Electric highway a good power play for BMW

Build it and they will come? BMW explains why it is happy to stump up serious cash to help realise the long-held dream of an electric highway.

PUMPING a sizeable chunk of change into the pocket of an independent provider to establish the country’s first electric highway might seem incredible altruism from BMW NZ – yet it’s also investment into realization of a plan to spark more interest in its battery cars.

You might not have heard of Charge Now, but soon will.

It’s the localisation of a BMW initiative already enabled in Europe and the United States, whose benefits could ultimately inspire customers for partial – that’s your plug-in vehicle that still has a fossil fueled engine – and wholly electric vehicles to buy BMW over other brands in this emergent sector.

It’s not yet clear exactly how Charge Now will fully enact here, but it is thought all owners of BMW electric cars – at least those bought new here – will benefit from a cheaper electricity buy price when plugging into the national Charge Net network, formally announced on September 28.

BMW has invested into Charge Net and while it will not disclose the exact amount, spokesman Paul Sherley says it is “substantial.” On suggestion it is a six-figure sum: “It’s substantial.”

BMW’s suggestion it has made a contribution rather than an outright investment is largely semantics. This IS a brand buy-in.

What do they get for their money? Not quite exclusivity. Anyone with access allowance driving an electric car with the right plug can use Charge Net.

However, there is one neat marketing twist, a naming right. Charge Net is a pay-as-you-go system, but rather than use old-fashioned cash it requires a RFID-chipped credit card-style transponder debit card.

This is BMW-branded, a nice ‘in your face’ for those driving other electric products, not least those from direct rivals Audi and Mercedes. Can those elite end rivals set up their own special arrangements with Charge Net? Sherley was uncertain about whether brand’s arrangement precludes this.

Anyway, Charge Net allows BMW to enact the electric car development planning, called ChargeNow, it has mulled for ages.

It’ll just be a matter of time before the brand offers a phone app. It might also now enable, at least, its 360 system, which also relies on a smartphone application and ConnectedDrive internet connectivity, to enable remote functions. These range from querying of battery charge status and an advanced estimate of range on the sat nav to an ability to zero in on battery recharging points, including recommendations for replenishment when a trip of a distance exceeding a car’s absolute range is plotted.

All this needed an infrastructure. That’s Charge Net, a private enterprise set up by electric car promoter and businessman Steve West, who made his millions from computing.

His determination is to establish enough fast-charging points along the country’s main highway network to end range anxiety for anyone aiming to drive the main trunk route by electric impetus alone.

Sherley says that impetus synchs neatly with BMW NZ’s own aspirations and ideals.

“We are obviously very keen on electric vehicles and we have a number in our range, from pure electric to plug-in hybrid … and we really support the Government initiative to get more electric vehicles on the road.” It also fits in with global brand impetus to lower CO2 and encourage more sustainable mobility.

He says BMW here and West have been engaging co-operatively for some time and the Charge Net agreement came from “a mutual discussion that simply started and progressed.”

Charge Net schedules progressive installation, over the next two years, of 100 DC fast-chargers along State Highway One; it already has 20 in place in and around Auckland region, with several in Northland.

Increasing that count five-fold will enable one recharging point every 60kms, enough to theoretically allow any EV to drive from Kaitaia to Invercargill without any fear of encountering the dreaded range anxiety that is the bane of electric car ownership.

Admittedly, it’s a straight down the middle approach, a wholly ‘top to bottom’ push. There’s no announcement of when, or if, this infrastructure might enable easier running across the country. Divert from the pathway to, say, attempt New Plymouth to Gisborne or Christchurch to Greymouth, and you’re as much at risk of running out of quick fix zap in a remote spot as ever.

The ‘fast-charge’ descriptive system also shouldn’t be misconstrued as being quite as wham-bam as a petrol station refill. The dwell time for the cited aim of 80 percent replenishment is still 20-30 minutes. And, presumably, they’re not multiple plug-in points, so expect to queue if, say, you and your EV mates are running in convoy.

But 20 minutes’ in EV terms almost the equivalent of a lightning fast F1-style refuel; such are the benefits of using direct rather than alternating-current replenishment. Pulling the latter from a 15 AMP socket or a household wall plug would be cheaper, but takes hours.

So how much for this? “We’re still finalizing the whole pricing structure for the Charge Now side of it,” says Sherley. “There is definitely going to be a cost associated with the Charge Net side but it will be a small cost to pay for the convenience.” He thinks around $10 to $12 for an 80 percent recharge. That’s small potatoes but the other advantage is time saving. “Twenty to 30 minutes for a recharge isn’t that much time compared to using a wall socket – it’s basically asking ‘do you stop for one cup of coffee or five.’”

