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Mitsubishi i electric cars.
Mitsubishi i electric cars have estimated 60 miles range.

My 200-Mile Date with 'i'

Author takes Mitsubishi's 'i' Electric Car for 200-Mile Test Drive

By Breath on the Wind

By Breath on the Wind

The Mitsubishi i electric vehicle has been anticipated, discussed, driven, and even raced, but there are probably as many ways to view the experience of a test drive as there are drivers. Yet, common, to the point of cliché, are the expressions: “It drives like a normal car,” and “It doesn’t drive like a golf cart.” Confident in my own unusual perspective, I announced, to mixed receptions, that being with the car for almost 4 days was a bit like going on a date.

“Grandmother’s house we go…”
Concurrently, I am using this “media drive” to test the myth that you can’t go to “grandmother’s house” with an electric car. The most famous trip to grandmother’s house was probably less than 10 miles and was popularized in a well known song. To grandmother’s, or whatever weekend trip you might take, may be less than 60 miles away. The Mitsubishi i has an EPA range of 62 miles, and a very excellent MPGe of 126 in the city and 99 on the highway (30 kWh / 100 miles). Seeing that if I picked up the car in central NJ, rather than having it delivered to NYC, I would be able to drive further, I took the electrified East Coast Train to New Brunswick and by the end of the day was about 90 miles outside of NYC.

A Date?
People can have different goals on a date, but here I am pondering the experience of getting to know someone. My mechanical partner on this trip was a Raspberry Mitsubishi i, special edition (SE.)

Driving the Car
It was a very hot day and we jumped in the vehicle to turn on the AC. The handler, who gave me a quick lesson on operating the vehicle, was nervous with “The Plan.” “You know you have to charge this vehicle,” he panted, “you can’t just go to a gas station.” As if to distance himself from the insane, he kindly excused himself, saying, “I don’t want you to use up the battery.” The Mitsubishi i is one of only a handful of electric cars available in the US, and the only electric vehicle that this company delivers for media tests.

Undaunted, I drove South for almost an hour on the NJ turnpike in AC comfort, where the posted speed limit is 65 but traffic moves easily at 70 mph. Most electric vehicles could do more but have governors to limit the speed and maintain fuel economy. This one is set to 80 mph. The car kept up without any noticeable sign of strain. I once owned an MG midget that couldn’t do the same.

   The “i” is a small car and the steering was responsive. The largest display on the dash was an analog indicator of charging or level of discharging. Flooring the accelerator would pin the dial on the power end. Accelerating would move it nicely in that area. But once any speed was reached, lightly touching the accelerator would maintain speed and move the dial into the “Eco” mode. Removing my foot would allow the vehicle to decelerate and the dial would move to charge mode. Battery electric cars have a reputation for being only “around town” cars. I was definitely operating outside the expected use, but was missing my usual “cruise control” for the open highway. At my first stop, after traveling over 35 miles of mostly highway speeds with the AC on, the initial 16 bars on the battery charge indicator had been reduced to 4.

“Shifting”
“Shifting” the vehicle from “drive” to “economy” would make the accelerator less responsive (0 to 60 takes longer) and allow somewhat more regeneration when the foot was removed from the control. This effect is pushed even more with the shift control in “B (braking?).” So it is possible to downshift the vehicle when coming to a stop, and use engine braking as you might do with a manual shift car. Unlike its petrol counterpart, this downshifting is not only saving the brakes, but also charging the battery. This would play an important role in my last trip with the vehicle.

With only a single and fixed gear, “shifting” has nothing to do with a transmission, gears, or engine speed. It is an electronic switch that changes the nature of the accelerator control and regenerative braking. The feel is entirely different from a petrol vehicle. There is never any jarring with the MiEV. Everything is very smooth.

My Date with the Mitsubishi i
As I slowly found out more about my EV partner in different settings, I was also able to observe reactions of family, friends, and the people we met along the way. My first stop was the home of a storyteller who once regaled me with the feeling of the electrified trolleys he once traveled in across rural NJ as a boy. We had arrived at the “Grandfather’s house.” Sadly, the electric trolleys no longer exist. “We have gone backwards,” he complained with exasperation. But with some pride, he presently boasted, “Now I can say I have ridden in an electric car.” OK, the trip was worthwhile.

