Category Archives: Electric Vehicles

Too busy living’ it…

I remember in the early days of blogging, I was trying to persuade a good friend of mine that he would be capable of writing a really interesting blog, and his response was something along the lines of ‘Too busying living it to blog it!’ I wasn’t quite sure what to think of that. Was it an enviable, or pitiable, state?

My posts on Status-Q (now approaching its 21st birthday) have always been somewhat bursty and sporadic, and I notice that it’s nearly a month since my last one. I sometimes feel inferior to friends who produce impressive output every single week or even day (though I suppose many of them are not so much writing new content themselves as linking to valuable pieces elsewhere, which is something I generally tend to do a bit less because they do it much better than me!)

So blogging for me is something that generally happens when I have enough interesting stuff going on to write about, but not so much that there’s no time to write! My long-suffering readers just put up with the unpredictability. And this last month has been surprisingly busy, both with work and play, but a lot of the latter… so here are a few quick phone snaps and bits of news, to catch up…

Big boats…

Since the last post, Rose and I went on an RYA sailing course – the first for her and the second for me – and spent a few days living aboard a very fine 35ft boat. Here’s Rose at the helm, heading out to sea:

and we also enjoyed some night sailing on the River Stour:

And little boats…

At the other extreme we’ve been exploring the North Norfolk coast and its challenging tidal currents in our little inflatable boat with its electric outboard, getting up very early to set out with enough water from Morston Quay…

:

Popping out to see the seals on Blakeney Point:

before heading back inland towards Blakeney…

with the help of local signposts:

…and passing some of the pleasing local craft on the way.

Blakeney high street, which we had wandered down to a favourite restaurant the previous night…

was now our destination port…

and such is the height of the spring tide down at the quay that we could just sail into the carpark and tie up to a bollard there.

The quay soon became crowded with people enjoying jumping in to the warm, voluminous and fast-flowing river, which normally meanders much more sedately through substantial banks of mud and sand.

We walked back along the coast path to Morston, picked up the car, and brought it back to Blakeney, had a coffee and sausage roll for breakfast at the nearby cafe. After that, the rapidly-drying car park was once again full of cars, and we could roll up the boat and take it away.

Tesla travel

Of course, if you’re staying in a campsite, but your car is full of spaniels, boats and outboards, then transporting a tent can be a challenge. I do have a roof rack I can put on the Tesla, but I wasn’t too keen on attaching a heavy tent to my glass roof, nor on the likely effects of the resulting aerodynamics on my range.

Then I remembered that I had once bought a custom-made bag to go on our bike-rack when I was using it with our old campervan. It turned out to be a great way to transport the tent.

When we got to the campsite we removed it and had a normal (albeit boat-filled) car for the rest of the weekend. As always when attaching things to my towbar, though, I did need to adopt a slightly unusual position when using a supercharger on the way home!

An old design with new opportunities?

Next to us in the campsite was a rather interesting folding caravan. We made friends with the owner and discovered that it was a Carousel Slimline, a jolly clever design originating in the 70s and produced, in Norfolk, until just a few years ago. They look like this:

The slimline version of the Gobur Carousel.

Now, if you’re thinking that it looks a bit, well, boxy, remember… that’s what you really want when you’re living inside it. Houses are boxy too. Flat vertical walls and high ceilings are desirable, but you normally have to compromise them because of things like aerodynamics when you’re towing behind a car at high speeds. Not with this.

We were rather impressed, and since the company was just a few miles from the campsite, we went and had a look. They even let me try towing one on the Tesla… which worked very well.

For those interested, I got about 3 miles per kWh on my 18-mile test, as compared to about 4 miles/kWh normally. If that was representative for longer journeys, I would still get over 200 miles before recharging, which is just fine!

Turning this trailer into a liveable space takes about 3 minutes, which is rather clever: consider, for example, the fact that the van contains a wardrobe, and kitchen units, and that the folding point is lower then the kitchen worktops… Here’s how it works.

