Speaking Sustainably

The auto industry's bumpy ride towards sustainability

BMW i3 concept car is charging in the street
BMW i3 concept car is charging in the street.

Years ago, I used to rant in this blog about how Americans said they wanted to buy greener cleaning products, but they either weren’t going to walk from the regular cleaning products aisle all the way back over to the "green ghetto," or they didn’t even know it existed.

Once green cleaning products got put in the regular cleaning aisle, we made it easier for folks to choose the better options, and more people have. When Walmart eliminated non-concentrated formula laundry detergents in Sam’s Club stores, they accomplished the same thing  they made the more sustainable choice the only choice, which made it easy to choose.

So why are we making electric cars so hard?

I just inked a two-year lease on a BMW i3 as part of my ongoing crusade to actually do the things we’re asking Americans to do to be more sustainable. Here’s what I’ve learned  and what I hope the automotive industry will change. 

Learning curve

Something I didn’t know before I started a search for an electric car is that hybrids (gas and electric) largely only go about 20 miles on a charge and then kick into regular gas mode. Can’t we do better than that? I wound up with the BMWi3 because it was the best option I found in terms of distance on a charge (about 120 miles) with a little gas as a safety net (it holds about two gallons). Seems like we should have more options  and less expensive options  than the i3.

When I shopped for it, the BMW salesperson told me that BMW had a deal with the Charge Point network so I could register for free and charge all over the country at their charging stations for free for two years.

"Yes! I’m doing a two-year lease, so that’s free charging for the life of the lease," I thought to myself, and put that in the "pro" column for this car. Turns out it’s not true. Charge Point isn’t available in Knoxville, Tennessee, and even though it is available in markets I intend to drive to  Nashville and Atlanta  I’m not allowed to register because I don’t live in a market where it’s available. Seriously? 

Here’s the kicker: Wouldn’t you think, if we were serious as a nation about getting people over to electric cars, that we’d build out one common, universal infrastructure? Did we not learn anything from the Beta/VHS wars of the 1980s? Not much. The pretty Tesla charging stations you see dotting popular shopping center parking lots only work for Teslas (they literally don’t fit my car), and the fast chargers at Cracker Barrels don’t fit for my car either (so I’ve been told; I have yet to test that for myself). There are

The pretty Tesla charging stations you see dotting popular shopping center parking lots only work for Teslas (they literally don’t fit my car), and the fast chargers at Cracker Barrels don’t fit for my car either (so I’ve been told; I have yet to test that for myself).

There are many medium-speed (called Level 2) charging stations around the country that fit my car, but it takes three to four hours to get the car charged up to 80 percent. Cracker Barrel is fun and all, but who wants to add another three hours into their travel time to get from Point A to Point B? Bottom line: Can you imagine pulling up to a gas station and realizing the pump doesn’t fit your car? That’s the experience. Cue the anxiety.

A long drive yet 

So why not just drive the car until it’s out of charge and stop to fill the gas tank every 70 miles? Because the car isn’t as powerful in gas-only mode. I took it over the Smoky Mountains from Knoxville to Asheville a couple of weeks ago without a full charge and was down to only gas about the time the mountain got pretty steep. With my pedal to the metal, I could only go 49 miles an hour.

Lastly, I’m plugging the car into an electric system that’s still heavily fueled by coal. So I haven’t actually improved my environmental footprint all that much. I’d like to buy enough solar to charge the car and will dig into that after the new year. I have to say, though, I dread it. My mind makes up that it’s going to be a hard, complicated, expensive ordeal.

Now, it’s super fun to drive, and I get stopped by people and asked about it. So there’s definitely intrigue and interest, but I can’t in good faith recommend that anybody buy an electric car until we make the whole charging situation fast, universal and easy. Just like moving green cleaning products into the regular cleaning aisle.

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