Missing the BMW i3! Final Thoughts on @MyElectricDrive…

bmwmagazine

I was one of the fortunate few to be chosen as an ESB ecars ambassador for the 2014/2015 Great Electric Drive, during which I trialled the BMW i3 electric vehicle (EV) over a four-month period. Since we are now at the end of the ambassador programme, I thought I would update and repost an interview I did for BMW Magazine towards the end of my trial.

Explain your involvement in the ESB ecars “Great Electric Drive” scheme?

In February last year, my wife Josephine sent me on a link to the ESB’s “Great Electric Drive” call for EV ambassadors, as she thought that being a lecturer in electronic engineering at NUI Galway and an all-around gadget freak would make me an ideal candidate. The Great Electric Drive runs a yearly scheme whereby a team of ambassadors from all around Ireland trial an EV.

I put in my application, citing my interest in EVs and my social media reach, and was one of about 30 lucky ambassadors selected from over 20,000 applications!

How did you find the BMW i3?

The i3 is a pleasure to drive – from that first experience of the silent and speedy take off, and then being able to actually hear the music in the car as you drive along, to the nice feeling of pulling in at home without having had to fume up at the petrol pump.

What has been your initial impression of the BMW i3?

I’m amazed by how technologically-advanced it is: EVs have come a long way since the early electric cars of the 1880s! It’s fascinating as an electronic engineer to observe such a convergence of technologies in the i3: high-voltage batteries, mobile devices, internet connectivity, regenerative braking, remote control apps, multimedia storage, voice recognition, rapid charging, touch-sensitive input mechanisms, sensor information systems, and more.

When I was in the US in October, I was able to load up the “BMW i Remote” app on my phone to see where the car was parked, monitor its state of charge, and even remotely turn on the air conditioning when I touched down in Shannon Airport. The smartphone app can also also show you the range you can drive the EV to in all directions, using its current location and the roads nearby. You can also send it a destination from your phone or laptop, which will instantly appear in the navigation system. It won’t drive you there just yet, but the parallel parking assistant gives you an idea of what is possible and the way things are going in the future.

What are the most noticeable differences when driving an EV, as opposed to an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle?

I’ve noted that there is a general perception that electric cars are slow, and that they must take a while to get going. In fact, the opposite is true – I’ve never driven a car that is so responsive, and when you go back to an ICE (internal combustion engine) car, it can feel very sluggish in comparison. The BMW i3 delivers 250 Nm of torque, which powers it to go from 0 to 100 km/h in about 7 or 8 seconds. The top speed is about 150 km/h (on a German autobahn!). It’s fast.

What made you initially consider driving an EV?

I am passionate about EVs, and frequently tweet out stories about EV’s expansion across the US, Europe and now Asia.

In 2013, I rented an EV [Leaf] under the Drive Electric Orlando pilot car rental scheme, where I drove from Orlando to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Drive Electric Orlando offers cheaper car rental, free valet parking and free charging around the Orlando area, so it was a good opportunity to try out EV driving for longer than just a test drive.

Does driving an EV impact your decisions on what journeys you can take?

If you’re travelling about 20 to 30 km to work daily, then there is very little change to your journey apart from plugging the EV in and out. I now have a charge point installed at home, and I used to plug in the EV every one or two days depending on how low the battery was. It normally takes between three and five hours to bring the battery back up to full, but if it is fully depleted it could take longer (an overnight job).

If you’re going across country, you will probably need to factor in charge times and stopping points, but you get used to it quickly and build up some favourite waypoints.

My home charge point is an AC charger, the same as the majority of the public charge points around the country, but the public fast charge points have a much higher power output – 22 kW as opposed to the 3.6 kW I have at home – and can therefore charge faster (as low as one or two hours in some cases). Then there are the rapid chargers which can charge up compatible EVs in just 30 minutes…

Do you suffer from “Range Anxiety”?

The i3 does a good job of showing you charging points along your routes, so once I had planned my journey there usually weren’t any issues. I’m the kind of person who drives with the empty fuel tank warning light perpetually on, so maybe I don’t suffer from range anxiety as much as others!

