Chelsea Sexton Slams Bias On Both Sides Over Electric-Car Range (Guest Post)

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BBC Correspondent complains about MINI E

BBC Correspondent complains about MINI E

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by Chelsea Sexton

Slanted, anti-EV reporting is hardly a new thing, and I suspect we're in for a lot more of it in 2011 as plug-in vehicles hit showrooms. But the recent BBC "Mini Adventure," a 484-mile journey from London to Edinburgh in a Mini E, has caught fire like nothing I've seen in a while.

Helen Keller could have predicted the outcome of the trip itself:. Cold weather affected both comfort and range, and combined with lack of abundant infrastructure, created a less than optimal experience for the BBC's Brian Milligan, who finally made it to the end of his journey after four days and at an average speed of 6 mph (factoring in charging time).

Calling the BBC's bluff

He whined about the electric car's shortcomings every step of the way, prompting EV proponents to cry foul over the fact that he chose a "prototype" Mini E, and not a true production car. On Day 3, David Peilow, a Tesla "superfan", called shenanigans and borrowed a new Roadster 2.5 from the London store. He drove it to Edinburgh in one day, beating Milligan handily even while stopping twice to recharge. 

Chelsea Sexton

Chelsea Sexton

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While a conversion, the Mini E has roughly the same 100-mile optimum range as other "mainstream" production EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus, so the "not representative of a production car" complaint is a little anemic.

Back and forth

A couple of the forthcoming EVs use a more robust thermal management system, which would have helped keep the range from dropping to the 70-80 miles the BBC experienced, but the extra 20 miles per charge would hardly have made a meaningful difference in the overall trip.

Neither, in this case, would four seats instead of the Mini E's two. For its part, the BBC countered that using the most expensive (if longest-range) production EV to make the trip is hardly playing fair either. As each side has hurled stones, the catfight has gotten more coverage than the cars, and an average reader could hardly be faulted for deciding that electric cars are more trouble than they're worth. 

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

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Electric-car fans: part of the problem

Frustratingly, EV proponents are part of the problem on this front. In general, I’m a cheerleader for most grassroots efforts to promote electric cars. They are often inspiring and entertaining, and re-affirm that there is indeed a very human movement behind this technology.

But some mash-up of rabid enthusiasm, scarce resources, and hereditary passion for the open road has started to take a misguided path to a seemingly inevitable conclusion that is the EV road trip.

I don’t mean the trips that people take for the personal novelty of it, or even the challenge of it, or because they’ve a fun story to tell. My issue is with the trips that attempt to prove something about the convenience and practicality of a pure electric car by driving it hundreds or thousands of miles.

Racing Green Endurance electric car, Imperial College, London, June 2010

Racing Green Endurance electric car, Imperial College, London, June 2010

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Distance runs just keep coming

And yet, EV proponents- both consumers and those within automakers- have been doing that long before the BBC used the same mechanism to make the opposite point. 

These trips are often a function of limited resources, financial and otherwise. Someone without much money or a large team can still strike out on his own in a car and hope to catch some attention along the way.

Unfortunately, this same lack of resources usually results in something of a kamikaze approach, without nearly enough planning, support, technical resources, or- should things really go south, a “Plan B”. Anything that does go wrong is magnified

Triumph of hope over experience

Even if all goes well, they’ve unwittingly fed the monster, artificially emphasizing both limited range and more infrastructure than is truly needed for typical use of these vehicles.  From that perspective, we’ve been fortunate that these adventures rarely draw the press the participants are hoping for.

But in a triumph of hope over example each new group thinks their trip will be different, and in the last few years the trips have become more frequent and more ambitious

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Comments (14)
  1. Well done,
    Love the microwave/turkey analogy.
    We’re 300 million Americans, in 120 million homes, with 270 million cars. That means for approximately 75% of American households there is more than one car per family.
    Any variety of plug in electric car will work in a typical two car family.
    This stunt is as crazy as using a Ford F350 dually and trying to say what a great city/commute truck and how easy it is to park in tight spaces.
    As a Mini-E driver, #183 with 25,000 sunshine powered miles in 20 months, I am using the electric car about 16,000 miles a year which is slightly over my 30 year average of 14,000 miles a year in my prior gas cars.
    It does everything I need it to do and it does it well. Once or twice a year we take a road trip and for that we use the Ford Escape, otherwise the electric car does it all.
    The one challenge I would encourage the BBC to try is: Can you make a car gas run emission free on a home grown zero emission energy system?

  2. Excellent analogy comparing road trips in an EV to cooking a turkey in a microwave. Microwaves are in every kitchen, but they haven't displaced the oven, just augmented its use.
    This article should be widely circulated to the whole alternative fuel / propulsion vehicle community, as it lifts the fog over all these issues and makes clear, salient points.

  3. Well written by Chelsea. We Americans are spoiled by cheap gas. I have a company planning to build a "Superior" Low Speed Electric Vehicle and what I get asked all the time is "How could I drive a 1000 miles?" My reponse recently has been, "Would you even consider that if gas were $10 a gallon?" The answer is usually, no! Chelsea is correct, that EV's are not all things to all people, but that is not unresaonable. 85% of US population lives in an urban/metropolitan area of the US. 50% own 2 cars, 25% own 3 or more cars. 250M cars are owned in US. You must admit that are ample opportunities for families to have an electric car that meets their urban needs. Our market with EcoVElectric is city fleets and retirement communities. These are large potential markets. EV's will be adopted by the people who understand that EV's are(will be) cost effective, very useful, clean, quiet, maintenance free, and save owners money. Too many of the press still have fossil fuel running in their blood; but that is changing.

  4. I too love the microwave turkey analogy. It brings home the point that we all know that microwaves have serious limitations, but we still all use them for what they are good at.

  5. very well said. its too bad that we dont pay the true cost at the pump for our oil addiction. our views would be much different. as it stands, its already starting to be noticeable. despite getting over 48 mpg in my Prius, it still cost me $31 to fill up after going just over 460 miles. In my Leaf i have traveled 310 miles using $10.20 of hydro based electricity!!

  6. The BBC painted the worst possible picture, David showed that it's not necessarily as bleak as was portrayed. Certainly it was not a practical trip in an EV and possibly will never be, but it's not a 4 day slog fest in hell. It's a worthwhile and valid contrast that needed to be pointed out. The downside of leaving the BBC piece unchallenged would have been more damaging for EV's.

  7. @JRP3
    Exactly. It is to show what is possible today with a production electric car. I don't think it is stretch at all to expect 200 mile EVs to be a common option within the next 5 years. And this is a very important point to make, so people know it is worthwhile to invest in EVs. BBC frequently prevents the most optimistic point about HFCVs (which are even more expensive and have even more limited infrastructure) and it seems to have convinced most of the UK audience.
    And MINI-E may be ~100 miles, like a lot of the affordable EVs coming out soon, but there are still other important deficiencies that doesn't represent production EVs. For example, cargo/seating capacity and fast charging was not representative of production EVs (see iMIEV and Leaf). The cabin air battery cooling was already mentioned.
    If the MINI-E report was actually balanced like they claimed (showing a week of daily driving in the MINI-E, which would actually be a relevant picture of EV usage), I don't think the backlash would be as strong.

  8. I have no problem with EV proponents attempting to break stereotypes about EV technology. While the EV is urban today that won't be case in the future. If we don't push the boundaries we won't get there fast enough. In the 1950's if we would have thought of space flight as simply putting satellites into orbit, we would have never landed astronauts on the moon.

  9. If RVs were just now coming out there would be cries of how they will never work. You can't park them at an apartment buildings and you have to dump them at special sites. They are not practical to drive to work in and they are not (take your pick) sporty/good looking/quiet.
    EVs are niche for now. As they improve people will choose to change their source of fuel or end up sleeping in their cars.

  10. 'As usual Chelsea, a balanced and concise breakdown of the facts :-) We have a family. We do 95% of trips well in existing EV range. I work mainly from home so no long hauls to an office everyday and I much prefer train travel for long haul business meetings as the travel time is much more productive. Fuel prices in the UK are nearing madness levels. The BBC or any other media company should make an informative programme that show how an EV would really help our family and the millions of others like us, in terms of running costs and emissions. The UK is a very compact country compared with many, especially the USA so the gains are magnified here.

  11. As for longer trips we would keep a gas car - for holidays and runs to the local tip. My wife has 1991 little Miata (MX5) and we both love to drive it - keeping that too! But for day to day shopping and school runs the EV makes the most sense. So why isn't there a nice EV on the drive charging now? COST £££$$$ The new Leaf looks fantastic and would suit us but no way e can spend £23k on a car ( including the £5k government incentive). Its going to be years until they are affordable. Our only hope is being able to lease one at a cost that works out less than running the current family car ( a 99 Honda Accord) As fuel here gets over £6 a gallon then the lease to run equation starts to win. Lets hope Nissan or someone is listening...... Oh and put us down BBC for a leaf for a year and see how it transforms our use of cars!

  12. There are a handful of cars that can do a 300 mi range, over the last 30 yrs. Not many people have even heard of them, let alone seen photographs. I drive 30 yr old EV, Jet Electra, that would probably take me a year to do 485 mi. At $4/gal, don't know anyone that would do it in a gas vehicle.

  13. Well my ebike can go 80Km and it can be recharged in 10 minutes for every 20Km. So 80km would be 40 minutes.

  14. Why wasn't the Ford C-Max or the Mitsubishi I-Miev mentioned?

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