Sadly, new ones are no longer being built, but some enterprising former employees have got together and have an impressive collection of models available which they buy, recondition, service, resell and so forth. We were both impressed and tempted, but have resisted that temptation… so far.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s a real opportunity for designs like this in the world of electric cars. These are both light and streamlined, and even the slimline one gives you a lot more living space then some other alternatives like the Eriba Puck, the GoPod or some of the sexy teardrop-shaped options on the market. There’s an opportunity for an investor here, I think, to keep a classic alive and to market it as the EV-friendly caravan option for the future.

And lastly…

Combining the themes of boats and electric propulsion, I’m in danger of boring some of my friends by telling them how wonderful I think electric outboard motors are. (I’ve put lots more on one of my YouTube playlists if you’re interested, though.)

But yesterday, my friend Douglas and I sailed our little dinghy down the River Blackwater from the very friendly and welcoming sailing club at Stone St Lawrence and round to Brightlingsea on the River Colne. On the way, we passed the old Radio Caroline ship, which will bring back memories to UK readers of a certain age…

We made it to Brightlingsea, with a little exploration of West Mersea on the way. It’s rather fun sailing 12 miles along the edge of the North Sea in a little 12-foot boat. (That’s nautical miles, of course, so 13-and-a-bit to you landlubbers.)

The harbourmaster kindly let us tie up on the jetty while we went and got a hot chocolate at a local cafe.

Then we headed back, which we knew would have been rather a slow sail because it was into the wind, so we were planning to use the outboard, and this was made really easy by a new accessory I had just got for it. Details are here for those interested.

In the end the wind almost completely vanished, leaving us cruising silently up a glassy estuary towards the sunset as the evening came on. A very pleasant end to the day.

In summary…

It’s hard to believe that this has still, in general, been a normal working month involving lots of other things like trips to the vet, a family funeral, speccing out a solar-and-battery system for the house, lots of software development and some important deadlines for important clients. Fortunately, we’re going away at the end of next week to recover.

Charging sideways: Towing Electric part II

I wrote a couple of months ago about my early experiences of towing with an electric car. A couple of quick updates, now that I’ve done a bit more towing of my little boat…

  • The general towing experience is excellent. The power and smooth acceleration, combined with a fairly heavy towing vehicle, make for a good ride.

  • Even the car’s reversing camera, which I had assumed would prove useless, turns out to be very handy with a small boat: you can check for any wildly flapping straps, reverse with more confidence, make sure you’ve left enough room going around a corner, and the towing ball itself is visible when trying to position yourself close to the trailer.

  • Since purchasing a good cover, and once I remembered that in the UK you’re not allowed to tow above 60mph, the aerodynamics aren’t too bad and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the efficiency. I tend to average about 320 Wh/mile while towing, which translates to just over 3.1 miles/kWh, or to put it another way, my Tesla Model 3 LR gets a range of over 230 miles. (Since this is at least 4 hours of driving, and more than 3 times the distance my first EV would go when not towing, I’m very happy!)

  • In addition to my load being fairly light and streamlined, I’m guessing that I benefit significantly from the fact that this is an unbraked trailer. In the UK, any load that weighs more than 750kg is required to have its own brakes: as you slow down and the trailer compresses a spring on the towing hitch, these brakes are applied. If, however, you can get away without needing this on an EV, then the momentum of the trailer is converted back into battery charge by the regenerative braking system of the car as you slow down, rather than being lost as heat. My first experiences of towing with an EV involved a significantly heavier, more ancient, less streamlined and generally much clunkier braked trailer, and the effects on my range were much more dramatic. Your mileage, as the saying goes may vary!

  • In the future, I imagine, heavier trailers will come with dynamos/motors attached to the wheels, so they can do their own regenerative braking. These might be more basic than would be needed to provide significant motive power while driving at speed, but they could perhaps double up as the remote-controlled motor-movers employed on caravans to allow easy final positioning at your destination once you’ve disconnected from your car. I sense a real future business opportunity here, by the way. Anyone fancy collaborating on a start-up?

