Electric Cars – The Promise and the Reality    


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By Abe Ostrovsky with contribution from Peter Whealton

I leased an electric car nine months ago. A 2014 BMW I3 rex. The BMW advertising was clear. Eighty-seven miles per full charge plus 48 miles of additional range from the range extender, a built-in gas driven generator that recharges the battery while driving. The gas tank serving the generator is 1.5 gallons. The extender is meant for the occasional short additional miles to reach a charging station when a destination turns out to be just beyond the electric range or mishaps on the road mandate a detour.

My discussions with the sales person reinforced the claimed range and I was further reassured as I read that since BMW did not expect the range extender to be used regularly, it would automatically come on and cycle for 5 or 6 minutes every 2 months to keep it lubricated and ready.

The battery charger that is included with the car is classified as a level 1 and takes 20 hours for a full charge. BMW sells a level 2 charger (an extra $980 accessory which requires wall mounting to a 220 Volt, 30 Amp source – it cost me $250 to provide this power in my garage). This charger will charge a depleted battery in 3+ hours. The logical operating radius for the car is therefore 43.5 miles one way assuming there is no time to recharge the battery at the destination.

In my case, 43 miles was sufficient to reach most addresses in Los Altos Hills and San Jose was reachable depleting the battery one way. This covered most of my needs so I leased the car, bought a level 2 charger and had an electrician install it in my garage.

Soon I learned that the car was capable of delivering the 87 mile range only when driven carefully (no quick acceleration and no extensive brake usage) on flat streets (no San Francisco hills) in a mode that deactivated many features (no AC or heat or seat heaters) at a maximum speed of 56 miles per hour (no expressway driving). The actual range being driven normally (I am told I am an aggressive driver) on San Francisco hills and Bay Area expressways is around 50 miles, just a few miles more than half  the advertised range.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, I think the I3 is a great city car. It is well featured, easy to drive, has nice pep, handles well, parks easily and transports 4 comfortably. As a city car in San Francisco, a city that is approximately 7 miles by 7 miles, it is terrific. But if normal usage requires more than 25 miles one way, the battery system is inadequate.

My investigations into battery technology indicate that advances in battery density (the amount of stored electricity available per pound of battery) is rapidly increasing. Chevrolet has recently announced the Chevy Bolt, a compact expected to deliver 200 miles of range on a fully charged battery which should be available by end of 2016. I expect that battery technology advances will allow a doubling of range for same size and weight batteries by 2017. At that point the lower price electrics will have sufficient battery power to compete with gasoline powered cars at competitive pricing.

Until then, I will continue to rent Zip cars when going further than the short rides to San Carlos airport, Walnut Creek or Lucas Valley.


  1. The electric car will go the way of the Edsel. Be great for a short period of time but will go away when the tax incentives ,tax breaks and other tax-payer-give-a-ways stop. Tesla is going to be in deep trouble when the tax payers finally wake up and realize the state of California is supporting Tesla. And its about time Musk stood on his own and showed a profit which hasn’t been in his portfolio of Tesla or Solar City yet. Why should he care when California’s ClownJerry Brown[copyright 2015-Irv Chase] keeps giving him tax dollars without the approval of the voters. Brown would more than likely say,he doesn’t need our approval. He may be right, but something as costly and important as this we should have a voice in whether or not Musk keeps getting tax dollars for Tesla and Solar City. My vote is “NO” let him make it on his own. It won’t take long before there will not be any more Tesla. Which would be a good thing for California tax payers and the nation as well!!!

  2. Another dreamer who succumbed to hype over reality, and with a Beemer no less.

  3. Other than the range of these cars the biggest problem that nobody mentions is only somebody that lives in a house can use one. Unless you live in a house there is almost no place to charge one. Apartments and condos often have parking lots or at best carports with no electricity much less 220 ac.

  4. Irv, I love your “California’s Clown Jerry Brown” copyright. If I change it to “Kalifornia;s Clown Jerry Brown” will that infringe on your copyright? Or maybe “Kalee’s” clown……
    Seriously, do the electric car range calculations include AC or heat? I live in the Low Desert where it hits 118F in the summer. Under those conditions there is probably not enough juice to get from the garage to the corner stop sign. Mostly the enviro-whackos buy these kind of vehicles thinking that there is no “emissions” completely forgetting about the power plant and all of the support equipment that is generating real emissions!

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