Friday, November 28, 2014

BMW i Flexible Mobility Program Launches in the US

This picture, captured from BMW's website shows an i3 owner using the Flexible Mobility program and borrowing a gasoline BMW, presumably for a long distance family trip.

Nearly two years ago, BMW announced they would be offering gasoline loaner cars to i3 customers for the occasional long trip they may need to take. These long trips of perhaps hundreds of miles would be difficult or impossible to negotiate with their limited range i3, which has an EPA range rating of 81 miles per charge.

While this sounded like a great idea, many people wondered how it would be implemented in the US. There are strict laws here in the US that prohibit manufacturers from demanding the independently owned dealerships from offering services that they don't want to. Of course, if BMW of North America wanted to subsidize the whole program, then most all dealers would probably join in and offer the loaner vehicles; but that being highly unlikely since it would be very expensive. It was assumed that BMW and the dealerships would share expenses of the program, but until now there has been no information on how that would play out. The i3 has been available in the US for about six months, and there hasn't been any official word about the program which has caused i3 customers to ask a lot of questions about it:  Will there be a charge for this service? Will the customer have a choice of vehicles for different kinds of road trips? What would be the limit of days allowed per year? Would the customer be guaranteed a BMW loaner vehicle? And most importantly: When will it start?

Well in case you missed it, the BMW i Flexible Mobility program launched in October - it's just that nobody noticed, and there are two main reasons for that. First, BMW of North America didn't make any big announcement about it, like they did when the idea was first conceived back in 2013. Secondly, many BMW dealers do not like the terms of the program that BMW NA is using, saying it's to onerous on them, so they are simply not participating. I do not know the percentage of dealers that are participating, but one BMW dealership contact told me he doesn't expect many dealers to agree to offer the service unless they are extremely high volume locations with many i3 customers.

One of the problems is the subsidy structure includes a minimum of 10 days of loaner service per month per vehicle or BMW will not reimburse the dealership the $600 per month for the vehicle. Therefore, if not enough i3 customers call for use of the loaner cars, the dealership gets no monthly reimbursement.  Additionally, these vehicles cannot be used as a regular service loaner car. They have to be kept separate from the dealers' loaner fleet and only used only for i3 customers who need the Flexible Mobility Program. The vehicles must be new and can only be in service for one year, at which time they must be replaced with another new vehicle. If each vehicle doesn't have at least ten days of service in a calendar month the dealer gets no reimbursement for that month and extra days in service cannot be carried over to the next month. Dealers can receive the $600 per month subsidy for a maximum of five dedicated vehicles in their fleet reserved for the Flexible Mobility program.

Customers can use this program at any BMW i dealership that is participating, they don't have to use the dealership where they purchased the vehicle. Since dealerships are only reimbursed if the vehicles are in service for at least ten days, it makes sense that any participating dealership would welcome all BMW i3 owners who want to use the service at their dealership, as it would help them hit their minimum of ten days of loaner service.

Another requirement is the dealership must also participate in the i3 extended test drive program. This really doesn't have anything to do with the Flexible Mobility service, it's just another way for BMW to try to get all of their dealers to offer the extended test drive. BMW recommends that the dealers offer the service to i3 owners for a maximum of fourteen days per year, but they are leaving it up to the dealers to make that decision. My guess is that until there are a lot of i3s on the road, many of the participating dealers will basically allow i3 owners to use the vehicles as much as they want to, since it will help them hit their ten day minimum and collect the $600 monthly subsidy.

Judging from the feedback I have gotten from a few local dealers, I don't think the take rate is going to be very high on this program, at least not until there are a lot more i3s on the roads whose owners may need to use this service. So what happens if there aren't any BMW dealers in your area that agree to participate? BMW evidently realized that may be a problem, so they have a plan B which is still in the final phases of planning and will be available very soon. BMW is penning a deal with a national car rental company which will allow i3 owners to rent cars at special discounted rates. Not free, not a BMW and not exactly what was promised I'm afraid.

So if you currently own an i3 and could possibly have a need for the service, call your dealer and ask if they are participating in the Flexible Mobility Program for i3 owners. If they aren't, call around to other local dealers and you may find one that is. At this time BMW isn't publishing a list of participating dealerships, but hopefully in time that will be available. If you are thinking about buying an i3 and this service is important to you, make sure you ask your dealer if they are offering it before you buy.