The Small Battery Solution
Electric vehicles can be made with large batteries. The new Tesla Model S caters to this demand, with batteries as large as 85 kWh. The big battery will be more costly to replace than a smaller battery. It will also take longer to charge and it is more weight to carry around (not to mention the cost and weight of a hybrid’s gasoline engine). Like astrophysicists looking for Earth-like planets, we need a Goldilocks solution. A battery that is not too big and not too small, but just right for the size of the vehicle and expected charging level. The Mitsubishi i has, at 16 kWh, a small battery, but it is enough for this road trip and most daily driving. More importantly, as there are almost no public charging stations in NJ, I can plug it into any 120-volt outlet (level 1 charging) and recharge the vehicle in a practical amount of time.

Bryan Arnett, Senior Manager, Product & Accessory Strategy for Mitsubishi North America had this to say about the “i”:

“The relationship between charge time and battery size is not a primary decision factor for me…

“Because charge time is most impacted by the amperage capacity of the On-Board Charger (OBC) system. For example, currently, the i-MiEV uses a 15A on-board AC-DC charger, which charges the 16kWh battery in about 7 hours… [at 240 volts]. If we increased amperage of OBC to a 30A system, the time to charge the same 16kWh battery pack would be reduced to about 3.5 hrs.”

So I’m sure your next question is why did we not use a 30A system…. Reason is because it was felt that 7 hours charge cycle was acceptable for overnight charging and was the best cost versus value. For quicker charging during daytime use, we recommend the CHaDEMO commercial charger infrastructure, which can charge the battery to 80% in just 20-30 minutes.

How Much Charge Time is Available?
I drove around a bit and finally put the vehicle on to charge at around 5:30 pm, with two bars remaining. Most vehicles sit for 23 hours a day. (12,000 mile average a year / 365 days = 33 miles / day = less than 1 hour driving.) If a vehicle is traveling for less than 1 hour a day, that potentially leaves 23 hours for charging. It takes only seconds to plug it in and the same to unplug it. I didn’t sit and watch the vehicle charge (and wasn’t forced to watch a propaganda screen at the pump), but spent the time visiting, resting, and preparing for the next trip.

With just a little planning, we can travel, stay, travel, stay, and enjoy a relaxing trip that is probably better for us than long periods of sitting in a vehicle. We clamor for longer ranges that we don’t always need, have limited use to us (again, we average less than one hour of driving a day), aren’t good for us in any event, and may not be as good for the vehicle, as higher charge levels also tend to shorten battery life. It is in our nature to always want more.

But a battery EV may not work for everyone. “He goes to work and then sometimes has to go to meetings across the state from there.” The EV can work well when the route is small or easily planned. Uncertainty, like flexibility, is a cost that must be paid at the pump.

Charging: Amps, Volts, and Watts
I was surprised that the provided cord contains 16 AWG (American Wire Guage) wire. Using NEC (national electrical code) standards, this is sufficient for continuous load of 8 amps. Charging the vehicle draws about 7.3 amps, varying slightly over the duration of the charge. (I have a lawnmower that draws 9 amps, and a car battery charger that draws 10 amps, and with these I use a 12 AWG extension cord good for 16 amps of continuous draw.)

7.3 amps at 120 volts is 876 watts. This is a bit like filling a swimming pool with a straw, as the 16 kWh battery will require at least (16000/876=) 18.27 hours. The car’s rated 21.5-hour charge time (using a 120-volt level 1 charge) is due to some small inefficiency of the on-board charger and a charging pattern that tapers the charge amperage at the end of the charge cycle. In most countries with 240 volt power, that same wire size would give (8 x 240 =) 1920 watts, and as the voltage is doubled, the charge time is reduced by half.  A portable aftermarket EVSE (electric vehicle service equipment) is available that will charge at a higher amperage and automatically switch from 120 to 240 as available for a very reasonable price, but it may not meet the fine print in the owner’s manual.

