Tag Archives: cars

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…

When it’s good to be close to an explosion

Car airbags are things you hope you’ll never need to know much about; you want them to be there and working, and hopefully in the same state when you sell the car as they were when you bought it!

But if you did want to find out a bit more about what’s behind that little flap on your steering wheel, this is a nicely-done explanation:

On the sunny side of the street

It’s hard not to feel warm fuzzy feelings about the small team who are producing the Lightyear One.

Lightyear One electric vehicle

This is a new electric car which grew out of the team at Eindhoven who won the Solar Challenge a few years ago, and it’s interesting for a couple of reasons. First, they’ve focused on efficiency, meaning that the car travels much further on a kilowatt-hour than, say, a Tesla. And secondly, all the roughly-horizontal surfaces are covered in solar cells. This is a car that really can charge itself.

It doesn’t do it very fast, of course; we’re still a long way from just driving around on pure sunshine. It does have decent-sized batteries, and you can plug the car in and charge them just as you would on any other EV (and get a range of over 400 miles).

But, on a bright sunny day, the solar panels generate a bit more than a kilowatt. And because of its efficiency, that translates to about 7 miles of distance per hour of sunlight. That may not sound like much, but it’s roughly the rate you would accumulate miles from a standard 13A socket with a traditional EV.

And think of it this way: if you live in a sunny climate and park in the company car park for your eight-hour working day, it might well manage your trip home and back to the office again without you normally needing to plug in at home at all.

Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it’s not production-ready for a year or two, and yes, most of us, even if we have that much cash, don’t have that much sunshine. But the key thing is that they’re making a car that is significantly more efficient, puts less load on the grid, and is, I think, rather beautiful.

I hope I may own a Lightyear one day. I’ll call mine ‘Buzz’.

The least autonomous cars?

Since my last post was about the most high-tech cars around, let’s go to the other extreme (well, almost), and look at the earlier days of automotive user interfaces. This, for example, is a handy guide for drivers of the Model T Ford, showing how you should adjust the throttle, and advance the ignition, based on what you want to achieve.

Kids these days have probably never seen a manual choke, let alone a manual ignition advance! (If you want to know what an ignition advance lever is and why you might need one, Wikipedia will tell you). Now, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had to use one either, but I’ve ridden in cars where the driver did.

I’ve never actually ridden in a Model T, though I’ve sat in one, in Henry Ford’s garage, no less. But if you should ever find yourself in the driving seat, don’t assume that the three pedals and the handbrake-like lever will do what you expect.

Here’s a nice demonstration to show you the basics:

Thinking electric

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

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

But there’s a problem.

film-fw

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

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

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

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

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

20151018-09580923

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

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

Some are more equalised than others…

Here’s a gadget I’d really like to have: a programmable in-car graphic equaliser.

My car audio system sounds fine at speeds below about 20mph, but certain parts of the audio spectrum tend to get lost when going faster, and I’ve never found a car stereo that copes well with this.

Having the volume increase with speed helps a bit, but I’d really like to be able to set equalisation to be reasonably flat when going slowly, and adjust it to boost, say, tenor vocals so that things sound good at 40mph and 70mph. Then it should interpolate between my various settings at intermediate speeds.

Anyone seen anything like this, or should I patent it? 🙂

I guess it could be an iPhone app, since most of my audio comes from there, and it has a GPS…

The Googlehome?

My friend Frazer points out that the manufacturers of screen wash fluid had better start looking for a new business, because, with self-driving cars, we soon won’t need windscreen wipers. And with no rear-view mirrors, where will we hang the fluffy dice? Actually, Frazer has some keen insights into the massive changes that driverless cars will eventually bring to society.

Richard and I, discussing our hopes for this future, realised that what we really wanted was a driverless campervan or motorhome. Just imagine, you can all sit around and have a cup of tea en route. Or, if you prefer, a glass of wine. And then go to bed. And in the morning, you wake up in the Alps and take the dog out for a walk. If you need a car, to get around while you’re there, you can call one to wherever you’re parked. But if you have a car of your own, and you want to take yours along, you can just tell it to follow you there.

Now, this is an important new market, because one of the things that driverless cars will bring is dramatically-reduced car ownership. Cars sit idle in the street for so much of the time, just so that they’re around when you need them. But when an iPhone app can call any nearby car to you at any time, they’ll be much more efficiently used, and you’re much less likely to need one of your own. Having to find parking in city centres will be a thing of the past, and residential streets will be freed of so much clutter. All good news.

Unless, of course, you’re a car manufacturer. If car ownership goes down by a factor of two, three, four… who knows?… you’ll need a new source of revenue. And I think your motorhome/campervan, decked out the way you like it, is a very personal thing – it’s something you’ll still want to own. And something a lot more people will want to own in this future.

So I’d like to offer my services as a consultant and beta-tester for Google, and all those auto manufacturers, who are now slapping their foreheads as they realise that… of course! The key to their future is in the mobile, self-driving, holiday cottage…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser