Monday, September 28, 2009

The devil is in the infrastructure

If you talk to most people about EVs and ask them why they think there aren't really any available to purchase (unless you have $110,000 for a 2 two seat Tesla) chances are you'll get answers like, "Battery technology isn't there yet" or "Because big oil has spent tens of millions of dollars to keep them from being made available" or even "EVs require such little maintenance that auto manufacturers won't make them because they'll lose so much money on repairs." Over the past few years I have had a lot of conversations with friends and acquaintances on the very subject so I know what people think. Personally, I think all of those reasons have some degree of legitimacy, but having now been part of the MINI-E program I realize that perhaps the biggest hurdle is the infrastructure. MINI is struggling with different state and local electric codes and getting chargers installed for all of the participants has been more difficult than they anticipated. The auto manufacturers know this is going to be a big issue and require a lot of time and resources. This is going to add to the already high cost of making EVs because of the high cost of the batteries. Last week I posted about how New Jersey in particular has been a tough state for MINI to get the chargers approved for use in. It's such a new industry that I think some of the inspectors are being overly cautious when they inspect the chargers. In reality, the chargers are really not much more than a 220V outlet like you already have in your home for an electric range of clothes dryer. All the electronics that control the charging are built into the car. This is just one aspect of the infrastructure challenges the auto manufacturers will face as they develop and manufacturer EVs

Last week, at the California Air Resources Board's 2009 ZEV Technology Symposium, Richard Steinberg the MINI-E program manager made a presentation that detailed the program. Richard spent a lot of time on infrastructure issues, and one of the most telling lines of the presentation was "BMW/MINI is in the car business; BEVs placed us in the infrastructure business." Talk about leaving your comfort zone! The presentation talks about how quickly the program moved along. BMW only started talking about making a MINI-E in the Spring of 2008. They engineered, built and shipped 500 electric MINI-Es in less than 12 months! Clearly making the cars is not the big problem, it's going to be charging them. I do give BMW a lot of credit now, more than I initially did. Nobody else has put an EV on the road for real world testing since GM's EV1 and Toyota's RAV4 EV, and both of those projects ended quickly without the manufacturers committing to continue EV production. BMW has created the Project i program with the sole purpose of building and selling EVs. The MINI-E is the beginning, not the end, as was the case with the EV1 and the RAV4.

The good news is that BMW isn't going at it alone. Just about all of the major auto manufacturers are working on EVs and while they won't be sharing secrets about the cars they plan to produce, they are working together on Infrastructure Standardization. Public charging stations will need to be usable by all EVs and have 220V and 110V capabilities. Issues like should the chargers have an attached cable or should the cable be portable and carried in the car? Recently it was announced that
SAE standard J1772 plug would be used as the industry standard, but it doesn't seem like all the auto manufacturers are on board with that decision and discussions are ongoing.

As with all new technologies, there is a learning curve and a tremendous amount of time and investment needed in the very beginning. I'm sure BMW didn't think this would be a walk in the park, and I don't think they started Project i only to terminate the program before they bring EVs to the market for sale. I do hope they see the amount of interest the MINI-E program is generating and realize most us in the trial lease program understand it will be a difficult process to develop the necessary infrastructure to make BEVs a viable option for the masses. Just like the manufacturers will have hurdles, the people who buy the first round of EVs available for sale in the next few years will have difficulty finding places to charge. That being said, I think there are enough people willing to deal with the inconveniences that will exist, to provide the demand for these vehicles, providing manufacturers the need to continue to invest in them. Just about everyone I meet and talk to about the car asks me when will they be able to buy an EV. I'm certain there is a tremendous market for EVs out there just waiting for some manufacturer to mass produce them and offer them for sale (no more closed ended leases!). The infrastructure problems will be sorted out in time and BMW will have a head start from the information gathered from the MINI-E program. I just hope it doesn't take too long. After my short while driving this car I know I don't want to go back to an ICE, and I won't if there is an electric option when my time with the MINI- E is up. I'll deal with the lack of available chargers, just sell me the car.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gotta Love Jersey

Well my second wall charger seems to be put on hold until the State of NJ can figure out what it wants to do about the UL listing issue with the wall chargers. Last month I wrote that my wall charger at my house failed inspection because the two components of the charger, the wall box and the cable, were tested and approved by Underwriters Laboratory separately and some of the local inspectors were failing the units because of this technicality. Both items passed inspection and have UL approval, but I guess when you attach the cable to the box, it somehow becomes less safe. I know that UL testing is necessary. I can only imagine the dangerous junk that would be sold if there wasn't an entity to oversee and test electronic devices before they can be used by the public, but I think in this case the inspectors are being too strict.

There are nearly 500 MINI-E's on the roads of California, New York and New Jersey, and only in New Jersey is MINI and Clean Fuel Connections (the company MINI contracted to do the charger installations) having such extraordinary difficulties. The latest news is that they are requiring UL field inspections in addition to the regular municipality inspectors, and forcing MINI to replace the wall boxes previously installed with new boxes that have a UL sticker on them. Mind you, they are the SAME boxes as the ones they are replacing and using the SAME cables. The only difference is the cable (3 wires) is being attached at the factory, instead of having the licensed, NJ electrical contractor attach it at the time of the installation, unbelievable. New York and California inspectors have passed just about all the units, but here in NJ less than half of the installed wall chargers have passed.

It's really no wonder though. New Jersey is the land of corruption and payoffs. Rarely do we go a year without a major politician involved is some scandal involving "pay to play" politics. I guess MINI just didn't grease the right palms. MINI executives are now calling the fiasco "The New Jersey Problem." Way to go Garden State! Where's Tony Soprano when you need him? He'd make this little problem go away with a phone call!
Click the link below to read more about the charge box UL problems in NJ.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Turning Up The Heat

Now that the summer is gone and temperatures are dropping here in New Jersey one question is on the minds of the East Coast MINI-E drivers: How much energy will the heaters in our cars consume and how will it effect our range? Now I know the California pioneers are snickering at us here in NJ & NY as this will not be a concern for them, but we will have to live with a reduced range here, there's no way around it. I believe this is the reason MINI decided to bring the program to the East Coast instead of just California like most EV programs are limited to. I think this fact alone proves MINI/BMW really is serious about this field trial and wants to collect as much data possible. It would have been much easier for them to run this program in CA only, but they would not get the cold weather data that they will now. I have used the heater a couple times already in the past two weeks and I was actually quite worried with the results. It seemed that my range was really taking a beating (15-20%!) from using the heater. I say "seemed" because it was a very small sample and done completely unscientifically, with many other uncontrolled variables like speed and driving conditions. Plus, the range indicator in the car really isn't close to being exact, and the faster you drive the less accurate it gets. Only after you slow down or stop for a while do you get an accurate reading. I was using the heater while I was driving 65+mph driving home at night and watched the charge meter drop like a rock and that worried me so I decided to do some testing in a controlled environment. The past three days I charged the car to 100% and then turned it on and put on the heat. I first set the heat control to the highest setting. Then I turned the fan to the highest setting for 10 minutes to simulate the initial warm up period and then lowered the fan to the lowest setting which should be how I use it most of the time. The cabin is so small the lowest setting should be all I need to maintain a warm environment. I then let it run for an additional one hour and fifty minutes. I usually drive for about two hours a day so this should be close to the energy use I will incur, except for the fact that I will have multiple "warm up" periods that may use some more energy. After the three day test the results were pretty consistent. Twice I finished with 91% charge remaining and the other time I had 92%. This experiment made me feel a lot better about the using the heater. The test shows I can expect an 8% to 9% reduction in range if I use the heater 100% of the time which I suppose won't be the case on most days. Plus, I won't have the heat setting to the highest level as I did for the testing. The only other wild card will be how the batteries react to the frigid weather we can have here in New Jersey. What will happen when it's 10 degrees outside with a wind chill below zero? I can't simulate those conditions in my garage so I guess I'll have to wait and see. You'll be the first to know.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Is this what we're working on?

From the onset we were told that MINI is not going to sell the MINI-E, and that the purpose of the program is to test the components of the vehicle to be used in a future electric BMW. Nothing has been officially announced, but there has been plenty of talk about what this vehicle might look like. Above is just an artist's rendition of what the car might look like, and I for one hope the artist is way off. That thing is UGLY! I know the importance of aerodynamics especially for EVs, but the car still needs to look good for it to sell. I don't expect BMW to put out anything like that.

Nathalie Bauthers, a spokesperson for BMW says: "The MINI-E will play a significant role in the derivation of forthcoming strategic and technological decisions. In talking about their experience with the MINI-E, customers will be helping MINI and the BMW Group determine the viability of electric vehicles in big cities. The MINI-E is just one example of what the BMW Group is doing to develop future mobility concepts that are efficient and help reduce our impact on the environment and our dependence on foreign oil.," she says. "MINI-E is the first product of BMW’s project i (i stands for international, intelligent and innovative) – a program designed to research and develop transportation strategies and new types of vehicles specifically to meet the needs of the world’s growing mega-cities."

Hopefully, we will get something from BMW soon to give us an idea of what this mystery car will look like. I will definitely consider buying one if it looks good and is functional (4 seats). So far, I have very little complaints about the drivetrain of my MINI-E and BMW shouldn't have to change too much to use it in their car. Who knows, maybe MINI will put out an all electric version of their new coupe they just announced this week. Either way, I'm looking forward to having the option of electric drive when I buy my next vehicle, hopefully BMW will make my decision an easy one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Three months down

It's hard to believe that a quarter of the year I have with the MINI-E has already passed. I have driven 7,200 zero emission miles, a little less than I expected to drive in that time, but that is because I didn't have a 220V wall charger for the first month and could only drive the car every two or three days. I had expected to put about 35,000 miles on the car this year and now I think I'll finish with around 30,000 -32,000. Being in the program is expensive as it costs $850.00 per month to lease the car so I planned on using the car as much as possible. I should have my second wall charger installed at my restaurant soon, so I'll now be able to drive as much as I want without the worry of having enough juice to make the 32 mile drive home at night. Since my home to work round trip is about 64 miles, I really only had 40-50 miles of extra driving range during the day and sometimes it wasn't enough. Now, I'll be able to drive the 32 miles to work (more when I make some stops along the way), then plug in & top off when I get there. I'll then have a range of 100+ miles before I go back to the office where I can top off if necessary to drive the 32 miles home. I will now have a range of up to 200 miles a day which is way more than I'll need 99% of the time. This will also ease my concerns about the effect cold weather will have on the batteries. I know the range is going to suffer from the use of the heater, and in really cold temperatures the batteries will undoubtedly be affected. Having the 60amp wall box at work will guarantee I can get home, no matter how cold it gets. I can even pre heat the car while it's charging and leave with a warm car and 100% charge. I want to thank MINI & Marian Hawryluk in particular for making this happen. I'm sure the participants who are getting additional wall chargers like me will put them to good use. Until there are public charging stations in convenient locations EVs drivers will struggle to feel confident about their range. However I do think there are enough people who are passionate enough to overcome the lack of chargers for the first few years of EV deployment. One unexpected benifit I have had since I've become involved in this program, is I have had the opportunity to meet, both in person and online, many great people that are EV advocates. There are more of them than I thought and these people can't wait for an affordable EV with a decent range (100+ miles) to be available to purchase. I get emails from people from all over the world who have read this blog and either had questions for me or just wanted to tell me they read the blog and can't wait until they can buy an EV. With the advancements in battery technology and the huge amounts of money currently being invested in the industry, we will not have to wait long. Nissan is the first automaker to announce that they will mass produce a 100% BEV, the Leaf and it has sent shockwaves across the industry. They plan to produce 300,000 Leafs annually by 2012. No other major automaker has announced production plans nearly as aggressive. The big question for me is what does BMW have planned? They have invested a lot of money and time in the MINI-E program. They must plan to use the information they gain from me and the other 499 MINI-Es for something. Personally, I'd like to see a small 4 door sedan with a 150 mile range, but after 3 months with the MINI-E, I'd probably buy anything that doesn't require gasoline. One thing's for sure, I'm not going to be happy when MINI asks for the car back. I still think (hope) they will offer some of the participants (me) the option to keep the car for an extended period. What will they do with the 500 cars? They can't just take them apart and crush them like GM did. That was (and still is) a PR nightmare for GM. MINI won't make the same mistake, I'm sure they have something planned for continued real world testing. One thing is for sure, whether it's the MINI-E or another EV, I'll be driving an electric car. I love the feel of the electric motor, the quietness, the smooth acceleration, the fact that I'm not polluting as I drive, the fact that I don't have to stop to buy gas at all and the fact that I'm not giving my hard earned money to the big oil cartels. Three months down already? Time does fly when you're having fun.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The emblems make a BIG difference

