Silicon Valley itself—the global ground zero of innovation, start-ups, tech giants, venture capitalists, billionaires, and fortune seekers—traces its birth to this humble one-car garage. It’s where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started Hewlett-Packard in 1939, deciding the company’s name with a coin toss and using the rented home’s garage to develop and build its first products, including the Model 200A audio oscillator. Disney bought eight 200B versions, at $71.50 a pop, to test sound equipment at special theaters that showed “Fantasia.” The young HP was on its way.
Garage Rockers: Today’s Silicon Valley was born on Addison Street in Palo Alto, where Hewlett-Packard was founded in a rented home.
“EVs may be futuristic and all, but unless and until DC charging becomes common, public stations promote a quaint, Route 66 travel style.”
The i3’s eco-conscious, innovation-loving audience lives here, as receptive as, well, a 200A audio oscillator. It includes hordes of tech workers who live in San Francisco and commute to campuses in the Valley. That makes the Bay Area the perfect getaway to answer this question: Could the i3 work as a daily driver? Is this the perfect, affordable green machine to lure drivers off the area’s ubiquitous Google and Facebook employee shuttles?
Our gas-free journey begins at the Rosewood Sand Hill, just hours after sampling the Menlo Park hotel’s notorious Singles Night, at which women of all ages keep stilettos high, dresses tight, and eyes peeled for eligible tech types. This might be the only five-star hotel where a pocket protector can get you laid.
We certainly look the nerdy engineer part as we unplug the BMW i3 from the hotel’s charging station. For a thermoplastic-clad car that’s about 2 inches shorter than a Honda Fit, the two-tone BMW appears stylish and substantial in the flesh. With no center tunnel, its slide-through seat benches, rear-hinged coach doors, and an airy interior heavy on sustainable materials, the BMW exudes a “Logan’s Run,” concept-car vibe that proves irresistible to onlookers. This Giga version’s mod cabin—with blond swoops of eucalyptus wood, recycled fiber trim, a credenza-like instrument panel, and digital screens—looks fit for an ob-gyn office in Copenhagen. Importantly, the i3 looks like an electric car, a luxury car, and a BMW—three doses of catnip for affluent buyers who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf.
With a twist of the BMW’s drum-shaped column shifter, a nav screen showing nearby chargers, and a display estimating 83 miles of range—103 if I pop the BMW into its energy-hoarding Eco Pro mode—we head for Stanford University. (The i3 is EPA-rated at 81 miles of range and 124 mpge combined.)
Silicon, nee Santa Clara, Valley was once the prune capital of the world. Horses roamed the Palo Alto spread that now houses Stanford, hence its nickname, “the Farm.” With one of the most stunning, sprawling college campuses in America, Stanford is where engineering professor and inventor Frederick Terman inspired the HP boys and helped transform this agricultural backwater.
It’s Saturday, and students have mostly skedaddled, but we peek into the bays of the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab (VAIL), part of the far-reaching Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) that’s partnered with nearly every major automaker. Together with SAIL, the school’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, VAIL has been at the forefront of virtually every advance in automated driving, including Stanley, the 2005 DARPA Urban Challenge winner, and Shelley, the Pikes Peak–climbing Audi TT. Google’s driverless cars are led by engineer Sebastian Thrun, the SAIL director and co-inventor of Google Street View.
Our schoolwork done, it’s time to drive. This being a BMW, an autopilot is not the i3’s Ultimate Driving goal. (Although the i3 offers nearly every current hands-off technology, including adaptive cruise, pedestrian protection and collision mitigation, automated parallel parking, and even semiautonomous steering.)
On paper, the BMW i3 balances low power with light weight. The most affordable carbon-fiber-intensive car in history weighs just 2860 pounds, 450 of that from its 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. An optional, range-extending 647cc gasoline engine kicks that to 3130 pounds, which is still about 650 pounds less than a plug-in Volt.
Weight-saving measures include the carbon-fiber passenger cell and the all-aluminum “Drive” module below. Inside, slender front seat frames clad in recycled fabric recall indoor/outdoor furniture. BMW 7 Series owners might be mortified, yet these mass- and space-saving chairs are more comfortable than they first appear.
