Category Archives: Electric Vehicles

How to solve ‘range anxiety’

Rory Sutherland has a nice piece with this title in The Spectator.  Excerpt:

As you are reading this, thousands of the world’s cleverest people are spending billions to increase the range of electric car batteries. The reason for this is to reduce a phenomenon called ‘range anxiety’. I suggest that it might be a lot cheaper to reduce anxiety than it is to increase range.

The truth is there is no such thing as range anxiety…

I’ll let you read the rest.

This also reminds me that if you missed Geoff Greer’s review of a gasoline-powered car last year, do go on to read that afterwards!

Many thanks to Peter Robinson for the link to Rory’s piece.

Well, I finally folded…

I’ve wanted an e-bike for ages, ever since I first tried one many, many years ago, but most of my normal cycling destinations are close enough that I didn’t really feel I had an excuse to buy one.

But then we started to think that folding bikes would also be useful when campervanning, and so the idea started to grow of getting folding e-bikes… and we are now the proud owners of two Eovolt “Afternoon”s.

Interestingly, we just rode these and found we liked them slightly more than the others we tried, but when we got them home and started looking for reviews, accessories, etc found they seemed to have comparatively little presence online (at least, in the English-speaking world). I certainly hadn’t come across them on YouTube, for example, when researching possible brands. So here’s my modest attempt at rectifying that!

Electric car fire risks

The idea that electric cars are a serious fire risk is one that has established itself in people’s minds, chiefly because such headlines increase advertising revenue for newspaper editors.   If you can’t get a scare story with ‘Elon Musk’ in the title, at least try to include some reference to ‘Tesla’! When a big fire occurred in the car park at Luton airport recently, there were immediate reports suggesting it might have been started by an EV. This was pure speculation, and later, of course, when it turned out to have been a diesel, this wasn’t worthy of any headlines.

Yes, it is the case that EV batteries can catch fire due to thermal runaway, but this is also so rare that there has been very little data on the actual details.  So the Australia-based organisation EV FireSafe has been working to put together some proper statistics, by gathering as much information about EV fires around the world as they can, and their website is a great reference. They also train firefighters on how to deal with such incidents.

First a few basics:

  • All cars can catch fire, for a variety of reasons.  EVs are much less likely to do so than other vehicles, though to some degree this is because they are generally newer.
  • The difference between EVs and ICE vehicles is that, if the main traction battery is involved in the fire — which is certainly not always the case — the fire will be of a different sort, and generally much harder to extinguish, especially by fire crews who don’t yet have much experience of them.
  • It’s very rare that the battery or charging system is the independent cause of a vehicle fire.
  • EV batteries tend to burn very hot and for a long time.  They don’t tend to explode.
  • You can’t put out such fires with foam, and what you really want to do is just to cool everything down with lots and lots and lots of water. Some fire crews have been nervous about dangers of electrocution from pouring water onto high-voltage batteries, but the risks of this turn out to be exceedingly small and there have been no known incidents with any such problems.
  • A few past reports have been dramatically skewed by including e-bikes and e-scooters in a general report on ‘EVs’.  Bikes and scooters have a much higher risk: they are not subject to the same kinds of regulation, there are third-party and counterfeit batteries on the market, batteries are often used after they are dropped or damaged, and so on.  
  • Here we are only concerned with cars and other large EVs, and in fires involving the traction battery, which is the thing that distinguishes them from vehicles which carry, say, a tank of highly-flammable liquid instead.

So how common are these fires involving the battery itself?

Well, after gathering as much data as they can about such fires since 2010, they have identified about 400 incidents, from something like 40 million EVs on the road.   They acknowledge that the data is far from complete — they gather what they can from academic surveys, reports by firefighting organisations, and so on — but it’s also better than most other analyses. And it’s worth remembering that a lot of fires involving the battery are not caused by the battery – they’re caused by things like arson, or the car being in a building which caught fire and burned down around it, and so on.

In other words, the risk is tiny.  If you have an e-scooter charging in your garage, you should be more worried about that than the EV sitting on your drive.

If you’d like to know more about the subject, I recommend the Fully Charged podcast episode 244, which has an interview with Emma Sutcliffe of EV Firesafe – available from all good podcast apps, or on the Fully Charged website.

Middle-of-the-road conundrum

When I turn on my Tesla ‘Autopilot’, the car sits squarely in the middle of the lane, much more accurately than if I were driving it myself.

It occurred to me to wonder, as more people use these devices, what that might do to the wear and compression of the road surface?

Of course, cars aren’t all the same width, but they don’t differ too much, so perhaps over time we’ll end up running in little tracks; a kind of guided busway, where it’ll be harder to drift accidentally out of your lane even in the absence of electronic assistance.

Or perhaps car manufacturers will be required to introduce a a little randomised ‘drift’ into their algorithms to stop the roads having to be repaired so often?

Tweetback

For all its problems over the years, one thing that Twitter has always done quite well is to give you access to backups of your data. You can request a dump of your archive and (a day or two later) download a ZIP file containing all of your Tweets and lots of other data besides, which you could process with your own code, but can also view using an HTML page included in the archive.

As the future of Twitter gets ever more uncertain, I ask for backups more frequently! You might want to do the same… one day you may not be able to.

I had an account in the very early days, and then deleted it, before joining again a little while later. So the first tweet on my current account, just over 15 years ago, says:

Just re-established a Twitter account, with some trepidation

I didn’t have an iPhone back then – it existed, but I waited for the 3G version, which arrived a few months later. So quite a few of my early Tweets are about the fun things I could do with my iPod Touch, though I guess most of them would actually have been submitted using SMS text messaging, as you did back then.