I was planning on taking a few weeks to see if the new emblems I put on the car made more people notice before I commented but that won't be necessary. In less than two weeks I have had about ten people ask me about the car or wave and give a thumbs up while driving. Just this morning as I drove around the "Green" in Morristown center, I had a nice encounter with a gentleman in a Volvo as we drove and stopped at three consecutive traffic lights next to each other. He started of with the usual "Is that a hybrid or all electric?" After I told him, he immediately followed with, "Where can I get one?" I hate to have to be the one to tell people that they can't buy one. They seem so excited when they see a 100% electric car on the road, no less a "cool" MINI Cooper, and then I have to hit them with, "They are not for sale, sorry, it's a pilot program." Our conversation continued as we were stuck in morning rush hour traffic and our cars were side by side creeping along. "How do you like it?  How far can it go? How long does it take to charge? How much does it cost in electric to charge it?" We talked for a bit and then he asked a question that nobody has asked me yet, and it caught me off guard a little. He said, "You know they could have been building electric cars for a long time now, why do you think they'll ever really commit to producing these when we've been asking for them for years now?" He was right. Auto manufacturers could have been building electric cars for a long time now. There were electric Model Ts in the 20s for God's sake. Why now, why after all this time will the auto manufacturers decide to invest in the greatest change the industry has ever faced? Well I think they will, and here's why: First, battery technology is getting better and better at a faster rate than it ever has in the past. You can thank laptop computers and other PEDs for that. Second, nobody likes to be beaten at their own game and the auto manufacturers saw new upstart car companies like Tesla, Fisker, Aptera and others on the verge of putting electric vehicles on the road and the huge public interest they were generating. They may not have wanted to get into the BEV business, but now they HAVE to, or lose market share. Thirdly, last year's outrageously high oil prices were painful, but they helped to raise awareness about just how dependent we are on foreign oil and how the giant oil cartels can cripple our economy if they choose to do so. OPEC is no friend to the United States and more and more people are realizing that and want to do something about it. Even if that means paying a premium for an electric car and living with a limited driving range, more people are willing to make concessions now than ever before. I've had this car for three months now and yes, I've had to make adjustments. I previously never had to think about where I was going the next day to make sure it was within my range. With my other cars that thought never crossed my mind, but now it does. I have only had to take my other car twice so far because I knew I'd be traveling over 120 miles the next day so it's not often, but if it were my only car it would be a problem. There are still a lot of obstacles to overcome, but I do think the genie is finally out of the bottle. Nissan has announced they plan to mass produce an electric vehicle, the LEAF, starting next year, Tesla has their second model, the Type S in early production, Chevy will have its plug-in hybrid, the Volt on the road next year and many other manufacturers have announced they will release an EV in the next few years. Once the public gets a chance to drive these cars as I have they will be hooked, I guarantee it. Hopefully they will have emblems that proudly announce "Electric" on the cars, it would be a shame if they made the same mistake that MINI did.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What MINI should have done

