The future is accelerating towards us – silently – as the age of the internal combustion engine comes to a close. That’s after 130 years of mobilising, democratising, suffocating and poisoning society (rearrange those to suit your personal priorities). And it looks as though, of the available technologies, battery-based electric vehicles (BEVs) are going to win the day. I don’t want to get into a VHS/Betamax argument – in fact, I do, but I’ll be posting that separately – other than to note that the most viable alternative, the hydrogen fuel cell, is in the process of missing the boat.
The Disruptive Dilemma
Quite when the inflection point arrives, where the adoption of electric vehicles becomes exponential remains to be seen: as someone from the tech industry who is entirely used to S-shaped disruptive adoption curves, all I can say here is that it’s going to be a damn sight sooner than the politicians of (for instance) France and the UK seem to think: their respective recent pronouncements of banning new internal combustion engine (ICE) registrations after 2040 is about as cynical as it gets – kicking the issue into the long grass whilst giving the illusion of progress – the only positive effect of these announcements is to condition people to expect change at some point. And of course, whether the UK will exist as a law-making entity by 2040 is a moot point.
The immediate consideration though is, for us as for many, the move from being propelled by dinosaur extract to moving with power of tamed lightning, and whether we can go straight there, whether there’s another ICE in our immediate future or whether we hang on to the incumbents until the world catches up with our needs. In the first two cases, it means buying a car. Which is where I have a problem: I hate the process of buying cars. To be exact, when the time comes around, I spend entirely too much time fiddling with online configurators, creating my ideal spec, wincing at the price, then dialling it back to reality. Then I go and negotiate with dealers on every possible parameter, not because I particularly want to spend the time doing so, but because I’m Scottish, and therefore feel that my heritage obliges me to screw the last penny out of any deal.
In our case, serial diesel BMW X5s have served us faithfully and well over the last few years, carrying us through flood, storm, snow and potholes without complaint. But they are big cars, especially for two people, the occasional carriage of aged Ps and the odd sick sheep. We average about 33mpg (Imperial) from ours, which isn’t bad for a two-tonne house brick, but it would be nice to do a bit better, or a lot better, should we go electric. So we’ve been looking around.
And, for the last twenty-one years, when I’ve gone through that process, I’ve bought BMW. That’s not blind loyalty, it’s borne of the experience that their cars are usually excellent to drive and that their dinosaur-burning engines are almost invariably a generation ahead of anyone else’s. I’ll also cite, post facto, the example that the German authorities used a BMW (an X5 apparently) as the baseline reference for a ‘standards-compliant’ car when they were busy picking VAG apart as Dieselgate emerged.
I’ve been known to have the wrong BMW – such as when we moved to Scotland and I was running one of their overpowered rear-wheel-drive station wagons: a couple of winters of being towed home through the snow by obliging neighbours put paid to that habit, and we’re now several years into our second 4×4. This would have been a major surprise to my former self as, when I lived in Surrey and worked (and cycled) in London, I hated the bloody things, or rather SUVs in general. They occupied entirely too much road, were usually badly driven and clogged up cities with their bulk, emissions and attitude. Here in the Highlands, it’s a different story: owning an SUV means that one vehicle can do the whole job, rain or shine, summer and winter.
There’s an unexpected social element too: when you live in an area of single track roads and where pretty much everyone has a tallish SUV or pickup, much of the day can pleasantly be passed sitting window-to-window, gossiping with your neighbours as you pass in and out of the glen, the petulant hooting of trapped tourists notwithstanding.
We’re not just future-gazing though, we’re trying to decide how to play our car usage over the gap until an EV that meets our needs comes along – our dilemma being whether we hang on to our now six-year-old car until we can go straight to an EV or buy another internal combustion engined-vehicle (ICE) as an interim measure? There haven’t so far been any EVs which meet our needs for range, performance, utility and price: we’ve tried the Tesla models S and X but they’re just too damned big for our roads (and the latter too expensive by some margin) and the smaller EVs (i3, Leaf, Volt, Golf etc) are just too small and range-limited for our needs.
But there is hope on the horizon: in terms of size, the Tesla Model 3 could be ideal, if it offered 4×4 capability and long range (which weren’t immediately apparent at the original announcement). Then there’s the Jaguar I-Pace, which, on the surface at least, ticks every box for us. The downside of course is that neither the I-Pace nor the Model 3 will be available in the UK before early-mid 2019. I’d actually put a note down on a Model 3, only to cancel it when I wasn’t sure about that range/drive issue but, with our drive being resurfaced, our need for ground clearance has marginally reduced, bringing it back in as a possible contender. The hinted Tesla Model Y would probably be our perfect utility car, but that’s even further off.
