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Monday, October 22, 2012

40 Months & 100,000 EV Miles

I picked up my MINI-E on June 12th, 2009. When I handed it back to BMW on January 13th of this year it had 72,531 miles on the odometer. On that day I drove home with my ActiveE and a couple days ago I passed 27,469 miles on my ActiveE. That’s 100,000 all electric miles in a little over 40 months.

My MINI-E & my solar array
So much for “Electric cars aren’t viable” and “Electric cars are an idea whose time has not yet come”. Malarkey. I’ve driven my MINI-E and ActiveE basically every day, and they have satisfied just about all of my driving needs. I’ve proven to myself that an electric car with a 100 mile range fits perfectly into my life. I don’t worry about range anxiety, I don’t worry about it running out of charge of leaving me stranded and I certainly don’t have to worry about stopping at gas stations. The only time I need to do that now is to get a cup of coffee or some air for my tires. I just drive and live my life like I always did, only the driving part in now better!

The concept i3
It’s been a great ride so far and it’s just the beginning. The two cars I’ve been driving aren’t even production EV’s, they are test cars. The real BMW electric cars will be introduced next year with the i3 being the first EV to launch under BMW’s new ‘i’ sub brand. So as good as these cars have been it only gets better from here. I certainly plan to get an i3 as soon as they become available late next year.

Less than a year from getting my MINI-E I installed a rooftop solar array for my home. Solar is a great addition to any home, provided you have the right orientation and exposure. However when you then use the electric the array makes to power your automobile, the synergy and savings is even greater. On a good day my array will generate over 50kWh’s of electricity. That can power my ActiveE for about 175 miles of normal driving. The BMW i3 will be much more efficient than my ActiveE is (as well as faster!) and 50 kWh’s will be enough electricity to power it for about 250 miles! So let’s say I had a comparable gas car that got 25 miles per gallon. One good day of sunshine will displace 10 gallons of gas! That’s about $30 to $40 of gas at today’s prices. How about five years from now? How about ten years from now? Ten gallons may cost $100 or more. It practically cost that now in most of Europe. At $10/gallon it would then cost $40,000 to drive 100,000 miles. You could install a large solar array like I did for less than that and make your own fuel for 25 or 30 years. The best thing is the sun never raises its price – it’s always free.

Energy independence, BMW style!
There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome for mass adoption. Lack of public charging infrastructure, the high cost of lithium ion batteries, The limited range and long charging time of most of today’s ‘affordable’ electric cars. However the biggest hurdle I believe we face today is something that fellow MINI-E and ActiveE driver Peder Norby likes to say, and that is: “The inertia of the status quo, is a powerful foe of progress”. For over 100 years we have been using gasoline to power our automobiles. We have built out a vast network of gasoline refueling stations and people are conditioned to drive for a few days and then fill up and drive for a few days, fill up and repeat the cycle again and again. Even though nobody actually likes buying gas, for some reason they are initially very reluctant to consider something that will allow them to never need to do it again. Plugging in your car to refuel it disrupts the process that they are comfortable with(even if they don’t like it) and whether or not it’s better isn’t the point; it’s different and that’s the problem. Most people don’t like change and will automatically say something like “Oh, that’s not for me” when they are asked about how they feel about electric cars. I know this all too well because I have spent over three years now talking to hundreds, maybe even thousands of people about electric cars. Just about everybody I speak to initially has a very negative view about how a plug car would fit into their life. However after talking to them for a while (at least the ones that are willing to listen) I can see them warm up to the possibility of owning an EV. It doesn’t take much to get them interested once I tell them that I’ve been living with an electric car for three years now and never go to gas stations anymore. I have done this so often that I can tell by the look in their faces the moment they go from “What’s this guy trying to feed me” to “Hey, maybe he’s onto something” I know at that point I’ve overcome the inertia of the status quo in that persons mind and now they are open to really think about plug in cars.
Past & present. I took my MINI-E to check out an ActiveE before I got mine
It didn’t take 100,000 miles to convince me I prefer driving electric. However it’s also important to note that after 100,000 miles I haven’t changed my mind. After the newness of driving an alternative fuel vehicle wore off I didn’t come to my senses and realize I was just kidding myself and that gas cars are indeed better. In fact as time goes on I am more and more convinced that electric drive is superior and it is an inevitable evolution of the automobile. Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Houston, We Have a Problem

Nissan's infamous Polar Bear commercial
Even the most enthusiastic electric vehicle supporters have a hard time staying positive when the monthly sales figures for current electric vehicle offerings are announced. They haven't been good. In fact other than the Chevy Volt which is a plug in hybrid and not a pure electric car, EV sales have been pretty dismal indeed.

This has lead many pundits, especially the ones that lean to the right, to announce the electric car is a flop. "See" they say, "Nobody wants these plug in toys. The tree huggers were wrong!". However I believe you need to look into what is really going on here, rather then assume there isn't demand.

First, the current electric vehicle offerings aren't really that appealing. Other than the Tesla Model S which just launched recently, what EV out there would really get your adrenalin up? Let's look at what the list of electric vehicles currently available in the US:

The Nissan Catfish
The Nissan LEAF: The LEAF was the first mass produced all electric vehicle sold since the latest electric car movement came about and has sold the most all electric cars in the US, totaling about 15,000 units from launch through September of this year (~10,000 in 2011 and 5,212 so far in 2012). The LEAF was touted by Nissan to have a 100 mile range but in reality fell well short of the promise. The EPA rating came in at 73 miles per charge and most LEAF owners say that's just about right, in most conditions. Most conditions doesn't include the winter though. When it gets cold, the LEAF's primitive passive thermal management system really can't effectively keep the batteries warm and the range really suffers. I have a couple friends here in NJ that have LEAF's and they tell me they can barely get 55-60 miles per charge out of it from December to March. That drastically reduces the cars utility. Couple that with the very slow 3.3kW onboard charger and it's no wonder Nissan isn't moving them. Then there's the styling. I know styling is subjective, but I believe the vast majority of people think it's not an attractive car, and many say the front end looks like a catfish! Ask yourself this, if the LEAF looked the way it does and it was a gas car would it be selling well? I'm not so sure. In my opinion, the fact that Nissan over promising and under delivered on range, used a weak onboard charger and made questionable styling decisions are the real reasons the LEAF isn't selling as well as expected. Plus, it's only going to get worse for Nissan now that some LEAF's in hot weather areas are reporting significant premature battery degradation. Nissan's decision to not develop and implement an active thermal management system for the LEAF is starting to look like a serious mistake. All of the other cars mentioned here employ an active thermal management system, although the Mitsubishi i actively cools and heats with air which is less desirable than a liquid based system.

The Ford Focus EV:
Go to Ford's website to build your Focus. You are immediately shown that the gas Focus starts at $16,200 while the electric Focus starts at $39,200. The cars look the same and the electric one is $23,000 more! Is that how you sell electric cars?

Ford just started selling the converted Focus three months ago and through August had only sold 167 of them. They haven't been available everywhere in the US though and that has restricted sales, but clearly there hasn't been much of a demand for them. The base MSRP is $39,200 which is part of the problem. It's over $10,000 more than a fully loaded Focus ST so even after the Federal tax credit it's still about $3,000 more and has less options included. The EPA range rating is 76 miles so it's slightly better than a LEAF, but it does have active thermal management so the battery should perform better in weather extremes and last longer. It can also charge at a respectable 6.6kW's. Overall it's not a bad package if 70 to 80 miles is enough for you, I think most believe it isn't. What is really disappointing is Ford is doing little to nothing to promote it. I have yet to see a commercial, or anything letting know the car even exists. A friend of mine went to a dealer in Clifton, NJ a couple months ago to inquire about it and they had no idea when they would get them or even IF they would get them. He was told he may have to order it sight unseen if he really wanted one because they probably wouldn't be stocking them. I later found out that Ford is now only selling them by order, so they will not be stocked at dealerships. Surprised they aren't selling? I'm not.

