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Electric Vehicle information for Atlanta and Georgia

a checklist for the perfect electric car


a guide for the EV purchaser


an open letter to automakers about their next EV

I’ve written this long document for three purposes:

– For myself, to keep track of what’s really important when looking for the next electric vehicle (EV)

– For the EV consumer, to serve as a guide to what you should be scrutinizing. It’s a list of things to look for when trying to make sense of all of the EV options available to you. Even if you don’t read through the whole thing, at least read the must-have section, but if you get serious about it then come back for the rest. I assume that you already know the basics of EVs, and perhaps even already own one and are looking to upgrade. If you are new to EVs, first check out my fact sheet on EV basics, linked on the left side of this website.

– As an open letter to automakers, inventorying all the little features that their competitors may be offering, and revealing all the unseen ways that they could be screwing up their product.

I created this document in summer 2013 as I neared the end of my Chevy Volt lease and was evaluating my next EV. Since then I have updated it as new cars have come out demonstrating new features — or implementation errors! For example, in June 2014 I merged in info about the BMW i3 following its US launch, and in May 2015 I merged in Kia Soul EV info.

Sections below:
– must have features of any EV
– EV subtleties
– if Volt-style “range extended” drivetrain
– EV dream features
– regular non-EV amenities
– intangibles

SECTION: must-have features of any EV

These are at the top of the list for a reason: you can’t do without them! These features typically involve strategic decisions by car companies, and some carmakers may very well choose other paths (e.g. Toyota and the market-dominating Prius). But if you want a real EV, then these are the headline items to look for.

A powerful electric motor! EVs are so much fun to drive because of that instantaneous low-end torque, the ability to leap off the line and silently embarrass that muscle car next to you at the stop light. So personally I’ve just GOT to have that power, both to accelerate quickly and to be able to cruise at high speed on the highway. I think the Volt sets the bar for minimum acceptable performance — in that case, the 150 HP electric drivetrain pulls the Volt to 60 MPH in a hair under 9 seconds. It actually feels faster than that because of the way it pulls through 0-30, and it’s all silent of course. The Volt drivetrain feels like a V8 engine! The Nissan Leaf is nearly as powerful, certainly more powerful than just about any economy car, and that may be enough for most.

If the car has a gas engine that kicks in any time you press the accelerator hard, or try to go 70 MPH on the highway, it’s really just a hybrid and you won’t be able to really say goodbye to your local gas station. You need the electric drivetrain to at least be strong enough to pull the car at highway cruising speeds. This is why some of the “plug-in hybrids” like the Toyota Plug-In Prius and Ford Energi models are no good — you won’t be enjoying the benefits of driving a real EV, because they are putting a WEAK electric motor in there. This is why the Volt is such a fundamentally different car, and shouldn’t be called a hybrid — it has a powerful electric drivetrain, far more powerful than your typical hybrid, that can accelerate hard and cruise at highway speeds, all purely electric.

I should add that this is my personal opinion, and not everyone needs or wants a powerful car, but I do think you need an electric drivetrain that’s strong enough to get you up to highway cruising speeds. That’s why my EV market guide (linked at left) lists the electric horsepower of each car and ignores the gas horsepower of the plug-in hybrids. I think it’s as important as range and price. [Volt+] [Leaf+] [Kia+][Telsa+++] [BMW++] [Ford-] [PIP—]

thermally managed battery pack: This means that there are heating and cooling systems embedded inside the battery, to protect the battery from temperature extremes. Years of experience with lithium-ion chemistries has shown that in order to get a long life out of the battery (10-15 years), it needs to be protected from temperature extremes. The Nissan Leaf is NOT thermally managed like most of the other EVs on the market, and that is why the Leaf is so affordable — it’s a simpler car. But that comes at a tradeoff, both in performance during adverse weather conditions and in the lifetime of the battery. Thermal management of the battery mitigates these problems, and I believe it should be a mandatory feature of any EV you buy. [Volt+] [Tesla+] [Ford+] [BMW+] [Leaf-] [Kia-]

Adjustable acceleration power (e.g. a sport mode): EVs attract many buyers because they are so efficient, and as a result the carmakers will often dial-down the power of the car to maximize effciency. But there’s a lot more power available there under the hood, so typically the car will have a “sport mode” or similar setting to unleash that power. It may very well simply be a change in how twitchy the accelerator pedal is (aka the “pedal mapping”) but it makes a big difference if you like a powerful car. [Volt+] [BMW+] [Kia+] [Ford-]