BMW conservatively pegs the i3’s 0-to-60-mph time at 7 seconds, seemingly a league slower than the 5.1-second BMW 335i GT we’ve enlisted as a photography vehicle. But as we dash toward the Pacific coast, a series of stoplights contradicts those numbers: With its instant, light-switch electric torque (just 184 lb-ft), the rear-wheel-drive i3 smokes the 3 Series off the line, and it holds a car-length advantage until the 300-hp 335i GT finally catches up at about 65 mph.
We detour onto Route 35, the oft-overlooked road known as Skyline Boulevard, and instantly trade hectic freeways for two ascending lanes of redwood-shaded, Paci-fic-viewing splendor that trace the Santa Cruz Mountains en route to Half Moon Bay and San Francisco.
Thrown a literal curve on Skyline Boulevard, the BMW i3 flings to and fro with the tenacity associated with low-center-of-gravity EVs. The BMW’s near-silent surge, roughly 50/50 weight distribution, and quick steering are welcome, but the steering feels a bit wooden, and the limits of fun are clearly demarcated by the i3’s bicycle-like wheels and tires: 19-by-5-inch wheels wearing Bridgestone Ecopias, with 20-by-5-inchers available. They’re as tall and skinny as runway models and require as little fuel to keep twirling.
The i3’s level of regenerative braking, however, is just right: less obtrusive than in BMW’s Mini E, but still strong enough when you lift off the throttle to allow the one-pedal driving EV fans love.
We descend toward the Crystal Springs Reservoirs that keep San Franciscans watered, including the 1888 dam, perched on the San Andreas Fault, that survived famous earthquakes in 1906 and 1989. It’s lunchtime, and although we’ve got enough juice to make San Francisco, we might as well refresh both cars and pilots. Twiddling the iDrive controller plots our course to the nearest charger, which turns out to be in San Mateo: the Peter Pan BMW dealership, a suburban Neverland whose dual ChargePoint stations await an influx of electrified Bimmers.
We wave a ChargePoint access card at the 240-volt machine and plug in. The i3’s driver display estimates we’ll be full in 2.5 hours, drawing about 6.5 kilowatts per hour through the BMW’s onboard 7.4-kW charger. Eventually, precious time will be saved with BMW’s SAE Combo Plug. That new standard, adopted by virtually every plug-in maker save Nissan and Tesla, allows powerful DC quick charging on the same plug as household and 240-volt current. That means an 80 percent fill-up in about 30 minutes.
EVs may be futuristic and all, but unless and until DC charging becomes common, public stations promote a quaint, Route 66 travel style. They’re a boon to local economies, considering all the sightseeing, shopping, dining, and general heel-cooling required to recharge far from home. (Impatient types can opt for the i3’s range-extender version with its 647cc, two-cylinder gasoline engine.)
Our economic beneficiary today is El Sinaloense, a hidden Mexican gem with seriously fiery homemade salsa. On our return 88 minutes later, the BMW’s electric tank is nearly sated, sucking up 9 kW-hr and boosting estimated range to 83 miles, up from 51. We’ve added 32 miles of range free of charge; an efficient gasoline-engine car would burn about a gallon of unleaded to cover the same distance. Many of America’s public chargers remain free for now, with hotels, stores, malls, and municipalities looking to lure customers or spark goodwill. But even where ChargePoint, well, charges for the hookup, an average nationwide rate of 18 cents per hour—which adds 20 miles of range to a typical EV with a 6.6-kW onboard charger—equates to less than a penny per mile for energy. The typical sedan in America drinks more than 14 cents of unleaded per mile.
Before we can unplug the cord, curious BMW fans at the dealership surround the i3. Christine Peyton, a green-building designer and longtime 3 and 5 Series owner, says that luxury automakers have dawdled in bringing EVs to market. The first question from her mouth is familiar: “Are you having range anxiety?”
Yet Peyton is the first of a wave of onlookers who praise the i3 or insist they’re ready to take the plunge. “I like the way they’ve pushed the design envelope and made it look upmarket,” she says.
