In New Jersey, BMW's Green Day
Electric MINIs and Rolls-Royces make for an odd couple under BMW's roof
The UC Davis study has put converted, plug-in Toyota Prius hybrids in the hands of about 60 households in the Sacramento area, with owners completing driving diaries and allowing researchers to track their driving habits during the short-term loans.
Dahlia Garas of UC Davis said that America’s car culture, which historically judged a car strictly by how much horsepower it cranked up, is changing. Hybrid drivers enjoy showing off the technology and gadgetry of their hybrids. They also find a sense of power and independence from their cars: A hybrid lets them think they’re “sticking it to the Saudis.”
Some study participants noted that their air-quality concerns were as much local as global, especially in places like California. “One grandmother who drives her grandchild said she likes not polluting near her school,” Garas said.
The study suggests that to succeed in the marketplace, hybrids need a distinctive styling identity -- such as is the case with the Prius -- and useful real-time displays that help drivers boost mileage and encourage green driving. Hybrid drivers in a household often compete to see who can get the best mileage, Garas said. And with plug-ins like the Chevy Volt on the horizon, consumers need a realistic, easy-to-grasp measurement of the car’s energy consumption, an area where the traditional miles per gallon falls short.
Released from the “BMW University” classroom sessions, journalists took spins in both the MINI E and the somewhat dubiously green BMW X6 ActiveHybrid, which combines a twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 engine with the 2-mode hybrid system that BMW jointly developed with General Motors and Mercedes. The X6 hybrid manages just 18 mpg in combined city/highway driving, or 3 mpg better than the conventional V8 version. But the X6 is quite fast, if that’s any consolation.
As for the MINI E, BMW has a test fleet of 450 cars in the hands of company-chosen consumers in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles. The car can run roughly 80 miles on a charge, and recharges in three hours on 240-volt current -- but takes more than 20 hours on a household plug.
One journalist nearly ran out of juice on a drive down the nearby Garden State Parkway, coasting home with the car’s power gauge displaying a big zero. And the near-stranding of the MINI E highlighted the major obstacle to the adoption of electric cars (beside high costs, unfamiliar technology and unproven durability): The lack of a handy, widespread recharging infrastructure, especially for urban apartment dwellers who don’t have a garage. That’s why many experts see plug-in hybrids, whose supplementary gas engines give them the coast-to-coast driving ability of conventional cars, as the middle step on the way to full EVs.
EV proponents say those infrastructure hurdles can eventually be addressed, and they’ll have to be: When you’re stuck on the side of the road in an EV, even a long walk and a gas can won’t bail you out.
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