July 26th, 2014

Test driving a BMW i3

Since we will shortly have power being produced on our roof, I thought I would test drive some EVs and see what they are like. Yesterday evening, I went to Nissan and Tesla's websites and requested test drives. I had trouble with the BMW form (couldn't find the i3 on the mandatory model selector) so I called them this morning. T. and I drove to Sudbury (new dealership) to drive and ride in an i3.

We arrived early (we left a little early and then it took a lot less time to get there than I had anticipated) and spent some time sitting in the front and back seats of the i3 and looking at the cargo space in the rear. We looked at the wall mount device. We did not realize there was a small frunk, so I didn't look at it. I was pleasantly surprised at the general shape of the i3. I'm not great at understanding how a picture of a car will feel like when I'm next to it or in it, but this one was particularly hard to imagine based on photographs. There is lots of legroom and a good amount of adjustability. It is sort of a coupe, with no pillar between the doors. The back doors open backwards and you cannot open them without opening the front door. There seem to only be two seats in the back, with the space in the middle taken up by cupholders in what otherwise is a bench. It is an interesting choice. I have mixed feelings about the loss of that fifth seat, but R. seems to think that since we never have a fifth person in the car anyway, it doesn't really matter.

Our test drive started a little bit late. We met the person we talked to on the phone, the sales guy who backs him up, and ultimately took the test drive with a third man, who is the i3 expert at this dealership. He does not appear to be a sales guy, altho I am imperfect at detecting this. He was quite low key and calm. Later, I realized they didn't even ask to look at my driver's license, which is a little startling. I'm assuming they ran a relatively full background on me, since they had my first and last name with spelling, home address and both phone numbers; if a car dealership doesn't know what the credit bureaus and the DMV thinks of me based on all that, well, they just aren't even trying very hard.

We did not go on a freeway; this was a low speed test only. We spent some time in the parking lot after discussing how this -- and most EVs and probably hybrids, too -- differs from an ICE car. Basically, if I get this or a car like it, I'm never gonna touch the brake pedal again, because as soon as you take your foot off the gas, the regenerative braking slows the car quite dramatically. Obvs, because electric, great torque and a lot of power right away. When we were ready to leave the parking lot, the test drive guy ("dealer supervision") hung a dealer plate on the back, covering the backup camera. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to back up and around a corner in the parking lot (someone else was blocking our path) and thus I experienced the extremely video game like camera picture with superimposed green and red stripes to indicate where your path is. Later, when I backed up with the camera blocked, I got fairly close to another car (I knew this was happening) and thus had the opportunity to experience the audible indicator that I was getting pretty close to something else.

This car is the shit. I'm sure anyone who doesn't drive cheap cars (I've had two Honda Fits in a row, preceded by a 2002 WRX, which was fantastic, but very noisy and actually not that great on highways, and before that a used CRX) has already experienced wonderful technology in vehicle, but I have not. The camera was way better than the one in the 2007(?) Odyssey that my husband drives. The navigator is amazeballs and, if the Dealer Supervisor is to be believed, you can get the navigator with the option to show speed limits.

There's a compass (NNEESESSWWNW) indicator on the rear view mirror (which is not so obtrusive as to be annoying). You start the car by having the fob on or near you in the car, and then pushing the on/off button. There's a button to go into park, and then a gear shifter for DNR. I didn't use the horn and I didn't touch the wipers so I cannot speak to those. I did not use the sound system. There are climate control buttons, so you don't have to go through the iDrive for that, which is nice. The car locks as you gain speed. We did go over some bumps in the road. Compared to the Fit, the result is cushy without being squooshy (sorry -- my internal vocabulary. I don't know the Technical Terms for this). I suspect anyone used to riding around in, say, a Camry, would be bitching at the impact/stiffness. The seats were comfortable without being distractingly padded; again, this is compared to a Fit, so hard to know what a Normal Person would think.

I was surprised that there was any cargo space at all, honestly; I had low expectations. Of course it will be a huge disappointment vs. what I have now, if I decide to buy one. The roofline seems much higher than the Fit; not sure what I think of putting a bike rack on top of this. I may do some investigating.

The drive around town was very uneventful. As with my experience driving someone else's 3 series back in the late 1990s, it's easy to speed in a Bimmer.

The model I drove did not have the range extender; apparently you just cannot test drive them, partly because the US version is not "on demand" but kicks in when the battery is low.

The eucalyptus dashboard is pretty. The color range available for interior and exterior is really limited.

On balance, this is a car I would love to own and drive. I am not sure whether I would insist on the range extender. It's a tough call. It adds weight, and the engine's fuel economy is not as good as my current one. If I never used it, I'd be sacrificing performance for nothing. I have good confidence this thing will do my monthly trip to Mayberry without any problems, and while at book group, I could probably get permission to plug it in anyway. It is easily the most easy to drive car I have ever been in: no fine motor demand of inserting the key into the ignition (no, I'm not making a drunk joke), really only need the one pedal, the steering is incredibly precise and responsive. I feel like if someone learned to drive on this thing, switching to a typical ICE would be a big step, maybe not as big as driving a manual, but enough to maybe cause an accident. They are that different.

