The first thing members of the Methacton High School Electric Car Club noticed about the BMW ActiveE was the lack of the familiar engine roar.
Instead, the all-white BMW 1 series two-door seemed content to merely hum as it pulled up in front of the high school building.
Tracy Miehlke, PJM Interconnection senior analyst, was invited to show off the electric car for the MHS students on the afternoon of Nov. 15.
PJM, a regional transmission organization, which manages the operations of wholesale electricity in several states and Washington, D.C., has its facility based in Lower Providence.
As an electric industry leader, Miehlke explained that BMW approached PJM this year to participate in an advanced pilot project for the BMW ActiveE electric car.
According to the BMW website, for its ActiveE car, participants of this field-trial project are referred to as “Electronauts.”
She told the students that BMW provided the car for PJM employees, who are allowed to borrow the vehicle for a scheduled period of time.
According to Miehlke, the borrowing program at PJM has become very popular among her coworkers, sharing that the car has been reserved during weeknights through December and on weekends through June of 2013.
“There are a lot of folks that are engineers and IT drivers” Miehlke said, explaining the popularity of the car at PJM. “So, this is the coolest thing."
The BMW ActiveE
For her visit with the MHS Electric Car Club, Miehlke provided a tour of the BMW electric car, as well as an opportunity to for a ride-a-long.
She first explained that the BMW ActiveE is not an electric car from the ground-up, rather a retrofitted BMW 1 series two-door. Its all-white body also has a different kind of racing stripe, made to resemble speeding currents of electricity.
“This car goes about 65-miles on a charge, with absolutely no gas backup,” Miehlke said. “It’s as quiet as can be.”
She added that the distance can reach up to 80-miles, depending on factors such as load weight and how the car is driven.
It also has a regenerative breaking system, where upon release of the accelerator, energy is put back in to the system, prolonging distance use. The ActiveE also has 170 horse power to it.
“Yes, it’s a 100-percent joy to drive,” Miehlke said.
Describing the vehicle as, “A prototype of the future,” Miehlke did describe a few drawbacks of an electric car.
First, the trunk isn’t very spacious.
“The trunk is designed for at least a set of golf clubs,” Miehlke said lightly. But, she also points out that the trunk contains a home-charge adapter.
If the car is charged at PJM, during regular business hours at a 240 volts, Miehlke said that the ActiveE can be fully charged in 4 to 5 hours.
She said that charging through a home outlet at 110 volts, however, may take up to 18 to 20 hours.
“You can see there’s some growing pains here,” Miehlke said.
Just like the roar of the engine, what’s immediately noticeable inside the car are the lack of the buttons and electric car comforts typically associated with higher-end vehicles, such as might be expected with a BMW.
Such comforts include automatic seat adjustments and lights on the visor mirror. Miehlke explained that these features are absent in order to provide the most efficient use of the car’s battery. There is even an “ecopro” mode that helps regulate the climate in the car, in order to help reserve battery life.
The display monitor, located on the dash, tells the driver how long until the next charge is needed.
Overall, Miehlke shared with the students that the BMW ActiveE, all electric car, could cost over $60,000.
MHS Electric Car Club and “The Lorax”
According to MHS Electric Car Club advisor Steven Savitz, many of the Electric Car Club students’ parents work for PJM. He said it was possible for the short visit, due to a small gap of time in the company’s BMW ActiveE borrowing program.
Savitz said that that the visit was considered a treat for his Electric Car Club students.
“It’s neat, their enthusiasm is contagious,” Savitz said.
Savitz, who is also a Biology and AP Environmental Science teacher, said that the club started with eight students in 2001.
“We’ve started a little ahead of the curve,” Savitz said.
Today, over 20 students are members of the Electric Car Club, which, according to its website, is the only such club in Pennsylvania to continually maintain its own electric car.
Savitz said that the club was started when a business man from Ambler started providing lectures to his AP Environmental Science class on his favorite hobby: Building electric cars.
The business man, who is also Savitz’s friend, had once retrofitted a Jaguar into a fuel-cell vehicle. This same hobbyist turned philanthropist, when he donated a 1930s British three-wheeled Morgan.
Savitz said that the students meet once a week after school, as well as on the weekends, constantly tweaking their electric car to increase productivity and efficiency. The vehicle is worked on inside a garage, located on MHS property.
After the students were finished touring the BMW ActiveE, Savitz invited Miehlke to tour the MHS electric car, who expressed her own amazement at the achievements made by the high school students.
It was also noted that the MHS electric car is called “The Lorax,” after the Morgan model’s name, “Lomax,” and the fact that there is a plush Dr. Suess environmentally conscious character, strapped into the passenger seat.
Savitz, along with student members of the Electric Car Club, revealed the inner workings of their electric car, included the 14 lead acid batteries fitted throughout the entire vehicle.
According to the MHS Electric Car Club website, at 34 horse power, their Lorax car can reach top 75-miles-per-hour, and travel at 70 miles per charge. It takes about eight hours to fully charge. It also features regenerative braking, as well as a solar panel to extend the distance.
And, like the ActiveE, it also has a small trunk space.
“We can’t fit golf clubs, but we can fit two grocery bags,” Savitz said with a smile.
The MHS electric vehicle has also won several state-level competitions.
Food for Thought
In addition to having an electric car, the MHS Electric Car Club also has a snack delivery vehicle.
According to Savitz, their 1982 box truck has is slowly becoming a mobile environmental classroom. He said that he the club members have been working on the truck for the last two years, and expects that it will be completed by the end of this school year.
Savitz said that the truck will feature six educational stations, mostly exploring alternative engineering and environmental conservation. Most of all, the truck itself will be a valuable teaching tool, as it is being built with a bio-diesel engine.
“Bio-diesel will be the wave of the future,” Brian Flanagan, MHS Electric Car Club’s mechanical consultant, said. “It has everything a normal car has.”
Flanagan, a mechanic at Trooper Automotive, is a volunteer consultant for the club, which also has an electrical engineer consultant from Collegeville. He is also a 2010 MHS graduate and electric car member, who was active in acquiring the box truck.
He said that he got into the club because it gave him the opportunity to follow his passion of working on automobiles, while being able to a have hands-on education about alternative engineering.
Comparing an electric car with a bio-diesel one, Flanagan said that he acknowledged the marvel of modern engineering of the former, but agreed that its limited charging to distance ratio means that the electric car still has a long way to go before satisfying American driving needs.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Flanagan said. “But for Americans, we go where we want, when we want across the country.”