Friday, November 14, 2014

BMW i3 Tires: Get Ready For Winter!

The aggressive tread and the specialized rubber compound of Bridgestone Blizzaks should help me get through all the bad weather this winter brings
I live in Northern New Jersey and we can get some pretty bad weather in the winter. The temperatures in January and February are routinely in the 20s (Fahrenheit) and can even dip down below zero from time to time. At those temperatures, you really should have dedicated winter tires for proper traction, even if the roads aren't always snow covered. In fact, most tire experts recommend that you buy dedicated winter tires instead using all-season tires if the average temperatures where you live are below 45 degrees in the winter.
The Rial X10-I that fit the i3 come in the bright silver pictured here, and also painted black.

That's not a plot to get you to spend more money on tires that you really don't need as I've seen some people contend. Winter tires are specifically made for use in cold weather and will definitely outperform all-season tires in cold conditions. The rubber compounds used in winter tires are completely different than what is used in summer or all season tires. Winter tires are designed so that they become stiffer on the inside of the tire, and more flexible on the outside to provide better grip at lower temperatures. They also have stronger bead construction to resist the multiple mounting and dismounting because winter tires are often mounted and dismounted every year, unlike regular tires that quite often stay mounted on the wheel their entire life.  Non winter tires become stiff and lose traction, which increases the chance of the vehicle losing control and skidding.
I'm liking the new look!
Snow chains are also available for the i3
In my case I absolutely needed to get winter tires because I ordered my i3 with the 20" Sport wheels. The tires that come with these wheels are summer tires which mean they are not recommend for cold weather use. The three 19" wheel options for the i3 all come with all-season tires and if you don't live in a really cold area, you can live with all-season tires year round. To complicate things even more, there are no winter tire options for the 20" Sport wheels of the i3. Since there are no other cars that have such tall, skinny wheels as the i3, Bridgestone only made winter tires for the 19" wheel options. Therefore, anyone who has the optional 20" Sport wheels and needs to get winter tires, needs to buy a set of 19" wheels as well. BMW sells a package that uses the base model i3 wheels (#427) and the Bridgestone Blizzak 19" winter tires. However, I opted to buy aftermarket wheels made by Rial, and the Blizzak tires from the Tire Rack. I like the look of the Rial wheels, and I also like that they are different from the stock wheels, giving my car a more custom look. I was actually a little surprised when I found out the Tire Rack was going to offer aftermarket wheels for the i3. Since the i3's wheel sizes are so different from anything used on any other car available today, I didn't think aftermarket wheels would be available so soon. 
The Rial wheels bow out in the center. Not good for preventing curb rash or aerodynamics.

I'm sure I'll take a range hit from this modification, but how much I'm not quite sure. The aggressive tread and softer rubber will increase rolling resistance so that alone will make a difference. The weight will also be a factor. The Rial wheels with the Blizzak tires weigh 39.2 lbs, while my 20" Sport wheels with the Ecopia EP500s weigh only 36.2 lbs. Three lbs per wheel might not seem like too much, but it actually will make a difference in the car's electric range. Finally, these wheels aren't nearly as aerodynamic as the stock wheels so I'm sure my drag coefficient just went up. BMW spent a lot of energy designing wheels that are good looking, lightweight and are aerodynamic. These Rial wheels appear not to have taken any of that into consideration when they were designed. The large openings between the spokes are begging for increased wind resistance, and to make matters worse, they aren't even flush with the rims, the center of the wheels actually bows outward and will clearly increase drag. I'm really not worried about this though because safety in the winter, and being able to negotiate the snow covered roads of Northern New Jersey are my primary concerns. Plus, I have the range extender so if my efficiency is reduced by 6 or 7 miles per charge, I'll still be able to get to wherever I need to go without worrying about running out of juice. Bring it on!