Adjustable regen braking, independent of sport mode: all electric cars (and indeed all hybrid cars) regenerate power back into the battery as you slow down, using the exact same electric drivetrain that accelerated the car, and this capability is called regen braking. All EVs have it, but some EVs engage some of that regen braking when you lift off the accelerator, without requiring that you press the brake. This means you can effectively accel and decel with just one pedal — and for the performance guys, this makes driving the EV feel like a manual transmission car with the engine braking, and that’s a good thing. EVs are stealth sports cars! However, because some people like this effect and some don’t, the EV makers usually will give you some control over the regen braking behavior, so you can turn it on or off as desired. But here is the key: you want that regen braking adjustment to be *independent* of the accel power adjust described above. If the car only offers an Eco mode that simultaneously increases the regen braking and decreases the accel power, or doesn’t offer adjustable regen at all, then that car has failed this test — BMW, I’m looking at you. The Volt does this perfectly — offering a Sport mode for improved accel power, and an “L” position on the shifter for additional regen braking, and those can be selected independently from each other. The Leaf didn’t offer a “B” mode initially but does now. [Volt+] [Tesla+] [Kia+] [Leaf-/+] [BMW-] [Ford+]

not a conversion car — some automakers are taking their gas models and simply doing a “conversion” on them, leaving out the gas engine and gas tank and replacing them with the electric drivetrain. This frankenstein approach gives them a product that they can quickly bring to market in California, meeting the EV mandate there, but the conversions are usually pretty messy affairs. In particular they usually don’t have a good place for the battery, and so they’ll put it in the trunk, tieing up what would otherwise be useful space. The three Ford models do this, putting a battery block in the trunk that’s so big you can’t realistically use the trunk as you might expect. These conversion cars are really intended for the California market only, just to satisfy regulations there; they tend to sell poorly because the carmakers aren’t pushing them, and as a result have a poor driver community and poor dealer support. [Ford—]

fast charging capability: This splits into two capabilities — AC and DC charging.

For AC charging, the car should be able to draw at least 6.6 kW of power from the AC charging station, whether in your garage or at a public location. This rate is limited by a component inside the car which imposes a power bottleneck. In the first wave of modern EVs introduced in late 2010 (the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf), that bottleneck was 3.3 kW. Now nearly all cars support 6.6 kW or more, which halves your AC charging time. The current notable exceptions are the Chevy Volt and some Fords, which still charge at 3.3 kW; for most that’s not a problem, but I really want the car to charge faster than that. [Volt-] [Leaf+] [BMW+] [Ford+/-] [Tesla++]

Then there’s DC Fast Charging, aka DCFC. Some pure EVs offer this technology, which enables EV to go on longer roadtrip with only short 20-30 minute stops along the way to rapidly charge up. Some cars don’t bother with this feature because they carry a gas engine as a backup, so you shouldn’t need to charge quickly. But as an EV enthusiast, I can see that DC Fast Charging is the wave of the future and is ultimately how these EVs will make it over the final hurdle: being able to go on roadtrips. And I want my next car to have DCFC so I can be part of that initial wave of DCFC stations and be an early pioneer in the next phase of EVs. Note: there are multiple competing DCFC standards on the market, but that’s a complicated story I won’t get into here.

So, does the car have DC Fast Charging capability? If you get a pure EV without this, you’re going to regret it down the road someday. [Volt-] [Leaf+] [BMW+] [Kia+] [Tesla+] [Ford-]

lease offerings — not a feature of the car itself, rather a financing arrangement, leasing has become very popular with EVs for a variety of reasons I won’t go into. If you’re considering an EV, you definitely need to look at leasing, especially if you have never leased before. It’s simply the smart choice for most people, and in fact about 80% of EV sales since 2010 have been via leases. I’d never leased a car before either, but when I got my first EV in 2010, the lease was simply too compelling. Attention automakers: when introducing a new model, you need to get the leasing details out as quickly as you can so that we can make decisions — get those headline numbers out as soon as you can. [Leaf+] [Volt+] [Ford+] [Kia+] [Tesla-] [BMW-]

enough electric range to cover your commute with about 20%-25% margin — This is at the bottom of this section on purpose, because I think that range is just not that important. Sure, you will want to cover your commuting distance, because that is where most of your driving is done (NOT in long distance roadtrips). But beyond that range, it doesn’t much matter. Add in the 20%-25% to protect you against the slight range reduction caused by winter cold, to protect against the slight reduction from battery aging, and leave a little bit for running errands during your commute.

For most people, the 40 mile electric range of the Chevy Volt is plenty. For others with longer commutes, the 80-ish mile range of the affordable pure electrics is needed. For those with extremely long commutes, you’re either looking at the wildly expensive Tesla, or just accepting that you will continue to be using some gasoline every day. Note that even if you go past the 40-mile electric range of the Chevy Volt, the way the math works out you will still save a lot of money on gas expenses; check out VoltStats.net for actual Volt owner data on the MPGs they are getting. See my EV market guide, linked to the left.