More about charging

Since, given the right charger, my car (and many other modern ones) can charge really very fast, the fact that I have to stop every three or four hours to do so is hardly a major concern!

However, as I’ve pointed out in the past, the design of most charging stations in the UK is hardly optimised for those who are towing!

The Gridserve Electric Forecourt at Braintree is one pleasing exception, but in general, EV owners will often need to unhitch their load before charging. This is not a problem for a light trailer like mine with a jockey wheel, but it’s another reason those motor-movers might come in handy!

So far, I’ve only needed to charge away from home three times while towing, and on two of those occasions, I’ve managed to get away without unhitching, either by visiting remote superchargers at off-peak periods…

… or by blatantly abusing the facilities when there aren’t any other people needing to get to them, as I did on Friday!

That arrow on the road does indicate how you’re meant to park, doesn’t it?

Forecourt futures?

If only they all looked like this…

A few years ago, I was involved in a big brainstorming session with some senior staff from BP. We had gathered, from both sides of the Atlantic, to consider some of the implications of technology changes on their business, and one of the topics discussed was the future of the retail forecourt: the petrol station, as most of us know it today. There was one thing we were all pretty much agreed on about its future: that it hadn’t got one.

The problem is that electric cars give you a very different refuelling experience from cars burning dinosaur juice. The bad news is that it takes longer, as we all know. Even when I’m charging my Tesla at speeds that would have astonished me when I first started driving EVs, I’m still generally there for 20-30 minutes, rather than the five minutes I would have spent filling up with petrol.

But the good news is that you don’t have to stand there while it’s happening, shivering, breathing in those lovely fumes, and wondering if your shoes will reek of diesel for the rest of the day. Instead, you can be inside the car watching the latest episode of your favourite show, or having a drink at the nearby cafe, or taking the dog for a walk. One of our favourite superchargers is in a multi-storey car park near Bristol, where you can just plug in and stroll over to John Lewis to purchase pillowcases, or whatever takes your fancy.

(As an aside, I think this is very healthy: on long drives, it’s important to take a proper break every so often, not just for your own wellbeing, but for the safety of those you may be approaching at speed later in the journey. EVs almost enforce that.)

Now, you could beef up the shopping/dining experience at some petrol stations, but it’s not really enough. The problem for those who have invested large amounts in forecourt real estate is that these stations are generally the wrong size for charging points — you need bigger parking areas and bigger retail areas — and many of them are not where you’d actually want to spend much time: on noisy town-centre roundabouts or on the edge of a busy bypass. Add to that the fact that they aren’t necessarily in good locations for a high-power connection to the electricity grid, and you’d think it probably makes sense to start selling them off. Oh, except you’ve spent a few decades storing and spilling toxic liquids there, so that’s a bit tricky too.

After the gas has gone…

We discussed other possible uses for the sites, which, despite some problems, do have the merit of being close to good road links, and often close to towns.

One idea was that they might become last-hop delivery hubs. Instead of fuel tankers rolling in during the night to top up the tanks, it would be big Amazon trucks coming to offload their parcels. Then a fleet of smaller electric vans would zip out from there during the day, doing the deliveries.

Someone else pointed out that there’s another service to which people often need quick and easy access while travelling: the loo! Yes, petrol stations are ideally placed for public conveniences, but up to now, that part of any visit has not always been very inspiring! Apparently one gas station chain in the States made their toilets a feature, advertising that they had the nicest bathrooms in the business! I thought this was very smart: there’s not much else to distinguish one station from another, so this was a cunning way to make your visit one of choice (as well as necessity!) Could you, we wondered, actually dispense with the petrol station, and instead draw people to your roadside retail experience through the quality and cleanliness of the adjacent WC? I like that idea, though it might require some clever marketing!

I suggested that they might want to develop a brand and business that wasn’t tied to particular premises in the same way. In the past, petrol stations were expensive and difficult to install, and they added retail experiences onto them to try to increase the profitability of each visit. But in the future, what people would want was not a Costa Coffee shop next to their refuelling point, but a refuelling stop next to their Costa Coffee. And that was much more viable than it ever had been in the past. Who was going to make it really easy for a supermarket, restaurant, shopping mall or pub to turn their existing car park into a charging centre? This, I thought, was an opportunity.