I’ve found that the ‘pure electric’ range of the i3 is about 130 km, but that may be increased by 20 km or so if you enable either ECO PRO or ECO PRO+ mode (which limits speed and optimises ‘coasting’), or may be decreased through more aggressive driving (like any car). Also, advances in battery technology mean that this range is increasing yearly as future EV development continues. The BMW eight-year warranty on the battery is a great endorsement of its expected lifespan, as I know a common question is will the battery stay effective.

Would you recommend a BMW i3 to others?

I already have. A colleague of mine was interested in buying one and went for a test drive with me recently, and I’ve given spins to countless colleagues at NUI Galway, students, startup founders, multinational CEOs, local tech leaders and random others who have all been entranced by the drive. It’s been fun to watch the faces of my passengers when the car silently pulls away, and also when the park assistant does its thing!

What has been the biggest benefit of driving a BMW i3?

Apart from the cost benefits and instant response, there is a great feeling of situational awareness and safety that is part of the Connected Drive experience. The i3 has a mobile data connection built into the car that makes it possible for rescue services to be dispatched to your GPS location if an accident occurs and an airbag deploys, or if you manually pull an SOS switch above the rear-view mirror. Real-time traffic information is displayed via a red/yellow/green (slow-moving/medium/fast) line beside the road on the navigation system, using data obtained from the mobile network, smartphone apps, vehicle fleets and police reports.

Can you give an indication of the fuel savings that you have made while driving the BMW i3?

My petrol car was costing me about €10 per 100 km. I do about 1300 km per month, which is about €130 per month on an ICE. The equivalent cost for the BMW i3 (if I was just charging at home; sometimes I charged at the public charge points) would be about €42, so that’s a saving of €90 per month straight away before considering cheaper road tax, service costs, etc.

How much does a full charge cost?

At present, charging at Irish public charge points is free, so you simply swipe a card provided by ESB ecars to charge up. The BMW i3’s battery capacity is roughly 20 kilowatt-hours, which means that at a cost of just under 20 cents per kilowatt-hour it costs less than €4 to charge on a home charger.

Estimates are that it costs about €3.25 to drive 100 kilometres, and this compares to about €10 for my ICE (€1.50 per litre here in Ireland, at seven litres per 100 km). Bear in mind that if you have night-rate electricity installed at home, this would be even cheaper (half price).

Was the addition of the REx a useful option?

The range extender – a small 650cc motorcycle engine whose sole function is to provide additional electric power – is a great option to have. This can add an additional 100 km to the range (giving a total of 230 km or more). Since it is about 200 km from Galway (where I work) to our capital Dublin, this makes it possible to do the full journey in ECO PRO mode, or to have a quick stop along the way at one of the rapid chargers if driving in COMFORT mode.

The i3 I had did trips from Dublin to Galway, Galway to Limerick, and Limerick to Dublin on a single electric charge with the range extender kicking in to complete the journey (its nine-litre tank costs about €13.50 to fill). If you’re going any further than 230 km, you’ll probably want to charge up somewhere along the way.

Some of the i3 EVs (including the one I was driving) have the rapid charge option, which means you can charge to at least 80% in around 20 to 30 minutes (using the CCS-type DC rapid charger). I live in Connemara, so on my Dublin to home trip, I charged up in Kilbeggan for 30 minutes to make sure I’d have enough “epower” to get me home.

How sophisticated is the public charging infrastructure?

In Ireland, you might be surprised to hear that we now have over 1200 public charge points between Northern Ireland and the Republic, or one for every 5333 people. That’s actually pretty high, because the top state in the US in terms of electric vehicle infrastructure, California, has one charge point for about every 7500 people. Texas, the state with the second highest number of public charging points in the US, has one for every 16500 people.

Also, the ESB have rolled out nearly 70 DC rapid chargers around the country (30 minute charge time). There are two types here, CHAdeMO and CCS (BMW), but they are now installing dual-type DC rapid chargers too.

Would you swap from an ICE vehicle to an EV permanently?

Yes. My main limitation is that we have six in our extended family, so I still need an MPV for our cross-country trips. I’d love to change our second daily commuter car to an EV.