Note that public charging (and workplace charging) is rapidly spreading around the country, so if you end up having an abnormal day, you don’t really need to worry about being stranded. This is especially true in metro Atlanta where we have over 200 Level 2 charging locations, and as of May 2015 also a rapidly improving DC Fast Charging infrastructure!

SECTION: EV subtleties

Next, we have the long list of the subtleties, the little things that you don’t even know about until you’ve owned one of these cars for a while. Most of these don’t involve major design decisions, so even if an automaker has screwed up one of these, they can usually correct it in the next model year or even as a software update to existing cars.

Honestly none of these are dealbreakers (or they’d be listed above) but they do make a difference between a very satisfied customer and one who’s constantly frustrated about The Little Things.

climate control system startup both via key fob and smartphone — and notice that I said BOTH ways. Being able to “prestart” the car so that the climate control system gets going is an absolutely killer feature of these cars. And since it’s an EV you don’t have to worry about exhaust in an enclosed space like a garage. I use this feature every single time I drive, even if I’m only giving the car 15 seconds of prestart as I’m walking up to the car. But it’s critical to be able to do this with the KEYFOB, not just a phone app. The phone apps are FAR slower than the keyfob, laughably so, and far less convenient. Frankly this is very nearly a must-have feature, and that’s why it’s at the very top of this long section. [Volt+++] [Ford +] [BMW-] [Tesla-] [Leaf-] [Kia-]

charge port on driver’s side of car — you will find that you plug in the car every day, when you get home, just like you plug in your cell phone. You will do this whether it needs it or not, and that’s fine and the car is designed for that. Therefore, this is unlike getting gas for a car, which you typically do much less frequently in a gas car, and so it’s important to have the charging port on the driver’s side of the car, where it’s convenient for access every day (actually at least twice a day). Perhaps YOU walk around past the right side of the car, but not everyone does; conversely, I guarantee that you walk past the left side of the car every single time you get in and out of your car. Ford and Chevy do this exactly right, placing it just in front of the driver’s door; Tesla’s port on the left rear is pretty good; Nissan and Kia’s placement at the front is OK. What’s dead wrong is to locate it on the RIGHT side of the car, which turns out to be more common with conversion cars like the Fiat and the Prius Plug-In. I have this listed high up because it really is important to me. (FYI, I’m aware that European needs are different due to much higher prevalence of curbside charging, i.e. parallel parking, urban owners; I’m speaking to the U.S. market.) [Volt+] [Ford+] [BMW—] [Tesla+]

power and energy displays — give me an instantaneous Watt consumption display (e.g. 80kW) on the dash about the drivetrain, meaning show me how many kW I’m consuming/generating at that moment as I accelerate/decelerate. Show me the climate control power consumption, and not just as a percentage or score, but in terms of actual kW. [Volt-/+] [Leaf+] [Kia+] [Tesla+] [BMW-]

power limiting display — give me an indication when instantaneous power available is reduced for some reason. Typical reasons for this are a cold battery (weather) or a hot battery (spirited driving). The Tesla does this with yellow lines that appear on the power gauge. The new M-B B-class offers a completely separate gauge for power available, which is unique in the market. [Tesla+]

battery temperature gauge — give me an indication of the battery temperature, preferably with a simple analog gauge. This is useful when driving in extreme temperatures, as the power out can be limited. Indeed the power IN (during charging) can be limited as well. [Leaf+] [Tesla?] [BMW-] [Kia-]

mild pedestrian alert — if you use the main horn for this, make it as QUIET as possible. The Volt’s pedestrian alert is just too loud and can startle and anger pedestrians more than alert them, and as I result I never use it. Some newer models artificially add an electronic whine at low speeds, and that usually works well enough. [Volt-] [Leaf+] [BMW+]

independent pedestrian alert — some sort of gentle honk that you can use when the whine isn’t working, and by “independent” I mean that there is a separate control to trigger it. The first-year Volts had the alert tied to the high beams, so you flashed your high beams to get the alert to sound. This turned out to be incredibly annoying, because whenever I wanted to flash my high beams, the horn would sound! Very annoying. GM improved this in the Volt after the first year. This is a good example of the kind of refinement that you might not get with a first-year model. [Volt-/+] [BMW-]

ability to disable charging alarms — any charging-related alarms (cord pulled, EVSE problem) that cause the car to spontaneously honk should be able to be disabled by the owner, e.g. via configuration screen. Early Volts had this problem, corrected after the first year. [Volt -/+]

