‘Lectric Road Trippin’ Across Washington in an i3S
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park
(OK, it’s a campy title, but how often do you get to use the terms “’lectric” and “trippin’” in context? The editor was in his prime when those terms were “hip”… so let’s see if he keeps them!) (The Editor is having difficulty remembering his ‘prime.’)
I decided to answer a question that I bet many of you have asked: “I wonder how hard it is to take a commuter EV on a road trip across Washington State?” I may have asked that with an adult beverage in my hand. It’s a little foggy. Nevertheless, I decided that I would at least make the attempt. This is the story of my 350ish mile trip from Kingston to Pullman. In 90°F weather. In an i3S. What could go wrong?
First Some Background
Last year we purchased a 2018 i3S REX. It was, and is, our first electric vehicle. Why did we do this? And why something as polarizing as the i3? (People either love it or hate its “fugliness.”) We needed a true 4-seater commuter vehicle to accomplish those car missions not particularly suited for Clifford (our Big Red Truck); Drei, the 335i with 180K (whatever breaks next will likely be expensive and immobilizing); or Eins, the 135i track car (can you say “harsh ride?”). The specific impetus was my new job, where I needed to drive 60 miles roundtrip to work and back.
To be honest, I didn’t like the little i3 when it came out. It seemed silly. More importantly, I wasn’t impressed with other EVs and still have the same opinion of the Prius as Jeremy Clarkson. But when several friends in the Club bought i3s and I got to experience them, I could see the appeal. It’s a unique and high-tech design, well ahead of its time. Carbon fiber throughout. And it’s surprisingly light, especially compared to other EVs. (Looking at you, Tesla.) If you have (or install) a level 2 (240V) home charger and can get to work and back within the battery mileage, it becomes very practical and economical. And the looks grow on you. The part I didn’t expect was that it would be so much fun to drive. It’s rear wheel drive. It has 200 lb-ft of torque … immediately. It drives like a true BMW. I even took it to the track during one of our Car Control Clinics and it was well balanced and sporty (the S model does have a sport mode, after all). But we did buy the model with range-anxiety insurance: The Range Extender (REX). Which proved prescient for my road trip.
The REX is a 650cc BMW scooter motor that functions as a backup generator for the car. It fits neatly under the trunk in the back but it does steal some cargo space compared to the Battery Only Vehicle (BEV) version. It’s important for the discussion that follows to understand that the i3 REX is not a true hybrid as we typically use the term today. The powertrain is completely electric. The gasoline engine, left to its own devices, automatically starts at 6% battery power and, with a 2.4-gallon tank, can take you about 60-80 miles. Or you can use a feature called Hold State of Charge (HSOC) at any battery level below 75% (so there’s no danger of overcharging) and have the REX start and preserve your battery level. So, while it provides insurance against range anxiety, REX does require some understanding and planning to use it wisely, if you are going on a longer road trip. My mental model for the i3 REX power system is a WWII submarine. They had a battery for operating submerged and diesel engines for operating on the surface and charging the batteries. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it works.
With the battery fully charged on our 2018 model (newer models have ~1/3 more battery capacity), it can take me 100-120 miles, depending on which mode I put the car in (Sport, Comfort, ECO PRO, ECO PRO+). Typically, I drive in ECO PRO in summer (because the AC is still operable), and Comfort in winter (gotta have heat!). ECO PRO+ is very efficient but has no AC or heat, but it is good if you really want to stretch the battery miles. Range also depends on driving style and geography, as well as your average speed and the nature of your trip (starts and stops). But all of these are true of any traditionally fueled car as well, you just don’t notice it as much because the energy reserve in the fuel tank is large.
What is not true of traditional cars is that the i3 can reclaim energy from active braking. It uses the electric motor as a generator to slow you down when you take your foot off of the accelerator pedal, which recharges the battery. Think of it as engine braking that magically puts gas back in the tank. If you are thoughtful in your driving, you can actually use this feature to slow the car every time and almost never engage the actual disc brakes. Pretty cool. But not so useful on long road trips at constant speed, unless you are going downhill.
So, with an understanding of how the i3’s energy management is setup (and every EV has their own slightly different take), let’s move on to the real discussion: how to take one of these little cars on a 350+ mile road trip. While Tesla has pioneered the long-range EV and has built a formidable charging infrastructure throughout the U.S., not everyone has joined the Cult of Elon. Nor are Tesla Superchargers available to the rest of us … yet. To be fair, I knew from the start I was taking the i3 out of its comfort zone. It’s not designed to be a cross-country GT car. But I have family in Eastern Washington and since I had some time to plan for the visit and it would be too hot to take the convertible, I decided to attempt the trip in the i3. To further invoke Jeremy Clarkson, “How hard could it be?”