The Mitsubishi i: Through August this year Mitsubishi has only sold 403 i's. The i is a very small car, with only a 47-kilowatt motor. It's not very peppy, has a top speed of only 81mph and has an EPA range of 62 miles per charge. In the cold weather, I've heard stories of people only getting 40 or 45 miles per charge, so the i is really a short range city car with very limited utility. Brad Berman of recently wrote of the i "The limited driving range, cargo space, and generally cheap feel of the materials doesn’t seem to be worth the price tag of nearly $30,000" and I agree with that statement. Surprised the i isn't selling? I'm not.

The Tesla Model S. The model S is a beast. It's fast, sexy, charges at a high rate, and has three available levels of range - all better than any other other pure EV available. The problem is, it's expensive and there are doubts that Tesla will have staying power to be around long enough to back their warranty and provide long term service. Even the least expensive Model S is $57,400, and for that you don't even get leather interior or navigation system. Add those options and it's about $65,000. I expect the 40kW S to be rated at about 130 miles of range when the official EPA rating comes out. The 60kWh option is $10,000 more and the 85kWh battery is $20,000 more. There is no mistake it's the best electric vehicle available today, but the price will keep it out of most people's garages. This is the first car Tesla has engineered and built completely in house and they have been struggling since the launch to get production numbers up. They are well behind where they had hoped to be at this point and are basically inspecting every car by hand thoroughly for fit and finish defects as they come off the assembly line. On one hand it's great to hear how meticulous they are being to make sure everything is perfect, but on the other hand they need to get orders filled and cars delivered ASAP. If they don't increase production from a couple cars a day to dozens of cars a day they are going to be in serious financial crunch soon. Tesla hasn't provided monthly sales figures like the major auto manufacturers have, but did say they had delivered only 255 cars through September 23rd. They currently have about 13,000 Model S reservations, so there has been a good demand for the car even though it is quite expensive and that's a ray of hope in the otherwise dismal EV sales figures. This is a great EV and will sell, the question is can Tesla build them fast enough and still maintain the top notch quality expected of cars in this price class? Time will tell.

Yes, It's THIS ugly!
The Chevy Volt: The Volt has been attacked by the media more than any car in history. It's been lambasted and blamed for everything that bad in America. It's been a political football and labeled the Obamacar, even though President Obama has had nothing to do with the Volt's development. Yes, the Obama administration authorized the bailout of General Motors shortly after he took office, but that would have happened no matter who won the Presidency. Had John McCain won, there's no doubt he would have done the same thing. Why then, of all the cars sold by GM is the Volt the Obamacar? Why isn't the Chevy Silverado pick up truck called the Obama car it's also made by "Government Motors"? OK, maybe because the Silverado sells very well, and they picked on the Volt because it hasn't? That can't be true. The Volt has consistently outsold the Chevy Corvette nearly every single month since it's launch and they don't call the Corvette the Obamacar. The fact that the Volt has sold as well as it has under the current conditions is a testament to the fact that it must be a good car. So far GM has sold over 24,019 volts in total. 16,348 of which this year through September with monthly sales on the rise. The volt is a plug in hybrid so it offers less electric range than the other cars mentioned here, but it does have the versatility of the gasoline range extender allowing you to drive as far as you need to, albeit on gasoline. Having the flexibility of a gasoline range extender is attractive to some perspective plug in car buyers, especially if they aren't sure an all electric car can suit their driving needs. I think PHEV's are a good 'gateway drug' to pure electric cars. I have no doubt many Volt owners will transition to pure electrics when they get their next car.