blend some regen into brake pedal action — following on the regen braking discussion in the must-have section above, I like to have lots of regen, but put some of it on the brake pedal, not all on accel lift. Putting it all on the accelerator makes for an uncomfortable, lurching experience for the passengers (the driver doesn’t generally mind it since he’s in the control). Or make it configurable. [Volt+] [BMW-] [Tesla-]

indication when regen is maxed out — and make that indication obvious, not just a tiny tick mark on a accel/decel scale, so it can be seen at a glance or even in peripheral vision [Volt+] [Leaf+] [BMW+] [Tesla+]

is the accel pedal’s neutral position easy to hit? — for EV’s, you will find that “single pedal driving” is a lot of fun and very useful. You get a little bit of deceleration (regen braking) simply by lifting your foot off the accelerator. But this also means that there should be an accel pedal position, partially depressed, where the car is neither accelerating nor decelerating, rather coasting or “gliding”. THAT SPOT is too narrow in some cars; it needs to be wide enough (just a few millimeters, really) for you to be able to hit it and coast. [Tesla+] [BMW-]

accel and braking modes stay that way through power cycle of car — Sport Mode, Eco Mode, whatever mode, often the car will change back to some default after you power it off and on. The car should retain whatever mode you left it on. And automakers especially should note: you are really shooting yourself in the foot if the car defaults to a weak economy mode, because people doing test drives (including journalists!) often don’t know about the higher power modes, and come away from the car thinking it’s a dull econobox, with no power, when EVs are actually stealth sports cars! [Volt–] [Leaf+] [Kia+] [BMW-]

show the charging state on the outside of the car — meaning LED(s) of some kind that light up when you are plugged in, to indicate whether the car is still pulling charge or has completed charging. Locating the LED(s) up on the dash below the windshield is better than the side of the car where you plug in, so it can be seen at a distance (e.g. from a nearby building’s window). The carmakers all have different behaviors for theirs, but most have the LED blink when charging, and on solid (or off) when the car is fully charged. [Volt+] for location, [Volt-] for behavior; [BMW+] [Ford+] [Leaf++] [Kia++] [Tesla-]

charge cord should not lock to the car — or if it does, then offer owner control over that locking behavior. Nissan has shown us the way on this; the Leaf offers three modes for locking the charge cord to the charge port:
– “Off” = no locking at all, anyone can remove at any time
– “On” = locked to the car if the car’s doors are locked
– “Auto” = locked to the car until the car is fully charged (brilliant!)
Early owners of the BMW i3 howled in protest when they discovered that the cord is locked to the car when the doors are locked. This creates a problem with EV etiquette, when you are charging at a public site but have left a note on your dash saying it’s OK for someone to unplug you if they really need it. [Nissan+++] [Kia+] [Volt+] [Ford+] [Tesla+] [BMW—]

light up the charge port when it is open — just a nice convenience to have when plugging in in a dark area. [Volt-] [Leaf+] [Kia+] [BMW+] [Tesla+]

charge port covered by a single lid, no extra plastic caps underneath the lid — make the lid water tight to keep out rain/spray, and then don’t have any more nuisance covers that we need to open/remove under that lid. Remember that we’ll be accessing these ports at least once every day, so this becomes annoying in a hurry. Nissan and BMW, I’m looking at you. [Leaf-] [BMW-] [Kia-] [Volt+] [Ford+] [Tesla+]

scheduled charging, and not via the EVSE — I should be able to tell the car when to charge. For example, I might plug in whenever I get home, but the car doesn’t pull power until 11pm, when my utility rates drop. The Volt can actually be programmed with multiple price tiers and will intelligently decide when to charge up for the cheapest amount. This should be configured in the car, not the charging station. Don’t make me buy your proprietary charging station to get a feature like this. BMW’s implementation of this has been very buggy. [Volt+] [Leaf+] [Kia+] [Ford+] [BMW-/+]

low current mode Level 1 charging — When charging at a strange wall outlet, e.g. while traveling and plugging into an outlet in a hotel’s parking area, pulling the usual 12 Amps can lead to trouble. If there are other loads on the circuit then the breaker may trip, and then you’re in the business of having to find someone to reset the breaker, or giving up on the charge. It’s better to just ease off and charge at a lower rate, say 8 Amps. The Tesla allows for completely granular control of this, +/- 1 Amp all the way down to 6 Amps. This can be important for workplace charging as well. [Volt+] [Leaf-] [Ford-] [Kia-] [Tesla++] [BMW+]

selectable full charge threshold — Tesla and Nissan already do this, offering two settings for “full”, 80% SOC and 100% SOC. Actually the Tesla Model S has a slider control for this, so you can set it down to 50% for “full” if you want (this maximizes battery life in the long term). [Tesla++] [Leaf+]