I'm happy to report the i3's hatch will indeed fit a set of wheels/tires if you need to transport them to your dealer or tire shop to install them.
My old MINI-E did pretty well in the snow. The front wheel drive and winter tires worked really well, better than my ActiveE in fact. I'm anxious to see how the i3 does, but I'm optimistic it will do well. The thin tires will help, as they will cut through the snow instead of riding on top of it. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lexus Video Attacks the i3. Uses Photoshop to Hide the Truth?

Well I guess you can't blame them for trying. Desperate times call for desperate measures, they say. Lexus is at it again with their anti-EV advertising and this time they made a direct attack on the BMW i3. Still it's a little surprising that they seem so obsessed with pointing out why you don't want to buy an EV, instead of telling you why you would want to buy one of their hybrids. It seem to me that it's kind of like when a politician has nothing good to say about themselves, so they run their entire campaign on spreading FUD about their opponent. Let me recap what has led up to this latest attack.

Back in May Lexus put out some questionable information and videos on their consumer website that was highly criticized for having incorrect content regarding electric vehicles. In fact the information was so outdated and incorrect that it brought about a response from Plug In America:

Hey, Toyota, the 1990s called. They want their outdated anti-EV attack ad back. Plug-in electric vehicles charge while you're sleeping at home, far more convenient than making a trip to a gas station and coming away smelling like carcinogens. Driving on electricity costs about one fifth what it costs to drive the average gas car and about a third what it costs to drive the most efficient hybrid. An electric drive has smooth, instant acceleration which can't be matched by any gasoline engine. If you don't believe me, just ask anyone driving a Toyota RAV4 EV.  (disclosure: I am currently a board member of Plug In America)
Lexus got the message and a company spokesman pulled the incorrect information from their website and issued an apology. However about four months later they ran an ad that showed a lonely EV charging station, alone in a dark parking lot with the 8 steps to driving electric:
1) Closely monitor charge status
2) Turn off A/C and radio to conserve power
3) Download app to locate charging stations
4) Get lost searching for charger
5) Experience surge in range anxiety
6) Finally find charger
7) Plug in and wait four hours
8) Repeat

OK, so after it was clear this was a full-on mudslinging campaign, and certainly an indication Lexus was worried about the pressure they were getting from their electric competition. So now they put out this five minute long video, aimed at showing how miserable it would be to take a BMW i3 on a long drive. I'm not arguing the fact that the i3 isn't the perfect road trip vehicle, and using the BEV version would make a 300+ mile trip an adventure of sorts, especially today without the availability of DC quick charge stations. However it's kind of silly to think someone would head off into the desert on a 302 mile trip with an 81 mile EV without thinking about it first. That would be like taking a smart car on a fishing trip up a dirt-road mountain, knowing you have to cross a few streams and rocky passes along the way. Horses for courses, they say. In any event, yes we know the BEV i3 would take a long time to make this 302 mile trip, but how about if the i3 they used had the optional range extender?
It's very hard to see in this screen shot, but the outline of the top of the gas filler door is right behind the guy on the right, about waist high. If you watch the video and pause it at the 4.23 mark, you can see it better.

 *Hat tip to Inside EVs reader Martin B. He was the first one to notice the outline of the gas filler door in the video.

While it still wouldn't be the perfect vehicle for this type of trip, the i3 REx  could have done it much faster than the BEV i3. Yes, they would have had to stop five times to fill up the tiny gas tank, but since it's so small, it only takes about two minutes total (I've timed it!) for a gas station pit stop. So figure about 10 to 20 minutes added to the trip as compared to the Lexus hybrid. However as depicted in the video they took a BEV i3 by mistake, not knowing they'd have to stop to plug it in right? Maybe not. If you watch the video very closely, at the 4.23 mark for a brief moment you can see the top edge of the gas filler door just as one of the actors moves. So Lexus actually used an i3 REx for at least this scene and perhaps the entire video. Could they have used multiple i3's or did they photoshop out the gas filler door for most of the video, but missed it on this one brief scene. To me, that makes it so much more egregious. If the car they were driving in the video actually could have done that road trip without any issue, and Lexus lied about its capabilities, photoshopped out the evidence and presented it as incapable of making the trip in a reasonable time frame then they should be taken to task.
In this picture you can also see the corner of the gas filler door. It is difficult to see here in this low-res picture but when enlarged the corner of the filler door is clear to see.
While Lexus has indeed been spreading electric vehicle FUD for a while now, this is definitely a step up in intensity. Perhaps they took a look at October's sales data and realized for the first time since its launch six months ago, the BMW i3 outsold the CT-200h in the US. How could such a crippled, limited-range car that costs $10,000 more than their hybrid outsell it? Could Toyota actually have been wrong about EV's? Do people actually want them? Whatever the case it's clear Toyota is very concerned and has resorted to scare tactics in an attempt to steer people from buying EV's and lead them to their hybrids. Good luck with that Toyota.