The aliens are coming for your Volt!
Marketing & Selling Electric Cars: Here's where everyone besides Tesla gets a failing grade(and they get no grade because they haven't had to even begin marketing yet). Back when General Motors made and leased the EV-1, the first modern day serious electric car made by a major OEM, they were highly criticized for not really trying to market the car. Some people claimed it was as if they wanted it to fail so they could say "Hey we tried, but nobody wanted them". They made a few commercials and they actually looked eerie, not inspiring or uplifting. Honestly, today's electric cars aren't getting much better support from marketing and sales staff. It's a joke. When Nissan launched the LEAF they aired commercials that showed a polar bear walking from the Arctic all the way to some guys driveway to hug him for buying a LEAF. I guess Nissan is telling you to buy a LEAF to save the polar bears, not because you'll actually like the car. A few months later Chevy had a Volt commercial that they aired during the Super Bowl that had animated aliens in a garage looking at a volt. The owner then came out and tried to explain to the aliens how the volt worked because they couldn't understand it. Really? Polar bears and aliens? People get paid millions of dollars to come up with this stuff. What's going on here? Do you think this gimmicky crap is what sells cars? How about a commercial with pretty girls and handsome guys having fun? How about focusing on the quiet, smooth driving experience and the instant torque of the electric motor? How about a car full of collage age kids driving past a gas station, pointing and laughing at the suckers sitting there while the pump registers $30, then $40 then $50 then $60? Let me say this loud and clear: People want to enjoy their cars, regardless of the fuel used to power them. Electric cars aren't medicine that you have to take because the planet needs you to. They are fun, fast and provide a BETTER driving experience then their gas counterparts and that's why you'll want to buy an electric car, because it's better! You get the environmental, economic and sociopolitical benefits as a bonus, but you buy the car because you enjoy it. You want to sell electric cars, start advertising them for what they are - better cars!

Now that I'm getting warmed up it's time to start really getting critical. As bad as the marketing has been, the sales process is exponentially worse. I'm going to focus on Chevrolet, Ford and Nissan because I don't really have any first hand experience with Mitsubishi and Tesla has to offer good EV customer service because all they sell are electric cars so I assume they will- they can't steer you into a less expensive gas car they have sitting in their showroom. I have even visited a couple Chevy and Nissan dealers to see how customers seeking information on their plug-in offerings were treated and I didn't come away impressed.

Ford isn't even stocking the electric Ford Focus. You have to order one, sight unseen. I haven't been to a Ford dealer to inquire about the FFE, but as I mentioned above a friend of mine did and he was very disappointed in the experience. He certainly wasn't inspired to buy one. Ford is clearly making the FFE for CARB compliance, and is not really interested in selling many of them.

In the Nissan dealers I have visited weren't too bad. They really didn't highly recommend the LEAF, but they also didn't consciously try to steer me into a different vehicle, like I experienced in some Chevy dealerships. They were like "Sure, if it's a LEAF you want we'll be happy to service you." However the client advisers really didn't know much about the it and one even told me it would pretty much go 100 miles per charge regardless of the weather as long as I drove it properly, which it certainly not true. I challenge anyone to drive a LEAF 100 miles on a charge in New Jersey in January - it's not happening - I don't even think you can do 80. Some dealers have a LEAF or two which is good to see them there, but without a couple on hand with different options and colors to choose from it's really hard to say the car has a fair chance.