full charge should leave a tiny buffer for initial regen — related to the above, but slightly different, a nominally “full” battery should allow for a little bit more charge to go in via any regen braking performed during the very beginning of the drive — literally the first few hundred feet of travel. This buffer would be around 0.1 kWh, a nearly negligible fraction of the battery. The Ford Focus Electric has this problem — your very first few stops of the day may have no regen braking, which is scary if you drive in the L/B mode that adds regen on accel lift. This is a real subtle issue that most cars handle fine but when they don’t, wow is it annoying! [Volt+] [Leaf?] [Tesla?] [Kia-] [BMW+] [Ford—]

battery can be preconditioned on demand — One technique that EV owners use to extend the range of their car is to “precondition” the battery just before they leave on their trip, while it is still plugged in. The car preheats/precools the battery using wall power, getting you just a little bit more range. However, some cars only offer preconditioning of the cabin (e.g. Leaf), or make it very difficult to command battery conditioning on demand (e.g. BMW). Bonus points for doing it with the keyfob, not smartphone app, per the very first item in this section! [Leaf-] [BMW-]

portable EVSE works with both 120V and 240V supplies — Only Tesla’s EVSE (the “UMC”) does this for now: you can plug the cord into a 120V outlet, or a 240V outlet, and it will handle it. The cordset that comes with Nissan Leafs is nearly capable of 240V — you just have to send it off to EVSEupgrade.com for them to upgrade it.

trip odometer that resets itself after a charge — showing miles and kWh consumed since starting the day with a full charge, this is useful for reviewing the performance of the car at the end of the day. Having to remember to reset one of the trip odometers is a pain. [Volt+] [Ford+] [BMW-]

public charging stations shown in navigation system — and a mechanism to keep that database updated, so that new stations show up in the car. [Volt-] [Leaf+] [BMW+] [Ford?]

efficient climate control — e.g. heat pump not resistive heaters [Volt-] [Leaf+] [Kia+] [BMW+] [Tesla+]

powerful heaters — gas cars benefit from enormous amounts of wasted heat (once the engine is warmed up) so you have essentially limitless ability to warm the cabin space. But EVs don’t have all that waste heat on tap so the heaters tend to be more anemic. Something to check when test driving — how much heat do you get if you crank it up? [Volt-/+?] [Leaf++] [BMW?]

heated seats and steering wheel — this isn’t necessarily an EV-only amenity, but it’s one way that most EVs on the market extend the range of the car. Heating you in your seat is much more efficient than heating the cabin’s entire volume of air. Bonus points for heating the rear seats as well. The Kia offers heated rear seats and cooled front seats! [Volt+] [Leaf++] [Kia+++] [BMW+]

a commitment to software updates — As I live with the car, give me feature upgrades as you develop the software for later model years. Don’t limit my updates to just the ones that you MUST do for safety/recall reasons. If a carmaker promises they’ll provide feature updates, get it in writing. GM hinted at feature upgrades when the Volt was first coming out in 2010, but never did so. Tesla is doing a fantastic job at this, even delivering software updates “over the air”. [Volt-] [Tesla+++] [BMW+]

valet mode – so we can limit the performance of the car when handing off to strangers

smooth accelerator pedal behavior — as you gently press the accelerator to start moving from a stop, you should get a smooth ramp up of power at the very beginning of accelerator pedal travel. As you press harder, you should feel a smooth ramp up of power. As you lift off the accel pedal and transition from accel to decal, that should be a smooth transition as well. This is one of those very subtle drivetrain behaviors that is hard to get right, but it can be done. [Volt-] [Leaf-] [Tesla++] [BMW++] [Kia-] [Ford—]

regen braking integration with cruise control — when in cruise control, and you tap the brakes to disengage, does it lurch, or smoothly transition from cruise to coasting? What about if you have the car in the high regen mode, e.g. “L” mode on a Volt or “B” mode on a Leaf? Early Volts had a lurching behavior, but GM improved this in later years. Another one of those refinements to check for in first-year models. [Volt-/+] [Leaf+] [BMW-]

traction control sensitivity and regen braking integration — Chevy Volts exhibit a disturbing braking behavior if you hit a bump in the road (e.g. small pothole) while under moderate braking: the brakes “relax” and for a second you get the horrible sensation of accelerating when you want to be braking. This appears to be a problem with regen braking integration with traction control, and is something I now test for in all EVs. This was a problem with the earliest Volts (mine was in the first month of production in Nov 2010) and GM fixed it in later years, but now I check for it since it’s a matter of safety. [Volt–/+] [Leaf+] [BMW+]

low regen cutout speed (e.g. 3 MPH) — keep the regen braking effect in the loop as long as possible, and stay off the friction brakes as long as possible [BMW+] [Kia-]

hill hold — if you come to a stop on an uphill grade, hold the car there, either via the electric drivetrain or the friction brakes. [Leaf+] [BMW+] [Kia+]

creep mode — the car should creep forward when you take your foot of the brake. There are strong opinions on both sides about this, so if you (the carmaker) must then just make it configurable, but definitely offer a creep mode. [Volt+] [Leaf+] [Kia+][Tesla+] [BMW?]