So, buy a stop-gap or wait? Two things have helped us make our minds up here: firstly, the gob-smacking angst of interacting with car dealers and, secondly, the Musk factor.
Wrong Century, Wrong Approach
The angst factor I have to assume to be deliberate policy by BMW, as I’ve had variations on the same response from every single one of the half dozen or so franchised dealers I’ve approached in considering a new ICE car. BMW is pushing their financial deals on new cars very hard at the moment, using low interest rates and large discounts on their cars if you go with credit rather than cash. Which is fine, and worth considering – it all comes down to the numbers. Used cars have a similar pattern but with rather lower incentives on offer. So, every single time, and after benchmarking prices with online brokers, I asked the dealers to come up with their best offer. And, every single time, they’ve come back with only a headline monthly cost, with no attempt to actually provide information on the real costs. Then, when I go back and ask for full details, they just go silent. That’s probably because reverse-engineering their quotes reveals that they’re basing everything on the fiction of list price, despite my already having given them the ‘best price’ figure I’ve had, these days typically an 11-23% discount from list. So BMW’s business model appears to be to rely on customers who are both incapable of counting to twenty without taking their socks off and who are unaware of the existence of this Internet thingy. Which doesn’t strike me as a recipe for long-term success, or an ability to continue to sell cars as the electric disruption cycle really kicks in.
So I’ve wasted rather too much time on these buffoons, which has however serendipitously taken us past the first handover event for the Tesla Model 3. Which is where the Musk factor kicks in, for good and bad. I watched the event and, as a Brit, found it pretty cringeworthy: we don’t do much of that whoopin’-n-hollerin’ stuff and I really don’t see the point of watching random people running to their new cars. Whatever. What I did like was Elon’s candour about the difficulties of ramping production: he may be being slightly disingenuous, but openness does play well. There was though a little useful information: that there is going to be a range extended option (nominal range 310 miles) and a 4×4 version. Combine those and I start getting really interested, even if I have to wait a couple of years. Which is trivially within the working life of our present car.
BMW Throws the Plot Away
Ironically, BMW, having got off to a very good start in 2013 in their own EV programme with the still-radical i3, have since retreated from the front lines and are now in the position of not having effectively capitalised on their lead and now being in the position of a follower in the EV market, not a leader, their legacy there being that most of their talented and visionary EV team are now in prominent positions with players such as Jaguar and Tesla.
Here I suspect a classic case of internecine corporate warfare, as the visionaries and innovators fought the marketing types who could only see EVs cannibalising their own current market.
So BMW now has a huge hole in their offerings, into which anyone considering a future EV purchase will be looking with some disbelief. It appears that the next i-car won’t appear until 2021, which strikes me as gratuitously missing the boat, after their promising start. So now the Jaguar may turn out to be the only viable alternative to the Model 3 for us, and time will tell there, as more details become available. Audi and Mercedes are a little way behind, but their offerings look to be variants on the legacy body plan of combustion engines, rather than the clean-sheet approach taken by Tesla and now Jaguar.
Decision made then: BMW has shot itself in the foot so badly as to lose our business, other ICE manufacturers don’t seem to be much, if any, better, so it’s something of a relief to have decided to – like the Magratheans – hide from the car market until something better comes along. Frank Boosman has also made the point that the Model 3 upgrades seem remarkably good value compared to trying to configure a 3-series, something where I completely agree with him – any erstwhile BMW owner will probably fall upon Tesla with cries of relief at having the pain of greed-priced options taken from them, let alone not having to deal with BMW sales dweebs. I’ve also just learned ‘fremdschämen’ from Frank, and will be forever grateful to him for that.
The Future Eye
When it comes to bikes, I’m keeping a close eye on those too, but the fundamentals of packaging, weight and range mean that bikes are a few years behind cars in their ability to hit most riders needs. Electric cars demonstrated their utility in the urban/commuting environment, before they finally reached the capability at which they are becoming able to break out into the mass market. Bikes are just the same – as of now, electric bikes are useful for commuting/town runabouts but don’t – at any price – have the range to be a viable general alternative to the internal combustion engine. There’s also a larger emotive element for more riders than drivers – that too will need to be addressed.
We’re also keeping our eye on the window of government incentives for EVs, a window that will naturally close as they become more accessible and therefore universal. Right now, there are impressive levels of capital write-down if running one as a company vehicle, zero vehicle excise duty and, in Scotland at least, interest free government loans of £35,000 for private buyers and up to £100,000 for company buyers. So as soon as the right vehicle hits the market, it makes complete sense to jump. But already, thanks to the attitude of BMW’s dealers and Elon’s vision, it now looks as though we’ve already bought our last internal combustion engine car – we just didn’t realise it at the time. Who’d have thought that, even a handful of years ago?