I have a 1st-gen BMW i3 in my driveway. No range extender. Just barely 100 miles of available range. And I desperately needed to go to the IAA Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung in Frankfurt, Germany, due to the impressive number of new electric vehicles on display. Problem: I only had the weekend at my disposal and IAA was 500 miles away.
ICE to the rescue — sorry…
Traveling by highway in my BMW i3 at normal speeds usually means stopping at every single fast-charger on the way. On average, that’s every 60 miles (100 km). I realized that a 1,000 mile round trip like this — to Frankfurt and back in two days — would simply be unrealistic. I had to solve this transportation problem with an old internal combustion engine. Yikes!
OK, hold your horses. Before you judge me for this reckless decision — of burning enough gasoline in 40 hours to produce 350 kg of planet-choking carbon dioxide — let me just tell you what kind of car I used, and the reason I used it. It is a VW Golf 3 from 1994 with more than a quarter of a million miles on the clock (420,000 km). It’s ready for the car graveyard.
The next generation of mechanics
My son has recently started his education to be a mechanic, and it could not be a more interesting time to do that. He will learn all the technologies from the old world, and he will join a new generation of mechanics that will work with hybrids and all-electric drivetrains. With all the electronics and high-voltage electrics that come with it, he will indeed acquire some useful skills all around. And he needed some homework.
The Golf was a wreck when we found it. Virtually every part of the car was worn out. It was a cold winter day, and it had been standing out there in the back of a the dealer’s lot for a year. We put a booster on the battery and the engine came to life with a perfect — for an ICE — purring sound. My son instantly fell in love with the car, and I — having owned and rebuilt several motorcycles and cars in my time — well, I could hear this engine was begging for another chance.
The ICE brought back from the dead — sorry again…
Now, I consider this a part of my sons education, and for 6 months we have worked on the old Golf. Remember, in daily commute we drive the BMW i3, and my son loves that too. This was a chance to compare these two worlds of technology directly.
What struck us the most was that almost everything we fixed on the Golf will never have to be fixed on the i3. On the Golf we replaced the following:
Power steering belt. Generator belt. Cam shaft belt. Fuel pump. Fuel filter. Engine oil. Oil filter. Radiator fluid. Spark plugs. Ignition cables. Ignition distributor. Air intake filter. Exhaust manifold. Lambda probe. Particulate catalyst. Steering wheel. Radio. Brake disks. Brake pads. Windshield wipers. Tires. 12 V battery. Thermostat. Clutch cable.
On this list of 24 items, only 7 can be found on the BMW i3! Less than a third. Of those 7, only 4 will probably ever be replaced, on any EV. My son gets it. The future is electric.
Still, we had to get to Frankfurt, and the Golf drove perfectly the whole distance, with only 3 stops to refuel.
The IAA in Frankfurt has been covered splendidly across many media outlets over the last couple of weeks, and that is why it was important for me to physically drive there, to get another perspective. It gave me a chance to make 2 equally important observations.
1st: The German Autobahn — Hell on wheels!
We mingled with tens of thousands of cars on the Autobahn, and once in a while, I forgot that I was scared to death at these ridiculous speeds. Still, I managed to noticed that the average German family car is of a very high standard. A lot of Audi A3, A4, BMW 3-series, and — new — VW Golf. Our old Golf was clearly whining over its inferiority, and probably only made it through on sheer persistence.
I was wondering where all the EVs were hiding? We saw only 3 Tesla Model S and 1 single BMW i3 on the total thousand miles, including a bit of driving downtown Frankfurt.
Something became obvious to me. The German middle class will probably not buy an electric car unless they can drive it nonstop between the large cities in the country on a full charge. On average, this translates to 300 miles of range.
The Autobahn does have rest areas for refueling, food, and sanitation, but they are quite uninspiring. Believe me, you just want to keep rolling and get to your destination. Our old Golf solved this problem to perfection. The Germans will expect nothing less, at the price of a Golf.
2nd: The Exhibition — Germans love future EVs!
Well, I was of course overwhelmed at the glittering and sparkling cars all over the enormous exhibition area. However, I managed to focus on the obvious question: how did ordinary Germans rate these more or less futuristic electric prototypes?
I eavesdropped at the stands, listening to the conversations among ordinary people. What I heard was people actually wanting EVs very much — as long as they were not too extreme looking, and where just as comfortable as their existing Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and VWs. There were massive crowds around VW’s I.D. Crozz concept and Audi’s Elaine and Aicon concepts. There were no crowds around the small, short-range, city cars.
On the long drive home, it hit me. When the German brands start offering a wide range of fully electric models, that are comparable to the current fossil fuel models, German EV sales will explode. The question is, will the German auto industry make the transition fast enough, and will they be able to keep up with demand? These heavyweight companies probably think they have a loyal customer base, but what if these people get tired of waiting and begin ordering Teslas? Or even Chinese models? The clock is ticking.
The VW I.D. Crozz concept is probably not far from the final production design. The Germans seems to love it. I know I do.
Oh, and by the way — if my son chooses to shove an electric drivetrain under the bonnet of the Golf one day, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.