After about 18.5 hours, I could see on the remote that the vehicle was showing a full charge, and I was off again. The schedule called for another photo shoot, then a visit to a small, working farm where they raise alpacas. First, there was the usual battery of questions about the vehicle. They seemed to search for a reason to hate electric vehicles. “This is a farm, can you tow with it?” (Answer, “Not every vehicle you have here is used for towing, but an electric vehicle is better adapted to providing the torque for towing. Sufficient energy to sustain the pull is the issue.”) And then, finally, “We wanted to put up solar panels on the barn but were told either we can build the system with a battery backup or a grid connection but not both. With all the storms in the area and so many people without power, it would be frustrating to have working solar panels and no electricity. We need an 18 kWh battery backup which would cost $20,000, about the price and battery capacity of the Mitsubishi i. Now you have sold me,” she said upon hearing that in Japan there was an optional system (an inverter) to give household power from the vehicle, a kind of household UPS.

On the Way Home
And then I was off by mid-Saturday afternoon, back to central NJ, just slightly North from where I initially picked up the vehicle. I chose to take Rt 130 North, a smaller road with a lower speed limit of 50 mph and a few traffic lights. I used the AC about ½ the time and arrived after just over 40 miles of travel with 6 bars left on the gauge. A lower speed and some regenerative braking helped to economize the electric charge.

No one was home. Ah! Ha! I plugged the vehicle in at around 6:30 pm. However, suspicious looks from the neighbor prompted me to introduce myself. They were a two-Prius family. “Honey, come look! This car is all-electric and doesn’t have an engine!” (Technically, the electric motor is an “engine” that converts electric “fuel” to motion.) The wife, the kids, and the dog all came for a look, a touch, (and a sniff). Then, there was the familiar battery of questions, but each time the tone is different. Here, they were absolutely thrilled to see the vehicle. But would it work for them?

The Longest Ride
After several visits, rides, discussions, another overnight, and I was set for the longest leg of the journey so far — 52 miles would take me back to NYC. I debated a slower route, but, for the first time, the “charge” light had gone out on the cord, indicating a full charge. It would be the highway.

On Staten Island, I hit some traffic. An electric car can be very efficient with stop and go traffic, while this driver is not so patient. “There must be a parallel route that would be faster,” I mused as I turned off listening to an NPR story about a a women, with one arm that she was able to hide with misdirection. To my chagrin, I realized I had handicapped my normally good sense of location, but spied the central console and managed to bring up a map on this “SE” version of the MiEV, which led me back to the highway and traffic that seemed to be moving much better. (It is all a matter of perspective.) 2 hours later, at 9 pm, I was putting the vehicle on to charge, with two bars left.

The Last Day
Monday in NYC was my last day with the vehicle. In the morning, one person walking their dog saw the car charging and was almost moved to tears of excitement and joy at seeing an electric car. I looked again to make sure it was just a car and not a movie star. But, for some, it may represent the same thing: something almost beyond imagination, a dream or hope for the future.

I explained what the vehicle was and how it works to an 80-year-old neighbor (another grandfather), and he became one of the strongest instant EV advocates. “For someone like me who doesn’t go far, this vehicle is fine and it doesn’t use gas!” he would say to everyone. I am not sure he fully understood that I had traveled almost 200 miles in the vehicle across 2 states.

A special experience was a 350lb+ “light” friend who asked if he could drive the car. (No, sadly, I don’t have permission for that.) “Then let me sit in it,” he said. “Wow, it has a lot of room for a small car — only, if we are driving together, maybe we will have to lock elbows.” It reminded me of once flying to Nantucket with two similarly sized people in an even smaller plane. (“There does seem to be less room in the vehicle, but no, I already have a date.”)

However, most didn’t recognize it for what it is. Oddly, one of the responses I answered many, many times when I said it was an electic car was, “But it takes gas too, right?” “No, it is all electric,” but I might have said that it operated by saying some magic words. Was I joking? Was it even possible? How does that work? For someone who does not usually read EV World Insider or other blogs, word is likely not reaching them. As of May, the “i” had only been sold 413 times in the US,… but far more overseas.

