Stories & Features

Vancouver to Revelstoke in a BMW electric vehicle

BC Hydro EV specialist tests electric car on B.C.'s winter roads

Note: This story was updated on January 30, 2017.

Alec Tsang has been driving an electric vehicle for years, but never farther than from his Vancouver home to Chilliwack. That all changed earlier this month.

On January 18th, the BC Hydro senior electric vehicle infrastructure manager hopped into a BMW i3 with his 9-year-old son and started on a winter driving trip to Revelstoke. He drove the longer route, Highway 3 via the Hope-Princeton pass, to take advantage of BC Hydro's network of DC fast chargers on the route.

The verdict after his three-day adventure?

"It's a big step up from what I drive," said Tsang, whose family car is a 2011 Nissan Leaf, with a laugh. "My car's a much older model, with very limited range and a degraded battery. With the increased battery size of the BMW, it makes quite a difference.

"I think this is one electric car where you'll anticipate driving longer distances and not give it much of a thought after you’ve done it once."

BC Hydro's Alec Tsang, with son Adam, outside their Mount Pleasant home in Vancouver before driving a BMW i3 electric car from Vancouver to Revelstoke. Show caption
3-Valley Gap, near the final charging station at Malakwa, offered this stunning scenery reflected in a freezing lake. Show caption

Almost there. BC Hydro's Alec Tsang and son Adam (pictured here) stop  at DC fast charger in Malakwa for the final charge of the BMW i3 on their Vancouver-to-Revelstoke journey in an electric car. Show caption
Statistics from the Vancouver to Revelstoke round-trip  show up on the BMW 3i's dashboard. Show caption

Manufacturers extending EV range each year

The Tesla Model S sedan and the X (an SUV) are the gold standard for EV range, with more than 400 km range in both models. But other automakers are adding range with each model year, including the newest Nissan Leaf, which now boasts 172 km, the Kia Soul (149 km) and the soon-to-be released Chevy Bolt, which is expected to be a big seller with its range of 383 km and a retail price under $50,000 before EV rebates.

Helping eliminate any range anxiety in the car Tsang drove as part of a BC Hydro's partnership with BMW is the fact this i3 included a range extender: a quiet, gas-powered combustion engine that can charge the car's high-voltage battery to extend range up to 250 km. The website lists the i3 with an average electric range of 130 km, but Tsang's BMW was blessed with the larger 33 kWh battery option.

"You get in the car after charging, and it shows an all-electric range of about 200 km, and I think that's accurate," said Tsang. He notes that the car's "guessometer" – the digital gauge that estimates, based on recent driving style, road grade, etc., how much range is available – only dipped down below 160 km (for a fully-charged vehicle) once he had climbed a steep hill or two.

For this trip, Tsang stopped at more charging stations than necessary, in part to test the various BC Hydro-installed fast chargers along the route. With the BMW i3's range, he says he could have skipped several stations to allow for a one-day trip to Revelstoke rather than taking a day and a half for the trip.

Tsang was able to break out of his normally conservative EV driving mode by testing the BMW at highway speed limits throughout, including through the section of Highway 3 (Hope-Princeton) that features a series of steep hills (and hairpin turns) between Manning Park and Princeton. Without any range concerns, he also didn't hesitate to use some of the battery on heating or defrosting the cabin of the vehicle.

"I got some good distances," he said after making the return trip to Vancouver. "I was able to get from Penticton to Princeton, and I had quite a bit left – about 50 km. But I charged it in Princeton because I didn’t want to try to go up the hill to Manning Park – it would have been tight."

Off the highway, a quick test of the BMW in snow

Tsang wanted the trip to include winter driving, but the warming weather meant that while he saw a lot of snow on the side of the road – and snow that partially buried several charging stations – he couldn't really test the BMW's snow-footedness on the highway. So at Manning Park, he deked off the highway to drive a snow-covered road to the local ski area.

"I cranked up the speed pretty good on that road," said Tsang. "There was no problem at all. I think the thinner tires really add traction in the snow. I managed to drive over the deeper areas without slipping or getting stuck, and the car handled really well."

Despite the fact that the BMW is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, other reports also indicate that it's sure-footed in the snow, including a blog post from a guy who tested it over a winter in the Alps.

Tsang's journey included charging stops in Chilliwack, Hope, Manning Park, Princeton, Keremeos, Penticton, Vernon and a last DC fast charge at Malakwa before reaching Revelstoke, where a recently upgraded DC fast charger is now in operation. The charger had only been compatible with the Japanese fast charging plug only, but was upgraded to the combined Charge System (CCS) standard as part of the BMW partnership to upgrade older, single standard fast chargers to newer, dual standard chargers that serve all EVs on the road.

For most of us, the i3 is primarily a choice as an urban commuter vehicle. With regenerative braking that adds range, cars like the i3 serve that purpose extremely well. Tsang particularly likes the car's fairly high driving vantage point, and its acceleration. "You definitely notice the rear-wheel drive, more of a push from the back you can really feel," he said.

See also:

plugshare fast-charger map of B.C.
Screenshot from Plugshare's online electric vehicle charging station finder displays DC fast charging stations, including Tesla Supercharger stations, in southern B.C.