MINI did a great job with the MINI-E. This car wasn't designed to be an EV, but they managed to remove the ICE and powertrain and replace it with the battery pack, motor and the electronics necessary to convert the car to what it is. It's a fun car to drive, has great acceleration and handling and has a pretty good range as far as EVs go, with 100 to 120 miles of real world driving. The one thing MINI failed to do properly is label the car so most people who look at it know it's an electric vehicle. This has been a point discussed by many of the people in the program, as they are a bit disappointed that most people who see the car don't really know what they are looking at. MINIs are notorious for all kinds of graphics. You can order your car with many different themes from the Union Jack flag across the roof to about 20 different style rear view mirrors so the plug emblems on the MINI-E just don't stand out enough to make someone look twice at the car. Nothing really screams "Electric car here!" I think many of the people driving the cars like I am, are looking for ways to show off what we have. Part of being in the program is to show others that electric cars can be daily driving vehicles, that they can be fast & fun to drive. That's not going to happen if the cars go unnoticed. Many in the program have ordered custom license plate holders that say "100% Electric" or "No tailpipe & No Emissions."  Others are ordering chrome emblems like I did (see pictures above). There are a lot places on the internet to get custom car emblems, but many like me ordered them from a company called Third Planet Energy. They offer a variety different styles and phrases centered around electric cars and biodiesel, but can make custom phrases if you desire. So it cost me about $120.00 to do what MINI should have. They built a fantastic zero emission car but somehow forgot to announce it to the world. The experience of driving the car is worth the few extra bucks, plus I'm curious to see how many more people notice the car now and ask me about it. In the three months I've had the car I've driven it over 6,000 miles and only about a dozen people (who didn't read about me in the newspaper) stopped me to ask if the car was a hybrid or electric, let's see if the emblems make a difference.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

MINI offering 2nd wall chargers while suppiles last!

Last Friday I received an email from MINI USA that said they have a few extra wall chargers available for participants who might want them. I responded immediately so I could get my request in before the allotment was all gone. Even better, most of the extra chargers they have are the 50amp ones, the chargers that mostly went to the MINI dealerships. Most people in the program have 40amp chargers at their homes, as I do. The extra 10amps will make charging even faster, cutting down a complete charge from about 4 hours to under 3. I plan on installing it at my restaurant in Montclair near the rear door where I can pull right up to it. I will also make it known that if any of the other MINI-E drivers need a charge and are in the area they can stop by and "fill up" for free anytime we are open, which is 7 days a week 11 or 12 hours a day, depending on the day. I asked Marian from MINI about the availability of secondary chargers at the East Coast meet up we had, and she told me that they were working on it at the time but couldn't promise anything. I guess MINI realized that it would only enhance the program if they could place more chargers in the areas where the cars are. Until public charging stations are readily available, convenient charging will be a major hurdle for electric cars. Currently there are companies out there now planning the infrastructure for locations of charging stations since so many auto manufacturers have EVs in development stages, but they are still a long way from mass deployment. It's kind of a chicken or the egg situation. Electric cars need public charging stations to become mainstream, but it's difficult to invest tons of money into charging stations if there aren't enough cars that need them. I believe that once electric cars begin to appear in greater numbers, franchises like McDonald's that have parking lots will install a couple chargers with dedicated parking spaces for them. They could charge you $5.00 to park in the spot and charge your car, plus they know you are probably going to eat at their restaurant to kill the 45 minutes or so you'll need to charge up on their high powered charger. This would be a quick way to get thousands of public chargers available quickly and paid for by private enterprise, not tax dollars. If you drove an EV and you knew that every franchise had chargers in their lot you could easily take trips much further than the range of your car's batteries without the worry of getting stranded. The car could have a built in GPS with charger locations programmed in just like current GPSs have restaurants, banks, airports, etc pre-programmed. Well, that's all future talk. I'm happy that I'll be getting my 2nd charger now. It will allow me to drive this awesome car even more than I currently am, and that's a good thing.