Range Anxiety?
The issue of “range anxiety” deserves a separate article that will incorporate my experiences here and as a response to another article. In brief, you can’t look under the hood and find it there as a manufacturing defect. There is not “range anxiety” next to where the missing gas tank should be…. There’s a saying I have often heard, that “it is a poor worker that blames their tools,” and this may hold something of a key into the human nature of “range anxiety.” Conversely, a “good worker” should know what to expect from their tools, and how they are best used. I had no problem traveling many miles over relatively long distances in NJ with a staged itinerary. However, on my last trip with the vehicle, I had 4 bars left and traveled to a talk I was to give about electric vehicles.

The Last Journey is the Most Difficult
It is lots of fun after a stoplight to lightly press the accelerator and silently look at the traffic far behind in the mirror slowly moving from a standstill. The car in drive mode is peppy, with lots of visibility, reminding me of driving a motorcycle (with more room and without the noise). It is an EV and not an economy petrol vehicle. But, I was surprised to reach my destination with only two bars left and the gauge flashing (as if I had not already been keeping my eye on it). I didn’t do the math; I started out with only 4 bars showing and was pushing the vehicle. Afterwards, I pulled away to return, my last trip with the car, and it almost immediately dropped to one bar. I began to consider alternatives.

First, I changed my route. The highway is 7 miles, but city streets made it only a 4-mile trip. 3 bars to come and only 1 available to return did not make me optimistic. Next, I began to practice some simple hypermiling techniques. Lower speed, no AC, slow starts, easy with the foot… and I used a feature of the EV. I used the “E” mode and, to slow the vehicle for a stoplight, shifted again to “B” in an attempt to maximize the regen. I could slow the vehicle to almost a stop without using the brakes. It began to look like I would make it. One bar held until about 6 blocks away, when all the bars vanished. I could walk, but what about the vehicle? Was it to be a perfect date with a disappointing ending? It was a long climb until 2 blocks away, but the vehicle was still moving. I felt every bump and heard every noise. I arrived, then parked the vehicle to give it a final charge, with a sense of gratitude for the experience.

It was the relatively short trip around town that caused problems, due to my poor planning and impulsive actions. This can lead to “anxiety,” not the vehicle. It has a range capability. It has an indicator. Push your luck and you may suffer. I didn’t, because it is all part of the story, the adventure, and I have some capacity to plan and appreciate the limits of my equipment. Will you suffer “Range anxiety?” Most, if not all, depends on you, not the equipment. Based upon this experience, I would now be a bit hesitant to announce some neurotic tendency, because it would say far more about me than the vehicle.

The Road Not Taken
It may have been the perfect date, but am I “in love.” There are dozens of additional things I can imagine doing with the car. I didn’t drive at night or in anything more than a light rain. I would expect winter traction to be good with the vehicle weight, low to the ground. It would make an interesting discovery. What happens with heat and very cold weather? How about loading the car down? This vehicle had an SE package that includes the backup camera (with night vision), GPS navigation system, cell phone bluetooth connections, and the 440-volt CHaDEMO DC charger port (80% charge in 20 minutes). I used almost none of this. And there are an endless series of interesting conversations. Enough adventures to start a book or a song. I will leave you to decide.

The Drive-Through
The Mitsubishi – is a 4-seat economical car you can easily charge from a 120-volt outlet, with the stability and some safety features of a bigger vehicle, but the visibility and acceleration of a motorcycle with climate control. Driving is fun again.

I found the experience of planning for a vehicle charge interesting and not a burden, but the situation could be better. The vehicle shows its non-US roots with a limited level 1 and 240-volt portable charge connection that seems inconsistent with its economical pricing and small battery size. More options for opportunistic charging could make this small battery vehicle a great EV option while charging infrastructure continues to be developed. Use of the vehicle as a household UPS would add value to the pricing with a relatively limited additional cost, especially where solar panels are installed. Too often, the MiEV is not recognized, not distinguished, from a hybrid, and is misunderstood.

I had no trouble planning an extended trip with the vehicle. But it was a lack of planning and an impulsive approach that led to more trouble in the city. Many rental agencies have the Mitsubishi i available, and a new lease arrangement has been announced. This was a great “date” you should experience for yourself. You can then join the growing number of people who can say, “I have driven an electric vehicle.”

Reprinted with permission of the author. You can follow more ‘Breath On the Wind’ blog postings at http://cleantechnica.com/author/breathonthewind/.

Times Article Viewed: 7083
Published: 21-Aug-2012

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