Electromobility, up close and personal

by Richard Peters

A little while ago we decided to shoot some new photos for the BVIW website. I had to bring a few extra things with me that day for the photoshoot – a couple of shirts, a suit – and so instead of jumping on my bike, as I usually do, I decided to drive to work that day. I don’t own a car, but I am a member of DriveNow, one of the two biggest car-sharing programmes operating in Munich (the other is Car2Go). So I opened the app on my phone and reserved the nearest car, which happened to be an all-electric BMW i3. Then I strolled over to the car, unlocked it using my smartphone – for someone who has spent half a lifetime wondering where he left his keys, that was pretty cool – threw my bags in the back and got in.

Richard Peters

The ecstasy

From my position at the wheel, I couldn’t help noticing how modern the whole experience was: no more ignition, simply a PIN number on the car’s own computer screen. And, this being an electric car, as I moved off I enjoyed the combination of utter silence and video-game levels of acceleration (but still obeying the mandated speed limit, of course).

It’s easy to be blasé about these things, but here I was, on my morning commute, at the cutting edge of 21st century mobility! The concepts were familiar to me from many a translation; now, though, instead of just writing about this sea change for the global automotive industry, I was actually experiencing it firsthand – living the dream. I was simultaneously playing a role in the sharing economy AND doing my bit to usher in Germany’s Energiewende, or switch to a new energy economy not based on fossil fuels. All before I’d even had my first coffee!

The agony

As it turns out, that missing coffee might have played a pivotal role in how the rest of my day panned out… After climbing to the pinnacle of modern driving with my five-minute mini-commute to the office, my colleagues and I promptly jumped into shared vehicles of a more traditional sort – taxis – to make our way to the venue for the photoshoot. It was only once we’d arrived and I wanted to check my phone for messages that I realised – shock horror – I’d left it lying in the i3! Here I was, barely an hour after my state-of-the-art electromobility ecstasy, suffering that most modern agony: phone denial. And the worst thing was, leaving my phone IN the car meant I’d also failed to lock it – because to do that I would have needed to use the app!

I was in a mild state of panic as I desperately tried to solve my problem from afar. But at the same time, a small, detached, calm part of me surveyed the situation and noted that, while apps might have changed the way we access a service, when something unexpected happens we’re still very reliant on human intervention. After all, there’s no button in the app saying “click here to solve all problems” – and even if there were, it would’ve been no good to me: my phone was miles away, carelessly tossed onto the passenger seat of an unlocked car outside my office!

Photo credit: Alex Holyoake

The drama

Having tracked down a telephone number for DriveNow (using the web browser on someone else’s smartphone), I rang up, full of trepidation. Would the human helper at the other end of (someone else’s) phone be able to help me? Did they have the technology to lock the car for me and secure my phone? Could they stop someone else from hiring the car while my phone was still in it? Or would they simply tell me there was nothing they could do? Would I have to mourn my phone, my photos, all my apps?

The person I spoke to had good news and bad news: because I hadn’t locked the car in the first place, in fact the car was still rented out to me – so I was paying second by second for the pleasure of being parked outside work! At least that meant nobody else could rent it in my absence. Sadly, though, it did NOT mean it was impossible for someone to get in and just drive off, or even just open the door and pinch my phone; the car was unlocked, after all.

The dénouement

Thankfully, DriveNow’s whizzy electronics could tell that the car was still where I’d left it. They were also able to end my rental remotely (to save me some money) and then re-reserve the car for me. All I had to do was jump in (someone else’s) car, drive back to the office, retrieve my phone, re-start the rental and then immediately end it again, freeing the car up for the next person. Which I duly did. And, to my enormous relief, when I got to the office I saw the car parked exactly where I’d left it – and my smartphone lying exactly where I’d left it on the passenger seat.

What a palaver! Five minutes of fun at the wheel of an electric car had led me to spend two hours in traffic in a petrol-driven car. A careless mistake had left me at the mercy of someone in a far-away call centre. And I couldn’t help feeling a little remorse at how, in my exhilaration at driving an electric car – a shiny new toy, if you will – I’d managed to forget all about my smartphone – my long-time favourite plaything.

The moral

I like to think of this as a modern-day cautionary tale that boils down to one lesson: don’t be so dazzled by technology that you leave stuff lying around! You’ll be pleased to hear that, after a long while, I have now overcome my trauma and used a car-sharing service again. And, needless to say, I’ve made sure my phone rarely strays more than a metre from my hand!

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