Tempting fate with an 80 mile range Ev

My first foray into EV ownership was in 2014, when the BMW i3 came out. When I first saw the car, I was not a fan of its looks, or its specs. It had a funny look (especially for a BMW) that made it seem more like a toy than a car, and when I read it only had an ~80 mile range I quite literally laughed out loud. That was absurd to me, to even consider having a car that couldn’t even go 100 miles before it had to stop and charge for hours. talks. I had already been looking at replacing my gas vehicle with an electric vehicle strictly for the cost savings it would provide over the life of the vehicle ownership period. And when BMW started offering lease deals on the i3 that would let me lease it for under $200/month with very little money down I had to reconsider my position. I was currently spending ~$250/month just on gasoline for my commuter vehicle, and gas prices were slowly rising, giving no indication of coming down in any meaningful way. I did some number crunching, got an insurance quote and decided that I could probably come out just a little bit ahead financially by leasing one of those funny looking cars over the course of two years.

So, I traded in my gas car and got a 2014 BEV i3. Andesite Silver Metallic on Mega interior, no options except heated seats. It didn’t even have DCFC (direct current fast charging), was the only year that feature was optional and not standard equipment. Found myself quite enjoying the snappy acceleration and aggressive regenerative braking, and it almost became a game to see how little I could actually touch the brake pedal on my drive between home and work. I was able to charge with L1 charging at work for free, so that was a big bonus too. Setting a departure time so the car would warm itself up or cool itself down before I left for work or for home was an incredible feature, one that nowadays is probably in my top 3 EV/PHEV feature list consistently.

For the first three months or so, I was just learning the car and how to drive an EV. However, I learned the hard way that planning your trip/route is even more important on a low range EV than it is in a gas car. We decided to take a trip to see a family member that lived in Welches, on the other side of Sandy Oregon. I figured that was well within my 80 mile range to make the trip, so I had no reservations. That was a rookie EV driver mistake, since range is a lot less going up a mountain! We hopped on 26, followed the flow of traffic and by the time we hit the West side of Sandy I was down to about 55% SOC. By the time we got to their place, I was at about 40% SOC. Even to my EV-inexperienced brain this wasn't tracking towards a happy ending, so I asked if we could plug in during the visit. By the time we left a few hours later, I was back over 50%; perfect!

Drove home with no concerns, but by the time we passed Boring I had about 25% left and I was growing quite concerned. I began trying to “hypermile,” not realizing it was too late to make any substantial changes to the outcome of the story. We got about 2 more miles and I knew I had to stop and charge. Found a charger on Plugshare, fortunately I had done my research and had signed up for a few of the charging networks so I could use the Blink chargers there without too much headache. Stopped for about 30 minutes at the L2 charger there and we forged ahead; wife was not impressed with my new car by this point. Made it into SE Portland, but it was becoming evident I still did not have the energy to get home without another charge stop. So, a second charge stop for another ~20 minutes and we were able to make it home. An hour later than planned, but safe.

Started trying to get my wife to drive the i3 more often when we were both home, so she wouldn’t put the miles on her gas car. At first she was very reluctant, not wanting to run out of battery on her errands. But slowly she grew to enjoy driving the car as well; as long as she wasn't going too far from home. Fast forward to 2015, and she began indicating she really enjoyed driving the i3. To the point where I was informed I would be taking her car to work the next day so she could have the i3 for her errands...

So, we traded her car in on a 2015 i3 REx lease. The REx solved the issue of range anxiety, because if she ran out of battery the generator kicked on and she finished her trip. No big deal! I, however, was getting more and more daring on my adventures in my BEV; often rolling into home with just 2 or 3 miles remaining on the range gauge. It again became like a game, to see how many miles I could milk out of one charge on the battery. But as they say, sometimes when you play you get hurt.

The inevitable finally happened in 2015, we were all in my car heading home from some errands we had run around town. We had about 5 miles to go, and the car was showing 8 miles left; easy peasy. But the wife wanted to stop and grab supper on the way home so we pulled into an eatery and enjoyed supper for about 30 minutes. Came back out to the car, and it was showing 3 less miles on the range gauge than it had when I parked it! Sure enough, we made it about 3/4 of a mile away from home and it began severely reducing my power. I had enough juice to get off the road and into a Burgerville parking lot, but that was it. I hopped inside and asked if we could plug into an outlet to charge for just a little while if we purchased something, but since it crossed a sidewalk they didn't want us to run a cord. Understandable, but disappointing.

BMW i3 to i3 charging isn't for the faint of heart!

My pride wouldn’t let me call a tow truck when we were so close to home. Surely I could fix this somehow! I hopped on a bus and rode it home, grabbed the wife's i3 and delivered them back home. Then I returned to my i3, with her i3, on a mission; how could I transfer some of the charge from her i3 into my i3 to get it home??? I knew a direct high voltage connection was not possible, since her battery was full and mine was empty there was over 100V of potential difference between them; would have made for some spectacular fireworks though. However, I realized I could theoretically power an EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment, basically a wall outlet to car adapter) off her car with a large DC/AC inverter; taking the 14 volts DC output from her car up to 120 volts AC for the EVSE to then charge my car.

Went back home, grabbed a 1,000 watt inverter and an EVSE, plus the cables/connections I would need to get it all hooked up. Went back to the parking lot and got it all hooked up; plugged the EVSE in and just got error lights. Googling the manual for the EVSE, was indicating a ground fault. Come to find out after some testing, the inverter had a tied neutral/ground circuit and the EVSE was faulting due to it. Went back home, grabbed a ground separator outlet and plugged the EVSE into it; now I got a new set of error lights. These ones indicated low voltage present or grid failure. Checked my inverter output, and sure enough it was only outputting a 90 volt sense voltage because there was no load on it yet. Went back home (again) and grabbed the first 120 volt electrical load I saw; a small shop vac. Drove back to the parking lot, plugged in the shop van and turned it on, then connected the EVSE. Success! Got a “ready to charge” light.

Plugged the EVSE into my i3, and it instantly shut down the inverter. Alarms squealing, error lights on, the whole kit and caboodle. Also caused a nice check engine light on my wife’s i3; which had me quite worried that I had made a terrible decision. However, her i3 was still outputting 14 volts so I was hoping I hadn’t caused too much damage. Did some thinking, and realized my i3 was still set to charge at 9A on L1...meaning it tried to pull 1,040 watts from a 1,000 watt inverter (which was also powering a shop vac at the time). Oops! Turned it down to 6A, power cycled the inverter and tried again...this time we had successful charging! Let it charge for ~20 minutes, and we were able to get it home.

We also managed to put almost 20K miles on my wife's 2015 i3 REx in our two year lease period, taking it from Portland to Southern California twice. Having the REx as backup when we didn’t quite reach a charger, or when we needed to hurry after falling behind schedule was invaluable. There were DCFC (direct current fast chargers) all up and down I-5, so we were able to hop from fast charger to fast charger on our trips and not slow us down too terribly much. We took it down to Bimmerfest one year, a festival near LA where BMW enthusiasts all get together on a weekend to chat and appreciate each other’s vehicles. Not many i3s there at that point, but more were joining every year!

We took them off-roading, drove them in snow storms, performed audio and aesthetic upgrades...had a great time with these little cars. Still operating the 2019 Mobile Service vehicle to this day. Over 100k miles logged of seat time to date across all the vehicles.

Tony Foley