One last comment. I've owned seven Toyotas in my life, and currently own a 1999 Tacoma which I use to plow my driveway and parking lot, and haul large items for my restaurant. However I'm done with them. I can't support a company that has such an anti electric vehicle stance as they do, going as far as lying about them and continuously reciting the rhetoric that nobody wants them. So I have this question for Toyota: If nobody wants them, why are they outselling your hybrids?

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
-Mahatma Gandhi

BMW Initiates "Light and Charge" Pilot Program

It seems BMW has been busy developing new ways to charge your i3 or i8 lately. A few months ago I posted information on BMWs new low cost DC Fast charger and I just got word from an i3 owner in California that the first one is already up and will soon be ready for use at Crevier BMW in Santa Ana, California.
A member of the i3 Facebook group posted this picture from Crevier BMW. BMW's new DC fast charge station has just recently been installed there.

The latest news out of Munich is BMW's "Light the Charge" program. BMW has developed LED streetlights that also have built in charging stations. They already have a couple of them in place outside their Munich headquarters, and will soon begin installing them around the city of Munich for a pilot program. The units will be networked and allow the customer to pay with a credit card or by swiping an RFID card from a partner charging network provider. In the US, BMW's charging partner for ChargeNow is ChargePoint.
The European version of BMW's light pole charging station. In Europe, the EV driver carries the cable that plugs into their car as well as the EVSE. Here in the US, the cable is permanently tethered to the EVSE.

The obvious issue with adding charging stations to light poles is available capacity. Will the utilities have to pull new wires to accommodate the added demand or are they already over sized and can handle the additional load? In Europe the standard electrical supply is 230v so there is already more available power than we have here in the US where the basic household supply is 120v. I'd imagine most light poles here are typically 120v, but I'm not 100% certain about that. Pulling new wires and upgrading the lights could prove very costly, more so than even installing stand along charging stations, but I could see how using these on new light pole installations would work.
Charging stations on all these light poles would be great for workplace charging, airports and shopping malls.

Besides street side parking, I could also see how this approach would work well for large parking lots. Instead of having the charging stations all located in one place, which typically is a desirable location close to the buildings, they could be scattered all over the parking area, and each light pole could service the four parking spaces surrounding it.

Whether this idea comes to fruition and becomes a reality beyond the pilot program is unknown at this time, but I like that BMW is really giving thought to how they can improve public charging for their customers. The maturation of the public charging infrastructure is crucial for mass electric vehicle adoption, and I hope BMW continues to explore new ways to help make it ubiquitous.

Friday, November 7, 2014

REx To The Rescue

Those that have followed this blog since before I got my i3 know I toiled a bit over whether to get the range extender option or not. Having lived with pure battery electric vehicles for five years I really didn't like the idea of hauling around an internal combustion engine if I really didn't need to do so, even if it was a very small, efficient one.

Ultimately, the decision was easier than I had hoped. Once it became clear the i3 would have significantly less electric range than the two previous BMW-made electrics that I've been driving (MINI-E and ActiveE) I knew I needed the REx. As much as I love the i3, I'm still disappointed BMW moved backwards with the electric range in every EV they have produced. The MINI-E was good for a reliable 100 miles in moderate temperatures, the ActiveE about 90 miles and the BEV i3 is EPA rated at 81 miles per charge. I drive a lot and 81 miles would just be cutting it too close for me, especially in the winter when the range is negatively effected by the cold weather.