I have a real problem with what's going on in some Chevy dealerships. It really seems that there are a good number of dealerships that simply don't believe in the car and just don't want to sell them. Last year I convinced an acquaintance who happens to be the former Mayor of a local town, to check out the Volt. He went to a large local dealership and asked if he could see a Volt. He was abruptly greeted with "Why do you want to see one of them?" and then "Where do you plan to plug it in?" He was then shuffled over to look at a Chevy Cruze after he was told "It's basically the same car, except it's half the price and it gets nearly 40mpg" He wasn't even shown a Volt. When he stopped by the restaurant a few days later he said the salesman really discouraged him into looking further into the volt, and even told him he doesn't even know if they will continue making them! I was so pissed I went to the dealership a few days later to see how I would be treated. I had even thought about arming myself with a hidden camera to record how the Volt was being demonized from within but didn't want to get involved and any legal issue if I posted the video on YouTube. I don't know if I had the same salesman, but the approach was similar. I checked online before I went and the dealers website said they had two Volts in stock. When I got there I walked around and couldn't see any. Finally a salesman came outside to meet with me and when I asked if they had any Volts he said yes, he thinks they might have one. We walked inside to try to locate the Volt and he asked if I knew much about it and I responded "a little" but that I heard it's a good car and I like the idea of driving an electric car. He asked his manager and was told yes they do have two Volts, but they were "Out back, and blocked in by a few cars" and "If I really wanted to test drive it then it would take a little while to get them out." I said yes I wanted to and about ten minutes later they brought out a black Volt that had a nice film of dust on it. We got in to go and I noticed the battery was just about completely depleted and only had about 5 miles of range left. The salesman did the best he could to tell me about the car, but honestly he knew next to nothing. He didn't know the charge rate, he didn't know how big the battery was or what kind of batteries were used. I asked him if the batteries GM used had a problem with 'memory effect' and he stared back at me as if I gave him a tough physics equation to tackle. When the range extender came on I remarked that I heard it turn on and he said that was something else because you can't hear the engine. I have driven many volts, GM did do a good job to mute the engine noise, but you can hear it if you are paying attention. Once we got back at the dealership I was quickly shuffled to his desk and asked to fill out a form that included all my personal information. He didn't even offer to find answers to the questions he didn't know. I rejected the form and said I'd like to first talk price and availability. That's when it got interesting. I was told the Volts were selling at sticker price without the option to negotiate and that there were only a few in the area that they could trade for. However they did have other comparable models there that they could 'put me in' for much less and I could drive off the lot in it today. I thanked him for his time and left. I never imagined it would be so hard to buy a car. I visited two other Chevy dealerships to see how I was treated. One was very accommodating and seemed like they would definitely do what they could to get me the Volt I wanted. The other was close to the experience I described above. they had  little interest in helping me, and basically told me a Cruze is a much better choice(not in so many words though). The real problem is I've heard about issues like this from quite a few others. There are some dealers selling a lot of Volts and really are enthusiastic about them, while others in the same area, with the same demographics sell little to none. Why is that? Is it all training? Does it go deeper? Is it a continuation of the political stance some people have on electric cars, that they are a bad idea forced down our throats by an administration that wants to tell you what is good for you? I'm not sure, but it does seem some dealerships are OK with allowing their client advisers to 'advise' their customers look at other models.

Here's an amazing story. Mike Kelly is a Republican Congressman in Pennsylvania. He also owns a Chevy dealership(that was handed to him by his father). He refuses to sell Volts. In fact he fired an employee that works for him because he ordered one from Chevy because he was told by GM that the dealership had to stock at least one Volt. When Mr Kelly found out that he ordered the car he fired him because he refuses to stock or sell Volts, even if a customer comes in and wants one! C'mon, how does Chevy expect sell Volts if this is going on? I am actually surprised the Volt is selling as well as it is since it's under constant assault from much of the media and even has to endure friendly fire from some Chevy dealers. Read about it here.

Alysha Webb recently wrote on "Getting dealers on the Volt’s side is crucial. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entitled “Policy Priorities for Advancing the U.S. Electric Vehicle Market” recommended using dealers as marketers and advocates to boost electric vehicle sales" There are a lot of very experienced electric car owners and advocates out there, how about enlisting some of us to be part of the solution? Whatever the formula, something need to be done to get the manufacturers, the marketing departments and the dealers on the same page and supporting their plug-in offerings. I haven't seen anybody even come close to doing it right so far. Will BMW? I don't really know. I'd like to think they are smart enough to see what has been going on and realize they need to do better. When they launch the i brand next year they have an opportunity to be the first major OEM to really do it right. They can seize the public's interest (there is interest in plug-in cars) in these cars, help the consumer understand the differences, the advantages and the shortcomings of these cars. The key is to have the information accessible, and have a sales force ready to respond to the challenges unique to living with a plug in car. Most people don't know what BEV, PHEV, PEV, EREV, REx and HEV even mean, let alone the differences, and that's just the start. Where can I plug in? How much does it cost in electricity? What do I do if I run out? How will the weather effect the range? Can I charge if it's raining? How about snowing? These are the simple questions that everybody asks and there are a lot more, but surprisingly even these softballs can't be properly answered by some Chevy and Nissan salesmen. Preparing the client advisers, giving them the tools to instill confidence in their clients is paramount. If the prospective customer isn't 100% sure their adviser knows what they are talking about and can help them with every issue they may face then they aren't going to feel comfortable buying a plug-in car. It takes a leap of faith to buy your first plug in car and the customer needs to be nurtured a bit so they feel they are making the right decision.

Still surprised plug in sales haven't lived up to the hype? I don't know why you would be. Somebody, at some point is going to figure this out. Hopefully sooner than later.