SECTION: if Volt-style “range extended” drivetrain:

I assume that you know what a “range extended” drivetrain is, like in the Chevy Volt and BMW i3. Note: personally, I think the Plug-In Prius and Ford Energi models don’t qualify as range extended because they have weak electric drivetrains that don’t offer “full performance” in electric mode, so they’re really just hybrids.

high performance pure electric driving — essentially repeating the very first item in this document, but reiterating that it applies to cars with Volt-style drivetrains too. Give me a powerful electric drivetrain, even if there is a gas engine, so that the car is fun to drive, and capable of highway cruising, even when in pure EV mode. [Volt+] [BMW+] [Ford-] [PIP-]

anemic performance during gas mode (aka “range extension” mode) is OK with me! — converse to the above, I have no problem at all with gas modes (aka range extender modes) that compromise car performance. This typically means that, when in gas mode, the car can’t accelerate quite as fast or go blasting up 10-mile-long mountain grades — that’s fine with me!. My experience with the Volt taught me this, in an odd way. The Volt DOES accelerate the same whether in EV mode or gas mode, but the sound of the gas engine is so annoying to my now EV-spoiled senses that I don’t push the car hard when it’s in gas mode. So the result is that for the last three years I’ve already had a range-extended EV with anemic performance in gas mode. And frankly it’s fine, as long as you give me hold mode … (see next item) [Volt+] [BMW+]

hold mode — in general, a Volt-style car’s range extender mode will automatically kick in at some defined threshold of battery charge, e.g. 20% charged (80% discharged). When you command a “hold mode” in such a car, you are telling the gas engine to come on NOW, before you’ve drained the battery all the way down to the automatic threshold. This then allows you, for example, to keep some battery charge for the end of a long roadtrip. You drive pure electric in the beginning, command hold mode on which starts the gas engine electric generator for the long haul (e.g. hundreds of miles), and then as you approach your destination you turn the hold mode off, returning to pure electric mode. This also becomes useful in short city stops in the middle of a long roadtrip — you turn off the hold mode for a few miles, switching the car back to electric mode and draining some of the battery, and then go back to hold mode once you’re on the highway again. And finally the larger battery buffer allows for more spirited driving in general. After three years of Volt driving, this feature has become incredibly important to me, and is one reason why I won’t keep my early Volt beyond the 3-year lease — the earliest Volts don’t have this feature. [Volt -/+] [BMW-]

suppress gas engine at end of trip — at the end of a short trip when I’m about to run out of battery and flip into gas mode, give me the ability to override the gas engine starting up, allowing the car to dip into the battery just a little deeper than usual. This can work in place of hold mode immediately above, as long as kicking in the override while it’s in gas mode causes the car to immediately flip back into electric mode for a few miles. [Volt-] [BMW-]

qualify for state tax credit and other incentives — some state have generous tax credits, but only for pure EVs. Some states offer EV owners the incentive of free and/or single-person access to HOV lanes, and have extended those incentives to quasi-EVs like the Chevy Volt. California will eventually tighten their rules such that the BMW i3 could be the only range-extended EV qualifying for HOV lanes, for reasons I won’t go into. So, one thing to evaluate when considering a range-extended EV is whether it qualifies for your state’s tax credits and other incentives. For example, here in Georgia, pure EVs qualify for a very generous $5000 tax credit. But that means that the Volt does not qualify, nor does the BMW i3 *IF* you get the range-extending gas engine option. [Volt-] [BMW-]

SECTION: regular non-EV amenities:

power seats with memory — at the mid to high price points that these EVs are often priced at, it’s simply ridiculous that the car not have power seats. And automakers, please don’t give me the line about power consumption; you know that’s BS — well, maybe your marketing dept doesn’t know it, but your engineers do. Take the weight penalty and put them in there, at least offering them as an option. This is at the top of this section for a reason — for years now I have been supremely annoyed at the lack of power seats in my cars. BMW, I’m looking at you — really, no power seats in a $50,000 car, not even as an option? [Volt-] [BMW—]

immediate, single button access to recirculating air (e.g. sudden truck exhaust), no touch screen or menu navigation required [Volt-] [BMW+]

physical buttons in general, instead of a touchscreen or a silkscreened surface [Volt—] [Tesla—] [BMW+] [Leaf+]

tilting and telescoping steering wheel, for comfort and dashboard visibility [Leaf-] [Kia+] [BMW+]

alarm system tells you when it’s armed (e.g. continuously blinking light somewhere) [Volt-]

close windows via door controls without having to power entire car back up [Volt-] [BMW-]

open/close windows with keyfob (e.g. press and hold a button) [Volt-] [BMW-]

keyless entry — key stays in your pocket and the car automatically unlocks when you approach a door, and locks when you depart; door handle touch may be needed in either case

cruise control with intelligent / adaptive features; traffic following mode (aka tractor beam mode) is one new feature that owners love; does it work all the way down to stop and restart? Is the following distance adjustable? [BMW+]

cruise control can be adjusted in +/- 1 MPH increments, and in larger increments (e.g. +/- 5) somehow [Volt+] [Leaf+] [BMW+] [Ford+]

rear camera with steerable overlays and object detection; rear crossing traffic alert?

side mirror blind spot detection

collision warning — audible alert with brake priming

soft speed limiter — some sort of setting speed threshold so you can prevent yourself from inadvertently cruising at too high a speed; some sort of accel pedal override (e.g. press hard) is a nice bonus

HD Radio and RDS — the FM tuner needs to support these two digital technologies. HD Radio typically triples the number of stations available to you in a given city, and RDS allows you to see song information on the tuner’s display (sent by the radio station). Come on, it’s the 21st century, all car radios should have these two features by now! [Volt-] [Leaf-] [Kia+] [BMW+]

CD player — surprisingly, some carmakers are starting to drop CD players from their cars! [Kia-] [BMW-]

AM radio — surprisingly, some carmakers are starting to drop AM radio from their cars! [BMW—!]

Aux audio input, not just proprietary iPod jack [Volt+] [BMW+]

assistant / concierge service — you push a button and a human being (from the carmaker) answers, for answering questions about the car [Volt+++]

3 seats in back, even if it’s a squeeze and only for kids. This means A) don’t put a cupholder / console into the middle of the back row, obstructing the middle and B) do provide the third set of seatbelts in the middle. It doesn’t need to actually fit 3 adults comfortably, but do give me seat padding all the way across and three seat belts. BMW, I’m looking at you — this is an unforced error in the i3! [Volt-] [BMW-] [Leaf+] [Kia+] [Tesla+]

if two-door / coach-door car, can rear passengers let themselves out? — For example, could children let themselves out of the back seat on the right side of the car, with nobody sitting in the front seat to open the front door for them? BMW may fail this test due to its odd coach (aka suicide) doors; if you will be routinely dropping kids off at curb, test this for yourself to be sure. [BMW?]

physical buttons should reliably respond to quick stabs (e.g. parking brake, window auto-down, charge port open, drive mode change) [Volt –]

door open chime should stop after a minute — critical for show-and-tell days! [Volt-] [Leaf-]

door lock / alarm arming honk is not loud (or better, silent or even optional) [Volt+] [Leaf+]

LoJack-like car location and disabling system [Volt+] [Tesla+]

turn signal stalk placement and behavior [Volt+] [Leaf+] [Kia+] [Tesla-] [BMW-]

sunroof, at least as an option [Volt-] [Leaf-] [Kia-][Tesla+] [BMW–]

sun visor, when turned to block side window, can be extended back to reach past driver’s head all the way to the B pillar [Volt-] [Leaf-] [BMW-]

ease of door closing (e.g. just needs a nudge from hold position, not a slam) [BMW+]

front license plate holder install without drilling [Volt-] [BMW?]

sturdy rear trunk deck cover, not a piece of fabric that you manually stretch across on hooks [Volt-] [BMW+]

adjustable front headrests [Tesla–] [BMW–]

removable rear headrests [Volt+] [BMW+]

handholds over doors, aka grab handles [Tesla–] [BMW+]

interior lighting for rear seats [Volt+] [Leaf-] [BMW+]

rear windows open up [BMW-]

SECTION: EV dream features

Here is what I hope for in my ultimate EV. These are fantasies for sure, but these are still things I look forward to.

four wheel drive — typically implemented with two electric motors, one in front driving the front pair of wheels, and one in back driving the back pair of wheels, But better yet would be …

hub motors — electric motors mounted in each of the four wheels, enabling ludicrously high performance levels and exotic performance features like torque vectoring. (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IElqf-FCMs8 )

V2G capability — allow me to integrate with the grid and feed power from the car back into the grid (via the car charger connection) as the utility needs it. Typically this would be done via an agreement with the utility that gives me a discount on the power I consume, in exchange for the utility drawing power from me car occasionally. This is just like the agreements that the utilities already offer to put a shutoff switch on your AC unit, to be exercised only a few times a year, in exchange for a discount on your bill. As an electrical engineer, I can see V2G coming down the pipeline (the industry is working on the standards) and I would love to be on the cutting edge of V2G development, just as I have been for TOU rate plans and EVs in general.

late or variable rate charging — related to the scheduled charging above, it would be nice to have the car look at the schedule (i.e. known ready-to-go time every morning) and then starting charging just in time to meet that target time, mean it would start charging early in the morning. Similarly, it could look at the schedule and SLOW down its charge rate so that it barely meets that target time. This alleviates the problem of overloading old neighborhood transformers when lots of EVs are deployed — the car just pulls what is necessary to fill the vehicle in time for departure. Nobody is doing this now but it would be a neat cutting edge feature. (hat tip to reader Marc Kohler for this one)

electric power out capability For emergency power, some EV owners have been tapping into the 12 Volt bus in their cars and converting that back to AC. For example, the Chevy Volt can supply 750 Watts in this manner, and that’s enough to run a few household loads. But to do that, the car needs a DC-to-DC converter (FYI, technically not a transformer) that’s powerful enough to handle the load, and then you’ll also need an external inverter unit, and there’s a chance that connecting all this up may void your warranty! It would be better to simply offer AC power output capability in the car, meaning an inverter and 120V receptacle built into the car, or even a 240V receptacle. VIA Motors is doing this with their new line of trucks.

SECTION: Intangibles:

Finally, we have the intangibles, the things that aren’t really technical features of a car, rather more non-technical, emotional even. Warning: if I haven’t antagonized you yet with any of my statements above, this last section may take care of that.

Is it fun to drive? Pretty much any EV is a blast for the novice owner, due to the massive torque, but you do start to notice differences after a while. Is there some sort of traction control / launch control that lets you leap off the line without tire spin? How is the front/rear weight balance? Is the car rear wheel drive, which eliminates “torque steer” and helps enormously in making the car fun to throw into turns?

design aesthetics:
– the Volt is OK but getting dated
– the Leaf is just ugly, from just about any viewing angle
– the Tesla Model S is attractive but then again so are some of the Korean sedans, and the Model S is big to the point of being bloated and ungainly
– the BMW i3 is a bit econo-boxy, and the noticeably skinny tires make it quite ugly from some key viewing angles

coupe style — two long doors instead of four short ones; as a tall person, I personally like coupes better, although it’s been a very long time since I owned one

warranty periods — most of the carmakers are offering something like 8 years / 80,000 miles on the electric drivetrain, so you don’t need to worry about that. Kia’s warranty is a bit more generous than most, and Tesla’s warranty is actually for 8 years / infinite miles! Although, the more cynical might wonder if Tesla will last that long … [Kia+] [Tesla++]

where in model cycle? — is a new version of the car coming out next year? If so, your shiny new car is going to look dated very quickly, and you’ll be grumbling about all the improvements in the new model that you didn’t get. This is currently only a problem for the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, which are likely to see complete overhauls in 2015. Conversely, a brand new model (or model refresh) is likely to have early production problems — witness the troublesome first year of the BMW i3.

brand identity — certain makes of cars have cultural baggage associated with them. In general, these prejudices precede you when someone sees you in your car; you have to decide whether you care. For example:
– Chevy has to battle GM’s long history of building garbage
– Cadillac has to battle a perception of being exclusively for the elderly
– BMW is saddled with the cultural preconception that their drivers are selfish and self-absorbed

These are not necessarily my own opinions! I’m just noting that there are intangible factors like these that will inevitably need to be considered as you trade off the market options.

SECTION: notations / abbrevations

In the list above, I use the notation below to indicate examples of cars that do something particularly well, or not so well. I was one of the earliest adopters of the Volt, and drove a Volt for three years, and so much of my early experience is colored by that car. But I do have direct experience in all of the cars noted here, and the pluses and minuses are noted only when I’m quite sure about them.

[Volt+] [Leaf+] [Tesla+] [Ford+] [BMW+] [etc+] something this car does well

[Volt-] [etc-] something this car does poorly or not at all

[Volt+++] [etc+++] perfect, market-leading implementation of this feature

[Volt—] [etc—] this car failed badly at this, and it annoyed me so much that I’m now checking for this in all cars

[Volt -/+] [etc -/+] early units/years of this model did this poorly but the carmaker took care of it later in production, or there are differences between models or trim levels

[Leaf] Nissan Leaf

[Tesla] Tesla Model S

[Ford] Ford’s plugin models, both the Ford C-Max Energi and Ford Fusion Energi; the Ford Focus Electric may or may not be similar

[PIP] Toyota Plug-In Prius

[BMW] BMW i3

[Kia] Kia Soul EV