Departing San Mateo, we head north on U.S. 101, where the i3 sets a smooth 70-mph pace to San Francisco. Next stop, the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, whose parking garage features a pair of free charging outlets. A new electric Zip Car, a Honda Fit EV, occupies one spot, and I nab the other. Dinner reservations are at Commonwealth, a hip Mission District restaurant. Street parking is looking dicey, but we slide into a spot reserved for compacts. The i3’s tidy footprint and ultratight turning circle of 32.3 feet (2 feet shorter than the Nissan Leaf’s) make it right at home in the jungle, urban or suburban.
After we plug in and turn in for the night, sunrise finds the two-tone Bimmer posing for photos on the cobbled drive of the InterContinental and drawing another crowd.
John Lukacs, a visiting attorney and former BMW 2002 owner from Coral Gables, Florida, drives a thirsty Mercedes-Benz ML550 today. But don’t ever believe, Lukacs says, that affluent buyers aren’t also interested in cars like the i3.
“I live 3 miles from my office, 5 miles from my courthouses,” he says. “This is an attractive, sporty BMW, and it would be great for zipping around town. We don’t care about fuel costs per se, but it’s just more efficient. It’s great that it’s green.”
An elegant older man approaches our photographer to ask, “What kind of car is that? It’s really cool.” Almost as cool, actually, as the mustachioed questioner: It’s John Waters, the famously transgressive film director. I can totally picture him driving a BMW i3.
We hit Caffe Trieste in the North Beach neighborhood, which has hosted weekly Saturday concerts—picture an accordion-heavy, Italian-style Lawrence Welk show—since 1971. Properly caffeinated, we step further back in time to City Lights Booksellers. This is the famous bookstore and publisher co-founded in 1953 by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Surrounded by the printed page, an uneasy thought occurs: This is the kind of feisty independent bookstore that’s been driven toward extinction by a ruthless tech warrior named Amazon. Chalk up another industry that never saw the threat coming, or dismissed and underestimated disruptive technology until it was nearly too late.
San Francisco covers some 47 square miles and packs in nearly 18,000 people a square mile. After decades of suburban sprawl, millennials are leading a population charge back into such metro centers, including hordes of reverse commuters from San Francisco digs to Silicon Valley jobs.
The i3 that BMW first began plotting as its “Megacity” vehicle, seven years and a few billion dollars ago, is designed for a global market in which seven of every 10 people will live in an urban area by 2050. In more than 12.5 million miles of testing on 1000 subjects for its sustainable-mobility i Project, BMW learned that the average driver covers just 30 miles per day. That’s all drivers, not just city slickers. This Sunday morning, we spend three hours driving and shooting all over San Francisco—and cover a total of 15 miles, barely denting the range.
With plenty of juice for another 35-mile “commute” to the Valley, we cruise to the Googleplex. The Mountain View headquarters of Google Inc. is thick with carnival-colored Google campus bicycles, the GFleet of shared company EVs, and the nation’s largest concentration of charging ports—more than 600. Dozens of biodiesel commuter buses shuttle 5000 employees a day.
The Computer History Museum houses exhibitions and 1100 remarkable artifacts, including Difference Engine No. 2, a working 5-ton, 8000-part replica of Charles
Babbage’s amazing 1849 computing machine. And Pong, of course.
Proliferating workplace or public chargers address a “gotcha” question from EV skeptics, that being, “Where are you supposed to charge if you don’t have a garage?”
While a Valley employee spends his day developing killer apps or sneaking in some foosball, the i3 could slurp enough juice to commute with miles to spare, eliminating the absolute need for a home charger. Owners with home and workplace chargers effectively double their range: When 100 miles becomes 200 miles, the result is a Prozac against range anxiety, putting the most brutal commutes within reach.
Still, while barely 20,000 EVs are plying California roads, with 3400 public and workplace ChargePoint stations in the Bay Area alone, some companies are finding out what happens when there are too many EVs and not enough chargers. Employees have been known to fight over parking spaces. Now attach those spaces to a desperately needed service, and Charge Rage is born. Companies are navigating this new world of etiquette, but one rule is sacrosanct: Never unplug someone else’s car while it’s still charging.
We also turn from green to red after pulling into a Google lot full of solar-powered chargers and find our ChargePoint card rejected. These campus chargers are for Googlers and require an employee code. Luckily, the nearby Creekside Inn has four chargers. After driving most of the day, we’ll need about two hours’ worth of electrons to ensure a return to San Francisco. But no matter where you live or work, your car sits parked most of the day and night. Our typical Valley employee could have topped off the i3’s tank before lunchtime.