(Interestingly, almost on that exact day, it also became public that BP were buying the Polar/Chargemaster charging network, which was a smart way to get a good foothold in the charging world in the UK.)

Happy memories

Anyway, just to finish this on a personal note, and to show they’re not all bad, I do have a favourite petrol station, of all the ones I’ve visited in my life.

It stood right on the side of a Norwegian fjord, not far from a cottage where I stayed with my parents and grandparents on holiday sometime in the mid-1980s. You filled up your tank in a gentle sea breeze, surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, and then strolled into the shop to pay. This was also the local grocery shop for that side of the fjord. (For the post office, bank, and the other shop, we would just go into to the cottage’s boathouse, get into the dinghy and chug across to the other side of the water.) Anyway, I remember that the two or three fuel pumps had unusually long hoses, because they were also sometimes used to fill up the boats which could pull in just as easily as cars.

And in the spaces between the pumps? Flower boxes.

Yes, that was a really lovely spot to fill up, and it would also make an amazing charging station. Perhaps, knowing Norway, I’ll be able to go back someday in my current car and fill up again…

Towing electric

As the world moves rapidly in the direction of electric propulsion, there is one big challenge, irrelevant to the majority of car-buyers but a serious concern for a significant subset of us: what are these EVs like when used for towing?

This has been more in my mind recently as we have just purchased a small boat — more on that later, once we’ve finished sanding and varnishing! But when you add up the people who tow caravans, horses, motorbikes, classic cars, trailer-tents, ride-on lawn-mowers etc, there’s quite a population for whom this is a real issue.

I haven’t yet done much towing, but one of the key factors that made us choose the Tesla Model 3 at our last car-change was the fact that it could take both a roof-rack and a tow bar; something that, at the time, was really quite rare on EVs.

There are, of course, two key questions most people want to ask: how much can a given EV tow, and how far can it tow it?

How much?

EVs ought, in general, to have very good towing capacities because of their enormous torque, and the fact that they’re quite heavy. (Experts suggest that, in general, it’s best only to tow things up to 85% of the car’s weight, and the EV batteries give you a bit more leeway!) EVs also, of course, lack things like a clutch and gearbox, components which, in days gone by, tended to suffer a bit from towing.

But towing hasn’t, thus far, been a priority for most EV manufacturers, which means that these powerful, heavy cars are often not actually built with it in mind, and so are not rated to tow loads as substantial as one might expect. (There are also probably challenges in getting things like the regenerative braking right for both braked and unbraked trailers.) My Model 3, for example, weighs quite a bit more than a VW Golf and has infinitely more power, yet its rated towing capacity of 1000kg seems a bit weedy compared to the Golf’s 1500kg or so. The Model Y, just starting to make its way to these shores, has a more respectable 1600kg rating, and the Hyundai Ioniq 5, which has been getting a lot of positive reviews recently, has the same.

An enterprising campsite owner, Chris Scott, has put together a useful list showing the towing capacities of most current EVs. While none of those available at present in the UK will compete with a Land Rover, there are nonetheless quite a few to choose from if you want to tow most normal loads, and if you have the (rather significant) budget for a Tesla Model X, you can pull a similarly significant weight!

How far?

Yes, as always, this is the elephant in the trailer.

Here’s a quick rule of thumb when you hang something on your tow bar: take the real-world range of an EV, and halve it. That, of course, is a wild generalisation, but it’s often quoted, and tied in with my first experience towing a trailer on the Model 3.

“What?!”, you say. “You’ve been trying to tell me that EVs are good when they can only do 300 miles compared to my car’s 400! And now you stick a poxy little trailer on the back and tell me it’ll only do 150?” This number doesn’t phase me; before the Tesla I was driving an EV which had a range of about 70 miles without a trailer, and we went all over the country in it. But yes, that’s right. You’ll probably have to stop every two or three hours. But you should really do this for safety whenever you’re driving, and just how big is your bladder anyway?