Our Equinox, Tacoma and i3 joined by my old ActiveE before I turned it back in.
So i3 REx it was for me, and fortunately I'm very happy it worked out that way. Without the reassurance of a long range EV like Tesla's offerings, there will indeed be some cases where the limited range of the sub-100 mile EVs require you to alter your plans or make compromises. I accept that because for me the advantages of driving electric far outweigh any small inconveniences that occasionally arise from the limited range or charging times. However the range extender option on the i3 was inciting because I knew I'd be driving on electric for 95% of the time, but still be able to take the car on days that I knew I needed to drive further than the range could accommodate. That has indeed held true because I have a little over 11,000 miles and only about 500 of those miles were with the REx running. However so far the REx was just a convenience, allowing me to take my i3 on days I needed to drive far when I otherwise would have taken one of my gas cars. I hadn't faced a situation where I really needed the extra range, and didn't have any other options, until last weekend.

Plugging the tire
My wife and I have two gas vehicles besides the i3. Meredith drives a Chevy Equinox and I also have a Toyota Tacoma pick up which I use when I need to haul large items like refrigerators for my restaurant, and I also use it to plow my driveway and the parking lot of the shopping plaza that I own and manage. These are our long range cars for trips like when we go to my in-laws in Vermont. So when Meredith needed to go on a company retreat which was 95 miles away in Pennsylvania she naturally planned on taking her Equinox. About a half hour before she was ready to leave, I went out to the garage to give the Equinox a once-over. I always do this when she's going far from home, just to be safe. The first thing I did was a quick visual inspection of the tires and wouldn't you know it, the first tire I looked at had a large screw sticking right into it and in a perfect position for me to see it. OK, there is no time to fix this now so the Equinox is ruled out. No problem, I'll load up her stuff into the Tacoma and she'll use that. It can use a good run anyway since we barely ever drive it. I then remembered that I needed to refill the washer fluid because it was empty the last time I drove it. I popped the hood, filled the fluid and when I closed the hood I heard a loud cracking noise and the hood popped back up. As I lifted the hood I could see the latch that holds it closed was rusted and cracked in half. With no way to secure the hood closed that rules out the Tacoma. There's only one option now, she'll be REx-ing it to the retreat.
The owners of the B&B she stayed were nice enough to let her charge up. They told her their son in law drives a Volt so they weren't totally surprised about a car that needed to plug in.
After a quick REx briefing (I don't think she had ever driven it in REx mode before) she was off. Since the temperature was in the 40's and it was all highway driving, I knew she'd only get about 60-65 miles before the range extender turned on so she'd be driving about 30 miles with it running. I had a full tank of gas so she wouldn't need to stop for gas on the way there, however we didn't know if she could plug in at all once she got there and she may have to drive the whole 95 miles home in charge sustaining mode. I've driven the car enough to know this wouldn't be a problem as long as she kept her speed under 75mph, other than the fact that she'd have to stop for gas twice on the way home. I did a quick check to see if by chance there were any level 2 charging stations near where she was going , but as I expected, there were none. Luckily, the bed and breakfast she stayed at allowed her to plug into an outlet they had on the garage, so she was able to charge at 120v overnight. Since the retreat lasted for four days, she had no problem fully charging even with using the car to run some local errands every day.

So even though I've used the REx a dozen or so times already, this was the first time it was absolutely necessary, and further validates my decision to shell out the additional $3,850 for it. It really makes the car so much more versatile, and allows me to not even think about the range. As others have noted, it really does allow you to drive more electric miles because you can use it for trips you otherwise couldn't with the BEV i3. Obviously, the ultimate goal is for longer range electric vehicles to become more affordable, and infrastructure to mature to the point where public charging and DC fast charge is ubiquitous. However until then, the range extender will play an important role in the adoption of electric vehicles, as it allows for utility that is simply unavailable in the vast majority of today's electric vehicles. 
Trip stats: I was very happy to see 3.7 miles per kWh considering it was about 70% highway driving, with the cabin heat on the entire time.

Stats from the trip:

Going to PA: 61 miles on battery, 34 miles on REx
While there: 49 miles all on battery
Coming home: 65 miles on battery, 30 miles on REx.
Total: 239 miles; 175 miles on battery, 64 miles using range extender
Total gas used: 1.7 gallons (.9 gal refill when she was in PA & .8 gal refill when she was 1.5 miles from home). Averaged 37.65mpg while REx was running.