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.

20 comments:

  1. It seems like a very narrow use-case where this will work. Not enough requests means no dealers participating, too many requests and dealers can't schedule the one-car evenly - I'm thinking about the last Thursday in November.

    Why does BMW not simply reimburse dealers for the days that regular service vehicles are pressed into service as i3 loaners?

    BTW: As little as I enjoy driving an ICE car, I'd feel much better about BMW if this program worked... even if I only called upon it once every five years!

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  2. After reading your report, I contacted my dealer, Sterling BMW in Newport Beach, California, to see if they are participating. Happily, they are but not quite yet as the program is awaiting activation. I'm not quite sure what this means. My guess: they are still working out the details with BMW.

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    1. The program officially launched on October 16th Dr.B, and all of the details were released to the dealers. Some dealers haven't started it yet though as they decide how many cars they will designate for it and they are also still asking BMW questions about it, but everything is finished as far as the program details for dealerships.

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  3. Any idea if you have to park your i3 at the dealer? Meaning, could I use the program if I arrived at a dealer hundreds of miles from me?

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    1. Scott, the rules will vary from dealer to dealer. If you are wondering if you can reserve a car from your dealer, but then borrow it from another BMW dealership hundreds of miles away, I'd say no you probably can't.

      What I think you could do though is call the dealership that is far away and tell them you are an i3 owner and need a loaner. Ask them if they are participating in the Flexible Mobility program for i3 owners and if they will loan you a car even though you didn't buy yours there. There is no reason you need to arrive in your i3 as far as I can see, why would they want to have it taking up space on their lot if it doesn't have to anyway? I'm sure they can confirm you own an i3 when you call if you provide them your VIN. As I mention in the post above, I believe most participating dealers will allow any i3 owners to use their cars reserved for the program, as the time they are actually being loaned is directly related to BMW of NA subsidizing them.

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    2. I suspect he was thinking about a free rental car after flying into a new city...

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    3. Yes, has anyone attempted to use this service as a free rental car when flying into a different city?

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  4. A faster deployment of CCS stations, both at BMW dealerships and with Charge Point, may be a better way to facilitate longer trips and be a better sales incentive after all. If I can make a 265-mile all-electric trip over a weekend across two states (VA to PA) in my slow-charging Volt, doing so in an i3 could be a lot easier.

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    1. No doubt that will cause some i3 owners to just take their car vdiv. However it's not just the charging times, it's the size also. If you are taking the whole family on a trip hundreds of miles away, you may need to pack a lot of stuff and a larger vehicle, like an X3 for instance, may be a better fit. Also, if it's the winter and your thinking there may be snow while your traveling, an all wheel drive model would be a good idea.

      Even with fast charging a trip like you are talking about would mean at least three 45 minute to one hour stops. That would make that four and a half hour drive over seven hours and that is if the chargers were exactly on your route. If they were even 5 to ten miles off the exact course you took you'd have to stop a fourth time and your trip would be over closer to nine hours. It's doable, but very inconvenient, I'd say.

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    2. Well, if one has a whole family chances are they will have a whole family mobile and the i3 isn't it. Going out of your way to rent a replacement vehicle, having to load it, get used to it, worry about it, count pennies (ok dollars) for the tolls because you forgot the E-ZPass tag, and then do it all in reverse also seems rather inconvenient.

      If we're talking about a couple traveling and electric cars are important to one, then hopefully they are important to both. And between meals, coffee, and bathroom breaks the few charging stops along the way are a part of the fun, a part of the journey, and certainly a part of the reason to drive electric :)

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  5. My dealer says he is not participating and I contacted the BMW i-concierge to ask which BMW dealers in Houston, TX were participating: Answer: zero. Can BMWNA put up a page on their site that is an updated list (by state) of participating dealers?

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    1. Excellent suggestion. I'll suggest it to the program managers

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  6. Does anyone know which, if any, southern California BMW dealers are participating in the flexible mobility program?

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    1. Did you find a flexible mobility so cal dealer? La area?

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  7. Did you ever find out? Need advice on LA options for this program...

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  8. Nick Alexander and Santa Monica BMW both are in the program

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  9. Back in October BMW announced that they changed the offer to dealers in an attempt to increase participation beyond the (reportedly just 8) dealers who had joined the program.

    Any details from your BMW contacts?

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