The thing is that EVs are often very dependent on their aerodynamics for their range, especially Teslas, which are normally exceedingly slippery. Spoil the airflow with a big roofbox or a chunky trailer and it will have a very significant impact.

But here’s the important thing: this is nothing to do with the power source. If you had the same car with the same aerodynamics but with a petrol engine, the drag would still change to the same degree and the effect on the range would be similarly drastic. You just don’t think about it as much with traditional cars: in EVs, it’s typically higher up in your consciousness. Few people really check the range of their petrol car when towing for several hours on the motorway.

Having said all of that, my experience in towing our little boat from her former home in Dorset to Cambridge, 165 miles away, was quite encouraging. First, it towed beautifully; the gear-less acceleration and single-pedal driving made for a very nice experience. And secondly, the loss of range, though significant, wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

Tesla likes to use measure consumption in watt-hours per mile (analogous to the European litres-per-100km), so bigger numbers mean more energy used. By setting the cruise control to 60mph — the maximum towing speed in the UK — my average consumption was 400 Wh/mile, compared to my normal 285 Wh/mile or so — and, because it was fairly late at night, I was able to maintain that speed most of the way home. If I’d had to go slower, the consumption would have been lower.

Or, to use the miles-per-gallon analogy adopted by most other manufacturers, I went from about 3.5 miles/kWh to about 2.5 miles/kWh. A big difference, yes, but much better than half. That would give me a real range of around 180 miles. If I had started the three-and-a-half-hour journey with a full battery, I could have made it home without having to stop for a charge. And this was night-time in February, with the associated winter inefficiencies of lower battery temperatures, headlights, and needing to keep the driver cozy and warm while he listened to his audiobooks…

The real issue

For those of us who remember the pioneering early days of EVs — i.e. just a few years ago — today’s charging stations can be a source of wonder. If you manage to park a modern car with a nearly empty battery at a new super-rapid charger, then the rate at which you top up can be astonishing.

Once again, Tesla owners are a bit spoiled here: my old BMW would charge at a maximum rate of 50kW, rapidly dropping off as it filled up its little battery. That meant that the peak rate got you about 3 miles for every minute you spent charging, and you had plenty of time to take the dog for a stroll or even have a quick meal before driving for the next hour.

The newer Tesla superchargers can manage up to 250kW, if your battery is warm and empty, and because of the size of the battery and some clever management, can maintain a high rate of charge for much longer. Popping to the loo and then picking up a coffee or a quick snack is time enough to add vast amounts of charge before you set off again.

But, in either case, this does take longer than filling up with dinosaur juice, and the result is that most charging stations, at least in the UK, are designed more like a car-park than like a ‘drive-thru’. There are some notable exceptions, like the Electric Forecourt at Braintree, which I visited when it first opened a little over a year ago. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a section from my video at the time:

At most charging stations, though, you’re expected to sit there for a while, so you pull into a parking space. And, in the case of Teslas, the charging sockets are all at the back, so you’re expected to reverse into that parking space in order to connect the very short, very high-power cable.

This is clearly not ideal if you’re towing. For a light trailer like my boat, it’s the work of a moment to unhitch it and put it in a nearby parking space, but it would be more challenging with a bigger load.

So can I make two appeals?

The first is to the installers of charging stations — you lovely people — to consider including one or two stations suitable for people with caravans attached? And to put a sign asking those who don’t need them to make use of the other ones first?

And the second is to the creators of charging-point maps, to include data about whether a charging station is trailer-friendly, and to allow searching on that basis. It would be fabulous to be able to plot your course across the country, stopping to charge only at places where you didn’t need to unhitch.

In the meantime, occasionally you can find charming and quiet charging points, like this one near Winchester, where there’s plenty of space for eccentric parking arrangements!

P.S. If anyone remembers my Digital Towbar suggestion from a few years ago, it looks as if Airstream have been playing with a similar idea. That’s probably the future!