The first thing to understand is that the current EV charging infrastructure is similar to the early 1900’s era of fuel availability or the early years of the cellphone industry. It is balkanized, with dozens of companies with differing prices, schemes, and standards. Also, there is an uneven distribution of these chargers across the country (unsurprisingly, a much higher concentration around major metropolitan areas), and, as I discovered, some reliability and availability issues.
There is also the issue of poor universal charging standards. Almost all EVs can use common level 2 chargers, but these are impractical for road trips unless you are using one overnight at a hotel or something, as they charge slowly. Level 1 (110V) are out of the question unless it’s an emergency. What you really want to use are DC Fast Chargers (DCFCs) which can give a 60% charge from 25-85% in about 30 minutes on the 94A-hour battery in my i3. (Note: you typically want to stop at 85% because the i3, like all EVs, slows down the charge rate as you approach 100% for battery life reasons, so 85-100% is a slower, non-linear profile.)
The first thing to do in planning an EV road trip is to open your preferred map app and figure out which DCFCs are on the way, and then get accounts and apps for the providers you intend to (or might need to) use. I also went on some online EV forums and asked about reliability and availability of the chargers in question and received some helpful advice. Each charging provider app also provides information on the availability and status of their own chargers as well. The overall goal was to minimize stops and use the REX judiciously and smartly to extend the range to get to my desired DCFCs and, ultimately, my destination.
So, having put my trip into Google Maps on my phone and also into the i3 navigation system, and with Jeff Goldblum’s fateful words echoing in my head, I departed my home with a full fuel tank and a fully charged battery. I started on battery power alone and planned my first stop at BMW Northwest in Tacoma (shameless plug: this is where I got the i3) because they have a DCFC that is free for the first 20 minutes. Fortunately, it was open when I arrived and I was able to fully recharge the battery in 30 minutes while I looked at expensive cars and chatted with some people I know.
Next was the journey to Snoqualmie Pass on I-90. In this case, once battery fell to 75% (somewhere around North Bend), I manually engaged HSOC to start the REX. Going uphill, the REX can’t keep up with the cars power requirements at 70-75 MPH. (I elected to drive the way I wanted versus hyper-mile it and annoy everyone on the road as the i3’s most efficient speed is 56 MPH.) In the end, the 18-mile uphill journey used 25% of my fuel and only 9% of my battery. That made getting to Ellensburg, where I knew there were DCFCs, pretty straightforward. I pulled into Ellensburg with 25% battery and zero gas. I refilled gas and then went to the Electrify America chargers (there are eight there, of various flavors). And this is where I received my first unexpected surprise: the DCFC would only charge at a slow 16KW/hr rate instead of the 50 KW/hr rate the car is capable of. So, it took over an hour to get to 85%.
Undaunted, I ate lunch in the interim. The rest of the trip I executed two fuel stops at about hour intervals, as there were no DCFCs available across the rest of the state until I got to Pullman, where the hotel had a level 2 charger. (I picked the hotel based on which ones had a charger.) In the end, I pulled into Pullman with zero fuel and 11% battery. Overall, I calculated that I incurred a 20%-time penalty for using the EV. But it was certainly doable, even across some of the most rural areas of the state. Having the REX meant I really didn’t have range anxiety. I just had to ensure I planned a few fuel stops to top off the two-gallon tank.
On the way back, I retraced my steps, but this time, when I got to Ellensburg with 25% battery, the Electrify America chargers simply didn’t work. None of them. I was on the phone with their support for over 30 minutes until they finally gave up. Interestingly, there was a driver who had an Audi E-tron who pulled in right as I was leaving. He only had 40 miles left on his car. He was not very happy about the chargers not working. I felt very good to have the REX.
My wife provided distance travel support via text; she had located another DCFC in Ellensburg I might try. This one wasn’t showing on Google Maps, but I did notice that the car’s internal navigation system was indicating its presence. I had to sign up with another EV charging network (Greenlots, ironically owned by Shell), but that charger worked properly. Within 40 minutes I was fully charged and on my way. The last DCFC I used was at another set of Electrify America Chargers in North Bend. I was wary, but this time it worked at the full rate (50 kw/hr) and I had lunch with a friend while it charged.
So, what is the moral of the story?
The EV infrastructure outside the major metropolitan areas is sparse and requires planning and patience to execute a distance trip in an EV, especially one with less than 200 miles of battery range. The charging networks are also not as robust and reliable as we have come to expect of our fuel distribution networks. Finally, you need to be able to be unhurried on a trip in an EV. You never know for sure what charging rate you are going to get, or if the charger will be occupied or even work at all. But a trip like this is definitely doable as the charging and navigation apps available let you plan it out to maximize the chance of success. Would I have done it without the REX? If I’m honest, no. I remember the look on that Audi E-tron driver’s face. Could you accomplish a trip like this in a BEV? Yes. Should you? Probably not yet.