We stalk a nearby Palo Alto neighborhood to peek at Steve Jobs’ old house on Waverley Street. It’s a lovely but surprisingly modest English brick cottage that looks straight out of a Merchant Ivory movie.
Our final sightseeing run takes us to the Computer History Museum. What sounds like a punch line from “The Big Bang Theory” turns out to be a fine attraction. There’s an Enigma machine, the German enciphering and deciphering machine that British cryptologists broke to speed the end of World War II. We see the guidance and control systems for Minutemen missiles and NASA flights, and the cylindrical Cray supercomputer with its built-in padded bench.
Finding a place to plug in is easy in these parts. ChargePoint says Bay Area stations represent 22 percent of its national network.
Think EVs are expensive? The Cray 1 cost $10 million in the mid-1970s, even as the Atari Pong (its prototype is on display) began to dazzle home users. Steve Wozniak’s first Apple 1 of 1976 nestles inside a wooden box—just $666.66, but with no keyboard, power supply, memory storage, or display.
The advance of computing—first a trickle, then a torrent—remains an inspiring and instructive tale. In nearby San Jose, IBM invented the world’s first disc drive in 1956, seeking to outprocess punch cards, which had dominated data storage since the 1890s. Spinning at 1200 rpm, the 50-tall stack of 24-inch discs is the size of an industrial air-conditioning unit and could store the equivalent of 62,500 punch cards—a whole 5.0 MB, barely enough for one iPod song today.
The Electronic Numeral Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, was the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer. Completed at the Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945, too late for the war effort, ENIAC instead began calculations to build a hydrogen bomb.
By ENIAC’s 50th anniversary in 1995—the year that saw Amazon sell its first book online—students at the Moore School replicated ENIAC at chip scale. Think EV batteries are irredeemably bulky and heavy? Stuffed with nearly 18,000 vacuum tubes, ENIAC was 150 feet long and weighed more than 25 tons. The ’95 version fit on a chip the size of a chocolate square.
Sure, batteries and microprocessors aren’t the same thing. Looking at what Silicon Valley has wrought in a relatively short time, though, betting against technology might not be wise, and to scoff outright at electrification just makes you look like a tool.
Heads stuffed with data, we drive up coastal Highway 1 to scenic Half Moon Bay, stopping at Sam’s Chowder House for one of the best lobster rolls you’ll find anywhere. With the sun setting, clock ticking, and a full battery, it was time for a fast rip to the San Francisco airport. The BMW i3’s top speed is 93 mph, but that’s plenty to hotfoot it past dawdlers.
The airport is also sprinkled with nearly 25 free public chargers, allowing app-using owners to return to an i3 that’s fully fueled, preheated, or precooled.
So what did we learn over our electric weekend? For one, the Bay Area’s charging network is expanding and maturing. Compared with a troublesome Leaf test two years ago, we didn’t encounter a broken or out-of-service charger.
Fair questions about the electric vehicle’s prospects remain, as they do with any nascent technology (most notably range and infrastructure), but one question about the i3 has been definitively answered:
It beats riding the Google bus.
San Francisco Bay Area
Sam’s Chowder House Oyster Bar
Half Moon Bay
Smack lips over Sam’s lobster roll, named by “The Today Show” as one of the five Best Sandwiches in America. Then drop jaws at the gorgeous Pacific views over Half Moon Bay.
Rosewood Sand Hill
The Silicon Valley name is apt at Rosewood Sand Hill, the contemporary hotel where surgically enhanced women, and the men who love them, gather at the Michelin-starred Madera restaurant to venture for capital good times.
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
San Francisco’s literary landmark, co-founded in 1953 by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is one of the great independent bookstores in America, specializing in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics.
Sports cars and motorcyclists flock to Skyline Boulevard (or State Route 35), climbing a ridge of the Santa Cruz to about 3000 feet for spectacular views of Silicon Valley, the Pacific Ocean, and San Francisco Bay.
Looking at what the Valley has wrought in a relatively short time, betting against technology might not be wise, and to outright scoff at electrification just makes
you look like a tool.