I was also amused to see that one of my earliest messages was while barbecuing in the garden. I was recommending a local brand of sausage, which I can still recommend as one of my favourites: “Musk’s“.

That name, but attached to another owner, was to pop up on Twitter occasionally in the future.

I had actually met Elon Musk a couple of years before, but little did I know that his name would one day be so closely associated with this new social network. Back then, he was mostly known for PayPal and SpaceX, though he did have an intriguing side-interest in electric cars. It didn’t look likely that I (or most of my friends) would ever be able to afford one, though, so his other activities were of more interest.

These days, I still consume that fine brand of Newmarket sausages with the same frequency and enthusiasm as I did back then. Other things have changed, however. I drive an electric car every day, and have barely been in a petrol station for 7+ years. Twitter, on the other hand, I only look at a couple of times per week. Elon Musk is primarily responsible for both of those changes!

Zappi Days

When I installed my home solar system, I also replaced my perfectly-functional car charger with a new one: a Myenergi Zappi. Why?

The Zappi is a popular charger, designed in the UK, and rapidly finding favour in other parts of the world. Here, I talk about what it can do, things you might need to take into account if connecting to a car like the Tesla, and a little bit of magic geekery I set up to make it fit my needs even better.

(Direct Link)

Gasoline car review

A wonderful review by Geoff Greer compares one of these gasoline-powered cars to the experience of driving a normal electric one.

Here’s an excerpt:

Refueling was a mixed bag. Whenever I parked in my garage, I had to suppress the urge to plug the car in. Gasoline is only available at special stations, and it is prohibitively expensive to get a gasoline line installed in your home. So unlike a normal car, you don’t wake up every morning with full range. The only way to add range is to go to gas stations. These are similar to fast charging stations, but smelly and more dangerous.

I’ve been driving electric cars for over seven years now, so the very rare occasions when I visit a petrol station — a couple of months ago to buy some screen wash liquid, for example — definitely do remind me of what I’m (not) missing!

Anyway, do read the whole thing.  

Thanks to John for the link.

Morning, campers!

One of the great things about owning an EV — which, after seven years of electric driving, I tend to take for granted, until I get back in a dinosaur-fuelled vehicle — is the heating system.

Because it’s independent of the motor, you get heat more quickly as you drive off since you’re not waiting for big chunks of iron and radiators full of water to warm up in order to warm you.

More importantly, though, you can also run the heating (or cooling) without the rest of the car being switched on. Most EVs will allow you to turn it on remotely from an app, and if you do this five minutes before you want to set off, the car is always comfortable, and my old winter practice of pouring milk-bottles full of warm water over frozen windscreens before departure is becoming a distant memory!

In the Tesla, the climate control has various special ‘modes’.

The one we use all the time is “Dog Mode”, which keeps Tilly at a comfortable temperature whatever’s happening outside, disables the internal alarm sensors, and puts a picture of an animated dog up on the main display with a notice saying “My driver will be back soon! Don’t worry, I’m comfortable in here: the A/C’s on and it’s 20 degrees C.” This is to prevent people from breaking your windows to save the poor animal trapped inside on a hot day!

But recently I’ve been experimenting with another: “Camp Mode”. This is for people foolish enough to consider sleeping in their car, an activity made rather more pleasant by having your bedroom well-ventilated at exactly the temperature you want and without excessive condensation on the windows! But it’s still sleeping in the boot of your car. YouTube has no shortage of videos talking about how to do it and the expensive products you can buy to make it more comfortable.

So, for no better reason than that I have to try out all the functions on my gadgets, and it might prove more comfortable than my tent at this time of year, I’ve been giving it a go. More comfortable – yes. More spacious? Definitely not! (If you had a bigger and more expensive Tesla than mine, it would be a different experience.)

But, for your amusement, here’s my little camping video:

(Direct link)

One thing I neglect to mention is that just across the car park is a big building with nice loos and excellent showers. That makes a big difference!

I’ll be back there on Saturday night. You can envy or pity me as the mood takes you!

The dangers of a headline figure

If you believe my Twitter stream, there are a lot of people out there who think that the UK government has capped the energy bills so they can’t pay more than £2,500 this year. This is not at all true. But it’s been reinforced by the Prime Minister’s interviews on various radio stations this morning when she said things like “making sure that nobody is paying fuel bills of more than £2,500”. Either she doesn’t understand it, or she’s not very good at explaining things clearly.

The problem is that the media are so keen to feed people a single, simple number, that for weeks we’ve been hearing about what’s happening to the energy costs for the average household and referring to that as a capped number, when in fact, of course, it’s the price per kWh that’s been capped. (More info here.) If, say, you use twice as much as the average household, your bill could be £5000. Some not-very-smart people even think they can use as much as they like, because, hey, it’s been capped now, and they’re going to get a nasty surprise! And similarly, of course, if you use half as much, you can worry a bit less about that headline figure.

This desire to reduce things to one number causes problems in many situations. Remember when the only way most people had to assess the PC they wanted to buy was based on its CPU’s GHz? (Or MHz for those with longer memories?)

Now, the headline figure for every electric car is the number of miles it can do on a charge, when lots of other factors will affect how easy it is to use in reality, like how fast it charges, or its drag coefficient (which affects how its energy use varies with speed). For many people, long journeys are relatively rare, and the important question when embarking on one will actually be something like, “How fast will this be able to recharge at the type of chargers available about 150-200 miles from my house?” And even that question is much less important if the chargers happen to have a nice cafe or restaurant next to them!

The kind of gamification that reduces things to a simple score is always appealing. But whenever you see things being compared with just one number, remember Ben Goldacre’s warning: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

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 busy 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…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser