BMW’s 20 million (!) kilometer field test with electric cars: results are in

BMW has been working on its BMW i series since 2008 (see photo for the i3. Also, we’ve seen the pictures of the i3 and i8 so often now that it’s time they start selling them, I think).

As part of the research surrounding electric vehicles, BMW also initiated what they call “the world’s biggest electric mobility field trial” with MiniE and BMW ActiveE vehicles in Asia, Europe and the US. ActiveE vehicles look like standard BMW cars, but are 100 % electric.

The numbers are impressive: BMW said in an announcement today that in total the test subjects drove 20 million kilometers with their electric vehicles.

Specifically, the trials wanted to find out about how consumers handled two key challenges for electric vehicle adoption: the short driving range of EV’s (what’s commonly called ‘range anxiety’) and the inadequate charging infrastructure.

You might recall that the European Commission recently decided to force member states to drastically increase the number or charging stations for EV’s as well as for hydrogen cars, to reach a “critical mass”. And they do want to put the “mass” into critical mass: Germany would have to increase its number of charging stations from 2000 charging points to 150 000.

Here are two of the most important findings of the field trials:

1. People only drive 40 km per day on average

It’s not so suprising if you think about it. People go to work and drive back home in the evening: “The distances covered by the electric vehicles showed very little difference from the distances covered by conventional cars, at somewhat over 40 kilometres (25 miles) a day on average.”

2. Public charging stations aren’t that important

It also seems that, because of that low distance covered every day, it might not be the number of public charging stations that’s holding the EV back. Says BMW: “On average, the pilot customers charged their vehicle two to three times a week, for the most part at home or at their workplace.”

This finding contradicts what most users had told the researchers prior to the field trial: “At the start of testing, more than 70 per cent of users said that access to public charging stations was very important to them. In actual practice, however, public infrastructure was used for less than 10 per cent of all charging.”

This could mean that those hundreds of thousands of charging stations the European Commission wants us to build might go largely unused…

BMW says that based on these trials, it designed a powertrain that would require a battery recharge once every two or three days. It also reports that the i3 currently has a range of between 130 and 160 kilometres, which “allows it to cope comfortably with out-of-town journeys”. Also, it claims that the car can be recharged to about 75 % of the range in “the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee”:

As a rough guide, in the time it takes to stop for a cup of coffee enough charge can be stored – using “fast charging” mode – to give an additional 120 kilometres (75 miles) of range. The BMW i3 can also be supplied with an optional range extender, which increases the driving range to approximately 300 kilometres (186 miles).

It’s no secret that most people don’t do huge distances in their car, but it also seems that people like the idea of being able to drive for 750 km with one tank – something that was also quite clear in the recent spat between the NYT and Tesla. Some commenter remarked that it’s strange and probably a bit silly to benchmark an EV, which is ideal for commuting, against a diesel car, which is ideal for long trips.

BMW thinks that it might convince people to buy an EV with the promise that they can also have the use of another type of vehicle for their holidays:

If it is likely that, even using all the measures listed above, it will not be possible to reach an intended destination in the BMW i3, BMW i also offers additional mobility modules which allow even longer distances to be covered – for example a conventional BMW vehicle can be provided on a given number of days per year.

It’s logical, and it would seem to make sense, but I’m not sure that will do the trick – it would require people to change their habits, and I’m not sure they like that.

It does present an interesting puzzle for marketers: how do you convince consumers that they should buy a car based on how they use it 99 % of the time, instead of buying a car that is essentially a hedge against that 1 time a year they have to do a 1000 kilometre trip?

[BMW][photos: BMW]

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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