A, cars with manual transmissions were just 1.1% of car sales last year.

Cars with electric motors were 1.6%.

Slowly but surely, the revolution is happening…

How I Flitted away my Friday afternoon!

Today, I got to ride the Flit Electric Bike! It was great fun!

Actually, it was much better than that; I was invited to visit their office in Cambridge and got to spend quite a bit of time meeting the team and distracting them from what they ought to have been doing. But they were great people, and very patient as I quizzed them endlessly to find out more about what I think is a really nicely-designed product.

A bit of personal background: I own an elderly (non-electric) Brompton folding bike which I got from my parents, and there’s a story behind why I’m particularly fond of that brand. My father had bad arthritis in his ankles meaning that, from an earlier age than one might expect, walking any distance was difficult, but he could cycle just fine. Some of us got together and gave him a Brompton, little knowing that it really would prove to be quite a life-changer. He could take it with him almost everywhere he went, and it allowed him to join in on family walks, get exercise, and see new places in a way he never could have done without it. For him it genuinely was a mobility vehicle, and I think it kept him out of a wheelchair for probably 10 years longer than might otherwise have been the case. My mother also got one soon afterwards, and until fairly recently, their car always had two bikes in the boot. So yes, I have a soft spot for this brilliant bit of British engineering, designed by a Cambridge engineer and finally brought to market after a long hard struggle.

To be fair, almost everybody loves Bromptons, though for most people the value is that you can cycle at all on something that folds away so ridiculously small; it’s not really the bike you’d probably choose to ride just for the joy of riding. There are compromises in rigidity, in cycling position, etc., which are apparent when you compare it to any regular bike (though I gather newer models may be a bit better than my ancient and well-travelled example!). And when Brompton came to build their battery-assisted version, they didn’t want to change too much of the basic design which had been so successful for so long. They did an ingenious and careful job of electrifying it, but it was always a retrofitting exercise to an existing layout.

The Flit bike, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up as an electric bike, yet it folds almost as small as a Brompton, and weighs a bit less than their electric model. At present, it’s also cheaper, because Flit are selling direct; you can’t yet walk into a dealer and buy one. And in fact, even buying direct, you’ll need to be patient; they expect the first batch to ship in July. So the one I was trying was a pre-production model, but they’ve managed to sell quite a number through their crowdfunding campaigns, initially on Kickstarter and now on Indiegogo, which is impressive given that very few of those people, presumably, will have had the opportunity to go and try it out just a few miles from home, as I did!

But I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. I found it great fun and comfortable to ride, a good weight to carry, and easier to roll along the floor than any other folding bike I’ve tried. I can definitely see that if you lived a few miles from your nearest train or bus station, this would be a great way to get there. Or, say, to carry in your motorhome or yacht for trips to the nearest pub or grocery shop. OK, so it doesn’t fold quite as small as a Brompton. And it doesn’t have the load-carrying capacity of, say, the much larger and heavier Tern Vectron. Both of those are fine machines, but the Flit is noticeably cheaper than both of them at the moment and (in my opinion) nicer to ride than either.

I shall watch with interest as they ramp up production, and follow their blog, and I hope they have the success they deserve!

]9 Alex Murray

My thanks to Alex Murray, the Managing Director, for the invitation. (I first heard of Flit, by the way, on this excellent podcast, which I recommend for anyone interested either in bikes or startups or both!)

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser