Tag Archives: electric car culture

24 Hours, 426 Miles, Hundreds of Stories

As I have learned, a 24-hour Road Rally in a MINI E requires extensive planning, reliable deodorant, a dash of stubbornness, a bit of “road magic” (aka luck) and a good friend to share it all with. Luckily I had all that last Memorial Day weekend, and was able to finish the rally 426 miles the richer in experience.

My original goal was 400 miles, which I figured by assuming a 4.5 hour recharge every 100 miles. But having discovered the joys of the “95% charge” (which can be achieved in as little as 3 hours on a 32 Amp box), I believe a more dedicated (and less scenic) rally could pass the 600 mile mark. A maniac could probably do 700.

But Scott McDonald – friend, navigator, electric-car newbie – and I decided early on that this was to be a “civilized” rally, with good food, cool history, interesting sights and all the non-alcoholic beverages required to wash it all down. And boy did we enjoy, everything from a visit to a Wizard to a trip up Mt. Fuji.

The game is afoot!

Things kicked off Sunday, at 11:20am at the South Amboy, NJ train station, where I collected Brooklyn’s own S.D. McDonald. We then headed 40 miles north to Montclair, NJ – home to Tom Moloughney’s Nauna’s Bella Casa restaurant, which has become the defacto headquarters for East Coast MINI E pioneers.

#217 dined on some 50amp juice, while Scott & I enjoyed the best balsamic calamari I’ve ever had, some incredible shrimp parmigiana and very tasty stuffed shells. We then took a nice stroll around Montclair, and had time to visit with our ever-gracious host.

Scott & Tom, the two best-looking models I could afford

And then I got to experience something I hoped would’ve happened hundreds of times by now, but just hasn’t for me (hey now, don’t go there…) – a stranger approached and asked why my car was plugged in! Some nice lady from Queens then got the full M&M (Miller & Moloughney) – a 1/2 hour session of electric car nerd talk! Scott was also regaled with the facts, figures and anecdotes, and so he earned his MINI E degree as well. Fun stuff, and a great way to kick things off.

We next headed out to West Orange, NJ – which should’ve been a short 7 miles away, but using the Scott & Gordon GPS system we made it an even 10 miles. Which leads me to another truth about a 24-hour electric car road rally – there are no bad miles, there are only miles, and the need for an outlet before you reach your last one.

West Orange is home to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, and like all National Parks it’s a wonderland that I vow I’ll come

Home to another electric car geek

back to visit again someday. My original plan was to take a quick photo opp, and then get on the road – but visiting the “Wizard of Menlo Park”‘s playpen was like thumbing thru an encyclopedia, and so we spent about :45 minutes longer browsing than I had intended. The library alone is worth a look, as are the many different labs and work areas. Think of what Willy Wonka’s factory would look like if electricity was the main ingredient instead of chocolate.

After Edison we detoured for a quick visit to my daughter’s soccer tournament in Manalapan, NJ (Arsenal, U14 Girls Champs!) and then we spun back around and headed north.

Our first trip to Home Base in Pearl River, NY saw us with 150 miles on the odometer and about 5 hours on the clock. Hardly a blistering pace, but it was a lot of fun making some videos of the experience (which I promise to edit and post soon…).

Our next landmark was to my favorite bridge on the planet – the Bear Mountain Bridge in the Hudson Highlands of New York. My plan

MINI meets BIG

was to get some great pics of what was at one time the longest suspension bridge in the world (it looks like it’s anchored into two mountains overlooking a narrow spot on the Hudson River…which is pretty much what it is) but we didn’t get up there in daylight because we got distracted by this huge Japanese gate on Mt. Fuji.

Actually, it’s just the entrance to the restaurant named Mt. Fuji at the top of a big hill near Suffern, NY – but standing under it you do feel like you’re in Japan. It’s located in a relatively undeveloped area near Harriman State Park, and so this HUGE ceremonial gate drops your jaw the first time you see it. We took a 20 minute detour to head to the top and grab a menu. Chalk up another place to come back to later though, as we’ve got miles on the menu, not sushi.

We hit Bear Mountain around 7pm, parked at the Bear Mtn. Inn and had a really nice walk across the span. One of the bridge attendants came out to make sure we weren’t jumpers, but other than that it was very peaceful, albeit dark.

Next stop was just 9.5 miles north – the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Before 9/11 you used to be able to stroll the grounds like any other college campus, but these days that’s only allowed at certain days and times, so the distraction-ability index was low. We did pull through the first gate

The General would've approved

and headed up the Thayer Hotel for a suitable photo op.

You can’t make out the paper I’m holding, but if you had a really good photographers loop you’d see it says “Stop #5 – West Point   Mileage: 205.5   Hours: 10”

From there we headed over the bridge, and back down the Hudson on the more fashionable Westchester side. Some pretty little towns there, including Ossining – lovely, except for the huge Sing Sing Prison which occupies prime waterfront real estate. We arrived back in Pearl River and went to bed.

My alarm went off at 3am, and I made a solo trip (only fitting that I pursue my dream while Scott pursued his) to Morristown, NJ.

Morristown is where I work, so the trip was a familiar and convenient 90 miles (to which I tacked on an extra 15 miles for good measure). It also has a singular historical draw as it was the headquarters of General Washington back in 1777 and the harsh winter of 1779/1780. Talk about Pioneers, those guys really toughed it out, so it was good motivation to continue the rally.

What's good enough for George is good enough for me

Back home I grabbed a couple of hours of sleep and woke up around 7:30am on Memorial Day. The car was 98% charged, and so we headed into town to fuel up on Pete’s Bagels.

After grabbing a quick breakfast, we swung by our town’s train station, where the local VFW post had set up their annual tribute to the local heroes. After setting up the mini grave markers with the names of the fallen and the wars that they served in, the members of the post stood vigil all night long. I waved

Pearl River, NY's Memorial Day Observation

to the gentleman who was there at 3am, but I wanted to be sure to stop by and pay my respects in the day light. Whatever your politics, whatever your feelings are about war, I think it’s vitally important to not let Memorial Day become just a metaphor for car sales.

We headed south with the intention of squeezing in 200 more miles in the final 4 hours. The plan was to swing by Manhattan and cross the Brooklyn Bridge, then head back home for a quick 2 hour charge and a final dash for the last miles we could eek out.

Coffee on the High Line

But we are weak, and again got distracted. This time by the fantastic new High Line park in Manhattan. I have been wanting to see it since it opened last June, but I never seemed to find the time. Luckily this time we were driving down the West Side Highway, saw the IAC Building and opted to pull over for a photo op (East Coast Pioneers will recall that it was at the IAC building that we all got our first look at the MINI E during the reception hosted by BMW/MINI).

The IAC building is unique, but not quite as unique as the High Line. An elevated train track that runs about 14 city blocks (with longer extensions planned) it is a strolling promenade about 20 feet in the air that transforms the city around it and places visitors in a new yet familiar place.  I can’t do it justice, but like the 24-Hour Road Rally it was an event that demanded I take time out and simply be in the moment. Add another spot to come back to later.

After the High Line, we got to talking about one of the city’s other new parks that is just recently opened, the new Brooklyn Bridge Park. Since the bridge was on our destination list, and since we’d killed our planned timeline already with an hour on the High Line, we decided to check it out.

No Sleep Brooklyn!

I didn’t take a photo at the park, but the sights and walkways of this brand new public space were as inviting as I could’ve hoped for. It’s interesting how cities are reclaiming their old industrial spaces – which often occupy great waterfronts – and turning them into something valuable and sustainable for the public to use and enjoy. Cities, individuals – even car companies – all like to change and adapt, and to try and better themselves. I view this car test as part of that imperative to change, and the Brooklyn Bridge Park – and the High Line as well – are just the newest, more positive examples of wonderful things that change can bring.

From the park we headed up to Williamsburg, which is where Scott makes his bed these days. We parted outside of his home with 390 miles on the odometer and 23

the Newest Electric Car Fan

hours on the clock. It was a fun event, this rally – but it would’ve been so much poorer without his companionship, his interest in the car, and his generally unflappable good nature. It also would’ve been so much less without the good will of the many people we met along the way. For that, I’d like to name them here – Tom Moloughney, the kids and parents at the soccer tournament, the friendly gate attendant who guided us back on the right road in West Orange, the Park Rangers at the Edison Historical Park, the valets at Mt. Fuji, the desk people at the Thayer Hotel, the VFW members in Pearl River, folks at Pete’s Deli (aka Zimi’s), the visitors on the High Line – all of whom proudly wore smiles in this sometimes-too-busy city – and many others I’m sure I’m forgetting.

Finally, I’d like to tip my hat to Don Young for his inspiration. It’s homegrown, made-up events like his tour last fall that I think we all need to take up more often. The daily grind can certainly grind the years by, and can make you cynical and distrustful of your fellow kind. But the fact is that people are great, and fun, and inventive. And we should get to meet them more often.

I wound up in Pearl River with a total of 426 miles at the deadline. That pretty much assures that I’ll pass the 20,000 mile mark

The Checkered Flag

before I turn the car back in on June 17th. But in the end this 24-hour Rally wasn’t so much about the miles, as it was about the incredible places and incredible people I’m surrounded by every day. I’ll learn to slow down a bit and appreciate them all more often now.

And thank you for reading this. If you know me – and especially if we’ve never met – please help me remember all of this.

Electric Fame

Fellow Pioneer Don Young was recently featured in a NY Times article that spoke about the MINI E program, and included a nice detail about his 1,020 mile trip last fall.  We were honored to be part of that epic run, as Don used our house to recharge en route to the catskills – kind of a 21st century version of the Pony Express system!

Here’s a link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/automobiles/28ELECTRIC.html

One of the unexpected pleasures of being part of the first large-scale, national test of an electric vehicle is meeting new people like Don. In today’s society – where we all have to work unreasonable hours, and then rush home (especially if you  have kids) to squeeze in our ‘quality time’, there just isn’t room for meeting and exchanging ideas with other people. And so the list of ‘strangers’ grows ever longer.

I’m forever grateful that this experience has reawakened me to the fact that the vast, vast majority of strangers are fantastic people who – if you have the opportunity to shake hands – will enrich your lives.

What’s The Right Price?

I consider myself lucky to have been one of only 450 drivers of a 100% electric MINI E for the past 8 months. It’s been a fantastic experience – I get to drive a peppy sports car, I prevent thousands of pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, and I have a front-row seat on the pros and cons of using electricity to fuel an automobile, which satisfies my curious nature.

It hasn’t been without its costs however.  The MINI E is a crash program – which means they took a base-model MINI, ripped out the backseats and tossed a huge battery pack in it’s place. That’s fine for doing a real-world test of how consumers would use and experience an all-electric car, but it isn’t how you’d design such a car from the ground up. As a result I have only 2 seats, almost no “extra’s” (I miss cruise control and a built-in nav system most), I need to maintain my gas car in case this pioneer-mobile develops a busted flux capacitor (or I need a back seat), and yet I’m paying $800/month to lease it.

Why the high cost? It isn’t the profit motive – an engineer at BMW told me early on that the battery pack alone cost $40,000, and that they’d still be losing money on each lease even at this rate. The fact is, electrical cars still cost significantly more than gas cars. And that’s not surprising, given that gas cars have had years of manufacturing efficiencies built in. So I knew I’d be paying a premium, and they were clear from the start that we were “pioneers” here on the experience – I have not complaints, either on the finances or the use.

But BMW/MINI has now offered to extend our lease for another year, and that has caused me to question the value of an all-electric car – and this car in particular – in a way I hadn’t before.

Here’s the deal: for a reduced rate of $600/month, I can keep driving MINI E #217 for another 12 months. That’d give me about 20,000 miles – and at my current electrical rates that would mean I’d save about a dime for each of those miles in fuel costs. So in exchange for $7,200 in cash, I’d save $2,000 in fuel charges and about $400 in oil change/maintenance costs. Those numbers don’t add up.

If I were able to own the car, I could easily swallow the premium cost of an electric car. But in the lease model, I’d be paying that difference for nothing more than…my earnest desire to do good for the planet. Fact is, I could spend that $4,500 on plenty of other worthy causes, and even save some more $ to buy an electric car (Tesla S, Fiskar, Chevy Volt…they are a comin’).

As much as I love this car, and have really enjoyed this experience, I think I’ll close this chapter in June when this lease is done. I still have a few more weeks to make up my mind, but as of now I just don’t think the price is right for this particular electric car.

New Badges

Inspired by several other E-drivers, I ordered up a set of “Electric” emblems from thirdplanetenergy.com. They were a snap to put on, look great and, judging from several looks and even a friendly honk on the road, they do communicate the fact that #217 is an electric car.

yup, it's electric!

yup, it's electric!

It’s fairly simply – the word “Electric” on both lower doors, and along the back. My hope is that it both answers and raises some questions with people. I know when I went into this experiment I was expecting to be stopped every time I got out of my car – and in fact that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want them to put the large Plug graphic on the side doors. But instead I’ve only had that experience twice so far, and I’m feeling a little guilty that I’m failing a part of this experiment  – that is to raise interest and curiosity about what it is like to drive an electric car.

My son had an interesting observation yesterday though – he noticed that gas prices have fallen again (which is funny in itself that he notes this, because I am completely blind now to gas prices), and he thinks that interest in alternative fuels will only peak again when the price goes way up. Could be – but for now I’ll have to rely on these 1″ high letters instead of the global gas market.