Has driving this EV had any impact on your family?

It turned my kids and I into show offs! We loved showing off the i3 and all its features at school drop offs and at work.

I also listened to more music during my few months with the EV than at any time over the past eight years, thanks to the 20 GB built-in hard drive which had a good chunk of my music collection on it (2000 tracks, I rotated to new ones once a month).

What has been the reaction to the car by friends, colleagues, the general public?

The car itself changes perceptions of EVs because the BMW i3 looks fantastic. During the few months that I had it, there were many, many pictures taken of it and with it. The opposing coach doors and lack of central pillars (because of the carbon fibre reinforced body) are very eye catching.

I even saw someone recording a video of the i3 from the car following behind me as I drove home one day. I had never driven a BMW before the i3, but I did notice special interest from those who are driving BMWs or own BMWs, looking to see who is this newest member of the family and to find out what are the resemblances to the cars they drive and love.

Reinforcing Ideological Walls with Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm

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In a recent academic paper from Facebook, researchers described how their news feed algorithm is presenting users with content that is related to their ideological standpoint, and removes some “cross-cutting content” from sources they are less likely to agree with. (Cross-cutting content are stories that are more likely to have been shared by those who are strongly committed to a different ideology than you.) The paper has raised concerns about the role that algorithms play in the kind of content that Facebook users are being exposed to.

One general issue with the algorithms that control the selection and display of content in our social network news feeds is that we do not actually know what else these algorithms are selecting our stories based on, or how widespread their effects are. For example, we had the experiment carried out by Facebook in 2012 and published last year where they manipulated the display of happy and sad stories to 150,000 users to see if they would in turn share happy or sad content. It may have been an isolated test, but the attitude behind carrying out such a study did cause me to stop using my own Facebook personal profile.

Some argue that an algorithmic ranking is much the same as an editor choosing what we see in a newspaper: most people would know when they pick up a certain newspaper that they are going to see stories aligning to the ideology of that newspaper and its readers. However, an editor can also decide on any one day that it is in the interests of a newspaper’s readers to see a more diverse range of news stories around an important breaking topic.

In terms of social networks and how algorithms work on sites like Facebook, there is often an assumption of neutrality, and many would think that they are being shown the same types of content as other people would see from their own sets of friends. That is, everyone would see a balanced set of content items overall, perhaps reordered based on “Likes” but not so much on one’s own profile characteristics (apart maybe for the ads on the sidebar which a lot of people realise are tailored). This was apparent after the aforementioned emotion manipulation study, when a lot of people stated that they didn’t realise that the Facebook news feed was filtered at all.

Most social networks (and also non-social services such as search) are trying to personalise your content and make it more relevant, creating the so-called “Filter Bubble” as a result, so in this respect Facebook is similar to many other platforms. What you click on determines what you will see, although the researchers in this paper seem to make a distinction between the news feed selection algorithm and user choices as if they were semi-independent yet similar factors: in fact, one actually drives the other.

As regards other findings from this study, some of the results made sense, albeit with a sample group that had issues in terms of its selection. What the researchers called “hard content” – national or world news and politics – was very polarised in terms of how it is shared: liberals shared stories from liberal news sources, conservatives from conservative sources. Also, placement of stories in the news feed has a significant effect on clickthrough rates (no surprise there).

In terms of the numbers, self-identified conservatives are being shown 5% less cross-cutting hard news compared to self-identified liberals who are being shown 8% less (who does that anger more?!), and also conservatives are clicking on about 30% of the cross-cutting hard news that they are being shown in their feed compared to the liberals at 20%. I would have guessed the reverse.

The problem revealed by this study is that some social networks are now effectively increasing political polarisation, accelerated by algorithms such as the one from Facebook that curates your news feed for you. These news feed algorithms can be changed to suit different conditions, but no one knows how much they are changing over time, if at all. Right now, all we know is that these algorithms are increasing a user’s selective exposure to news, before the user can decide what to select themselves.

Such news selectivity is generally accepted as being counter to democracy. The reinforcement of ideological walls outlined here may be part of a social network’s future plan for content consumption but it is not a plan we have to go along with.