Amusingly, while I was parking the car back at the dealer, my phone rang with a Palo Alto number that wasn't in my Contacts. I said, I don't know who that is so I'm not going to answer it right now, but I actually did have a good idea who it probably was and they left voicemail. It was a Tesla person calling to schedule my test drive. T. and I will be going to Natick on Wednesday to give the Model S a try. T. is very committed to the i3 right now, but he has been similarly committed to the Tesla and the Leaf, so we'll have to see what he thinks. I've asked to at least get a look at/a chance to sit in a version with the optional third row seat, but they have made no promises. I did not specify engine size because honestly, I don't really care for test drive purposes because they aren't going to let me explore the relative performance on a test drive anyway.

I do not intend to test drive the Chevy Volt, because I'm a snob who thinks the all electric range of 38 miles on that thing is Not Serious. Realistically, I probably should just Get Over It; in practice, I don't see any reason to be realistic, since I don't have to be.

ETA: BMW does not intend to support a bike rack/roof rack for the i3. Hmmm. This is an interesting dilemma. Sure, you could fold the rear seats down (they fold flat! It's a true hatch!) and put one bike back there if you take the front wheel off, maybe a kids bike unmodified, perhaps even two. But yeesh. This is an issue.

ETAYA: Tesla options seem more extensive.

ETA some days later: Here is the Tesla test drive post: http://walkitout.livejournal.com/1147864.html

ETA even later: Here is the Nissan Leaf test drive: http://walkitout.livejournal.com/1148073.html

A Few Words about Kindle Unlimited

When Kindle Unlimited sorta-leaked and then launched, there was the usual blast of coverage: here's why it will fail, here's how we should take advantage of it, etc. Lots of foolishness. There was also this:

http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/kindle-unlimited-the-key-questions/

Gaughran can run on a bit, but he really did ask the right questions, some of which are interesting to me, in particular this paragraph:

"So which kind of readers will it attract? Will it be all the bargain-hunting readers that swamp sites like BookBub and make limited-time 99c sales so effective? Will it gobble up the freehunters that make permafree such a winning strategy? Will it wean the power readers off box-sets? Will it increase the amount of reading (and, by extension, payments to authors) by those on tighter budgets? Will it be used by readers in addition to their normal purchasing habits, or will it replace them? Will it make short fiction and serials more attractive to readers? All interesting questions that will be answered over time."

I meant to ask my sister if she wanted this, and if I had been smart, I would have done so immediately and not only started the 30 day free but also saved the approximately $9.39 that she spent on a book which turns out to be included in Kindle Unlimited and by itself more or less justifies a full month of the subscription at the paid for level. Now, to be fair to my sister, she does not ordinarily spend that much on books (I encourage her to do so; she's just Real Cheap); she buys a lot of free books, 99c books and box-sets. I had looked over the Kindle Unlimited selection and concluded that I was reading too much academic press nonfiction and TradPub genre fiction that wasn't included, and too little of what was included, to bother with -- but I also noticed that I recognized some titles that she and other readers I know like her had really enjoyed over the last few months/year or so.

My sister finds the books she wants to read/buy by surfing through various recommendations and reviews on Amazon and other websites; her description of this process is one that I've read many times on other blogs. The goal is to feed the maw of time-to-read while keeping the cost-of-reading low enough. I, too, used to do this, only I don't any more, because I can buy any damn book I want (barring getting into antiquaria), so now I buy stuff when I hear the author being interviewed on NPR or watch them on the Daily Show, or the next book in a series I'm reading comes out or one of my friends on FB raves about something or WTF. Or I'm pursuing some nerd obsession and surfing through citations and bibliographies and notes and looking for books by people who are quoted in news stories or whatever.

It is in Amazon's interests to help its customers find value in the Long Tail; that is where it shines compared to All Other Retailers, who inevitably focus more on the bestsellers and the Known Quantities and the things which have already made it through layers of gatekeepers like slush pile readers and editors and buyers for the chain. Amazon needs people to read its Universal Slush Pile and successfully find stuff that they like. By differentiating, in Unlimited, between people who read more vs. less than a sample chapter (10%), and because they have recommendations engines that can mine the information they collect of how far into the book the buyer read, they have an opportunity to use their broke-ass customers to build a database that helps their not so broke-ass customers know which books are good for them.

Will it work?

Hard to tell. The problem with it is the one that Amazon's recommendations have been up against right from the beginning. Books are a large universe with sparse coverage. It's hard to find patterns, because it's hard to find overlap among customers that isn't just recommending bestsellers to everyone. But Unlimited helps customers: those who can now consume a lot more, at the price of 1-2 Real Books a month; they essentially have zero risk now in terms of experimentation, and possibly those who benefit from the behaviors of the voracious cheapskates. If voracious cheapskates have definite preferences and Unlimited lets them find more of what they like and abandon what they don't, then that information can percolate up to people who don't want to waste time or money on something they aren't likely to enjoy. Unlimited helps authors stuck in Long Tail purgatory: if they don't get _some_ kind of traction, they may never see more than the onesie twosie sales to people who already know them. Unlimited helps Amazon; those customers weren't going to spend much more money than that a month anyway, and they completely control the monthly cost.

I wish there were some way to find out whether the recommendation data coming out of this system is useful or not. But I have no intention of ever going back to work for someone else again, so I'm probably never gonna know. I mean, unless someone who does know feels like sharing, which seems unlikely, and probably a violation of their NDA.