The quick charge could conceivably mean an electric car could achieve the country-spanning marathon in a journey time that would be around half a day longer than it might take a fossil-fueled vehicle of similar performance – again a big step forward, given an attempt with electrics, run by West, earlier this year added days to the journey (though, admittedly, the dwell time required to replenish the cars was stretched by promotional opportunities).

West’s crusade at the start of the year put the spotlight on Tesla – because West and his colleagues all drive Model S sedans – whereas the BMW i3 REX range-extender that also ran along in the convoy barely saw the spotlight.

That seemed an irony because, of course, even though Telsa is the darling brand of the EV world, it has no official representation here and might not do so for another two years – every Tesla car here now is an import with no brand support whatsoever. Any Telsa requiring repair or an upgrade must be shipped, at owner expense, to Australia.

That’s obviously not the case with BMW, which distributes and supports all its electric fare. That selection is growing; it not only has the two types of ‘i’ car here but also has range-extender eDrive editions of the 3-Series sedan, 2-Series Active Tourer, X5 sports utility and, soo, the 7-Series. An all-electric i3, with a better battery (93 Amp hour) than the original type has, is also about to come on sale.

Charge Net seems to run on the same principles as ChargePoint, an international outfit based in the United States that touts as the world’s largest EV charging network.

BMW knows ChargePoint well. In America, it (and Volkswagen) seems to have similar financial interest that exists here with Charge Net; though the US ambition is, of course, much grander – an Electric Vehicle Express Charging Corridor across from the West to the East Coast, with recharging stations every 80kms.

One interesting factor about electric cars – many makers go their own ways on plug design. Charge Net might finally encourage an industry zone-in on the CHAdeMO connections that most of the European makers prefer.

Although DC fast-charge capability was initially optional for NZ-new i3, almost all owners ticked that box, so are good to go once the network is; the updated i3 arriving now has it as standard fare. What about used imports? “It really depends where they come from, but we think most will be okay.”

 Audis, Mercedes and Renault product is CHAdeMO.

The early version of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, the most popular plug-in hybrid sold here, only avails AC replenishment in this market, even though it could have been provided with DC charging as well. In hindsight, Mitsubishi Motors New Zealand might have been prudent to facilitate both, but at the time there was significant cost-saving providing just a trickle-charge solution. 

No secret to why the fast charge programme has Government support – there’s no taxpayer funding going into it.

Even though Transport Minister Simon Bridges is an energetic promoter of electric car use, the campaign announced in May to double the number of EVs in this country every year so that there are 64,000 operating by 2021 is largely an effort in PR puffery. There’s a modest budget and those dollars all go into promotion. There’s nothing there to assist specific projects.

The BMW-Charge Net ‘electric highway’ will focus on major cities – Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – and West says his people are working with The Warehouse, Z Energy and Foodstuff supermarkets on the location of the charging stations.

Another plus that resonates well with BMW in Germany, which gave the green light for the local distributor’s involvement, is that New Zealand has 80 percent renewable energy. The Charge Net stations are powered by 100 per cent zero-carbon certified electricity.

So it’s the future finally arriving. Electric cars are obviously of high interest to car makers, those in Germany particularly. BMW is not alone. Spurred on by the success of Tesla, which has received almost 400,000 pre-orders for its Model 3 car, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen Group have also accelerated their own electric-car programmes.

Both were front and centre with concept ohm drives at the Paris Motor Show: Benz’s Concept EQ and the VW ID both serve to preview a range of incoming production models.

The EQ nameplate is to apply to a series of battery-powered vehicles, with the first due by the end of the decade. Volkswagen Group will introduce 30 electric cars, including Audi models, by 2025.

And BMW? The brand’s management board has been reportedly torn about whether to accelerate development of new electric cars, given those expensive early investments into the area has resulted in lackluster sales. That i3, for instance, is not exactly a volume car; just 25,000 were delivered globally last year. It’s said some senior executives have been urging caution until sales improve and there is a clearer business case for such investment.

After letting their rivals take the limelight on the show’s opening day, Munich announced it will roll out two more battery-powered versions of production models as part of a broader push to make electric cars more mainstream and counter ambitious plans from rivals.

An electric Mini is set to hit the market in 2019 and will be followed in 2020 by a battery-powered version of the BMW X3. The latter is a landmark not just for being a crossover tilt; it signals the company identifies this technology as being ready for the mainstream, rather than continue with current convention that bundles this tech under the “i” subbrand.