Electric Range Anxiety and Big Brother

by Brian on October 17, 2012

in In the News,Technology

We picked up our brand new 100% electric car from Better Place on Sunday. Being an early adopter has its perks – when we walked into Better Place’s showroom, the entire staff stood up and applauded. There was a big screen reading “Mazel Tov Brian and Jody Blum.” We were given our own special license plate (with “392” on it – indicating more or less what number car purchase we were). And the cookies and juice weren’t bad either.

The electric Renault Fluence that Better Place sells is as much a computer as a vehicle. Our subsequent “training” session lasted nearly two hours and we were invited to stop by again in a month for a refresher session.

The centerpiece of the Better Place Fluence is called OSCAR (“operating system” for “cars,” I’m guessing), which controls everything from the entertainment system to the GPS navigation and location of the next battery swap station.

The latter is particularly important: if you input your route (and you’re strongly recommended to), OSCAR will calculate how long your battery will last and if and when you’ll need to stop to get a fresh one. For example, if you enter a trip from Jerusalem to Karmiel, then to Tiberius and back home again, OSCAR will automatically insert the closest swap stops at various points during the trip and even modify your route to make sure there’s a station along the way. It’s really quite ingenious.

The car “learns” your driving behaviors, too, to adjust when it thinks you’ll need to swap. Speed demons will drain the battery faster, as will climbing up a hill. Going down recharges the battery. There’s cruise control (steady driving improves battery life) and a speed limiter. Every driver gets his or her own “log-in” so that OSCAR will know the difference between Jody and my driving habits.

After training, photo, and more cookies, we headed back to Jerusalem from the Better Place headquarters in Herzliya with 97% battery left. OSCAR told us which way to go and if we followed his (or her?) instructions (OSCAR speaks with a woman’s voice), we’d arrive home with 29% battery left. A nice comfortable journey We’d then plug in to our home charging spot overnight and the battery would be back at 100% in 7-8 hours.

Except that we didn’t follow OSCAR’s instructions exactly. First we took a slight detour to visit a sporting goods store nearby. Then, although OSCAR wanted us to drive home via the Ayalon, Waze (my iPhone’s GPS best friend) suggested going via Highway 6 would be faster. When we got back to Jerusalem, OSCAR plotted us through the center of town, but I know that taking Highway 9 and looping down the Begin Highway is generally quicker.

All good decisions as far as travel time goes. But each option added a few kilometers. And I didn’t always stick to 100 km/hour. Plus, there’s a really big hill coming into Jerusalem. Our % battery remaining was dropping faster than we expected. And the swap station in Jerusalem isn’t open yet.

As we were rounding Har Hotzvim, already in the city limits. OSCAR started beeping frantically. Red warning lights splashed across his (or her) face. We had just passed the 10% left threshold. And, according to OSCAR, we didn’t have enough juice to make it home.

And then the phone rang. It was Better Place Customer Service. They had received an alert that we getting too low on power. Where were we, the Better Place representative asked?

Jody began relaying instructions. “Drive slower. And watch the charge indicator.” If I kept it slow and steady, the car would recharge ever so slightly and we might just make it.

“Would you like us to monitor you on the rest of your ride home,” the Better Place lady asked. Yes please!

The next 10 minutes were far more nerve wracking than I’d expected on our first day out. The battery monitor continued to drop. 4%. 3%. 1%. And then 0. The “battery empty” icon flashed, just like it would on your laptop. Except this was a very heavy laptop. We were opposite the gas station at Oranim Junction, no more than a minute from our apartment.

If the car went kaput, would we even know it? After all, the 100% electric Fluence is completely silent when not moving. How ironic if we were to run out of energy directly opposite a gas station which would do us no good.

Our hearts were racing. But OSCAR nudged us a bit further and we made it into our parking spot, plugged in the charging cable and finally exhaled. The truth is, we knew that, even on empty, the car can usually drive another 7 kilometers. But that didn’t particularly calm us. Red flashing lights will do that.

Better Place’s Customer Service was uniformly excellent. They “know” us and address us by our first names…in English (our preferences are recorded in the computer). Still, there is something eerie about the fact that Big Brother Better Place is tracking you. And yet, if you can get past the privacy issues, it is also incredibly comforting to know that you have a caring partner watching out for you.

Despite our harrowing first day, I have no complaints. It’s all part of the learning curve – just like if you switched from a PC to a Mac. Once OSCAR has internalized how many kilometers I really get, hills, speed and all, it should prevent recurrences. And because you don’t “own” the battery, whenever the technology is improved, you get the “upgrades” automatically. Better Place says the range will extend 7-10% a year. Also, just this morning, Better Place sent an email to tell us that the swap station at Hemed – on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway – is now open.

Moreover, the Fluence rides likes a dream – smooth, silent. It’s roomy and you sit really high up given this is a sedan and not an SUV. There are all kinds of nice touches (the speaker phone automatically pairs with your cell phone via Bluetooth; there are sun shades in the back seats).

But if there is one lesson learned so far it’s: Listen to OSCAR when s/he tells you which way to go. Big Brother sometimes does know best.

There’s more on our Better Place adventures in this previous post.

I told the story of our new car first on Israelity.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jeff green October 18, 2012 at 9:40 am

Nice account of your initiation!
I was told by someone fairly techy that for people who don’t drive a lot, an electric car isn’t a good option, though I would have thought the opposite – that if you mainly drive in the city, you should use an electric car –
Let’s hope Better Place stays in business!

2 Sylvia Tulkoff October 19, 2012 at 1:00 am

Lots of credit for being in “on the ground floor” of the new technology. After reading this I would think the biggest drawback is that you can’t be spontaneous when you go out if there is a chance you can’t charge the car where you are going.

3 Brian October 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm

The electric car is a great option for city driving…except for Better Place’s business model which has a minimum monthly kilometer charge (around NIS 600). We don’t drive very much, but it happens that our gas kilometerage was very bad on our 18 year old Toyota, so we spent about this already per month. If we had a newer non-electric car or a hybrid, it would cost us less to just drive in the city. BP’s business model is to charge a subscription price that covers all the battery swap stations and their excellent customer service. But it may not be for everyone. It works for us though!

4 Brian October 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

That is definitely a disadvantage. You have to be pretty anal retentive to drive an electric car!

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