A Traditional Tesla Blessing

My friend Gareth, hearing that I was about set off for a long journey across the country in my electric car, wished me well. “Bon Voyage”, he said, “and may all your supercharges be 100kW+”.

This kind thought prompted me to do some serious research into other traditional travellers’ blessings. After weeks of diligent studies in the library of Trinity College Dublin, I came across a previously-unknown fragment, hidden between the pages of an old vellum manuscript. On being translated from the Gaelic and converted into unicode, it reads roughly as follows, and I’d like to offer it to all my readers as my best wishes for you all in 2022:

“May the road rise up to meet you
And may you regenerate efficiently on the way back down.
May the sun not blind your autopilot cameras,
And the rain fall soft on your wiper sensors.
Until we meet again…
Wherever this sat-nav chooses to take us.”

Towing with a Tesla?

Not many EVs currently have the option of a towbar, but I carefully purchased one that did… just in case I ever needed it.

Last month, I tried it out for the first time, with mixed success. If you’re interested, here I am rambling on about it!

Vice-versa

Strange thought this morning: I bought an electric car and everyone else in the UK has range anxiety!

Transport tribulations

Two quick random thoughts this morning related to cars…

The UK’s petrol stations are having supply problems, because there aren’t enough lorry drivers. (There’s a training and testing backlog as a result of Covid, and many drivers departed for better conditions elsewhere post-Brexit.) So, because some places are running out, people are panic-buying, and the pumps are emptying faster than they can be refilled.

Having driven electric vehicles for the last six years now, I’m able to take a more detached view of this, but I’m interested that, amidst the discussions of drafting in the army etc, I haven’t heard much talk of simply putting the prices up dramatically and temporarily. That, after all, is the usual way of regulating demand to match supply. I guess the problem is that fossil fuel is seen as an essential supply, so you are deemed to be disproportionately penalising the poor if you put the price up for everybody.

But, if many customers are just buying more than they need in the short term, I wonder if petrol pump manufacturers might now look at software updates to allow more flexible pricing should this happen again. For example, imagine that your first 20 litres were at the normal price, and anything over that cost twice as much. Would that work? Comments welcome below.

OK, second transport-related note for the day. I’m generally a fan (though an infrequent user) of services like Uber and Lyft, and we also have a decent local taxi service around here (who have had to get their act together in recent years as a result of the modern competition and so have things like a pretty-decent app too).

But I’ve never bought into the idea that car ownership will soon be a thing of the past and that we’ll all soon just summon vehicles at need, whether driven by humans or robots. Yes, we’ll see more of that happening eventually, but I suspect they’ll take the form of a large number of small cheap autonomous electric pods hanging around near the village green and in the supermarket car park, to be summoned quickly and at low cost. And that’s a few years away yet.

In the meantime, therefore, I was interested in this study from Carnegie Mellon which suggests that ridesourcing options like Lyft, Uber and your local taxi company may not be the best solution for society. The abstract:

On-demand ridesourcing services from transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, have reshaped urban travel and changed externality costs from vehicle emissions, congestion, crashes, and noise. To quantify these changes, we simulate replacing private vehicle travel with TNCs in six U.S. cities. On average, we find a 50–60% decline in air pollutant emission externalities from NOx, PM2.5, and VOCs due to avoided “cold starts” and relatively newer, lower-emitting TNC vehicles. However, increased vehicle travel from deadheading creates a ∼20% increase in fuel consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions and a ∼60% increase in external costs from congestion, crashes, and noise. Overall, shifting private travel to TNCs increases external costs by 30–35% (adding 32–37 ¢ of external costs per trip, on average). This change in externalities increases threefold when TNCs displace transit or active transport, drops by 16–17% when TNC vehicles are zero-emission electric, and potentially results in reduced externalities when TNC rides are pooled.

The abstract even has an elevator-pitch graphic:

So the quick summary, which I guess is reasonably obvious: to benefit society, use a train, bus, or bike rather than a taxi-type service… or even your own car, especially if it doesn’t use that dinosaur juice that everyone else is queuing up to buy.

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.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser