Tag Archives: solar commute

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.

Doh! I need to drive 85 miles/day

One of my goals when I started this program was to try and drive 20,000 miles in an all-electric car. “Why 20,000?” you ask? Because it sounded good, and it seemed within reach -naively I took 20,000 miles, divided it by 365 and figured i’d need to drive about 55 miles a day. Since I have a 90 mile commute 5 days a week, it should be easy I thought.

The first “doh!” that I didn’t account for was that I’d loose about 6 weeks off the calendar because MINI couldn’t get the high-voltage recharger installed at my home – relying on just my standard household outlet, i’d need 2 days of plugging in just to drive one day to work. I also didn’t plan on losing a few more weeks for service calls (1 broken fiber-optic cable, installation & removal of snow tires, 5,000 mile checkups, etc.). Then there were the times I couldn’t drive #217 because she’s only a 2-seater, or I had to travel more than 100 miles, etc.

About a month ago I was doing some more quick calculations though, and I was still comfortably in line with my expected turn-in date of July 15.

That was before I got today’s second Doh! MINI now says my turn-in date is June 15 – which roughly coincides with my pick-up date of June 15, but doesn’t include the extra one month option they’d promised me to ensure I had “12 full months of zero-emissions driving with fast recharging…”. The representative I spoke with on the phone said that I could request my extra month, but “so far I’ve processed two such requests and both were denied. Prepare for June 15.” [why is it that the “end” of anything is always a hard reality? At the glorious and sun-dappled “beginning” of this process I spoke with fun and excited representatives who couldn’t wait to get me in my MINI E – and now at the end, all I get are brusque phone messages telling me to call a number, where the gruff-throated rep who answers sounds like a repo man who has had a bad decade?].

The rational side of me knows full-well that if I make 19,200 – or even something several hundred miles less – I could hardly count this experience as a failure. And yet, there’s something so compelling about hitting that nice round figure of 20,000, that the irrational part of me – which is to the say the single biggest part of me – would be very disappointed.

So from here on out I’m going to hunt for miles like a spoon hunts for ice cream at the end of the carton. By my calculations, I need to make 85 miles per day. I’m good for 90+ during the week for work, but the weekends may be tough…better go download some audiobooks 😉

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.

A MINI E “Pony Express” Trip

Don Young, MINI E #364, took an amazing trip last week – traveling almost 700 miles over 4 days from his Shelter Island, NY home on the eastern end of Long Island to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in the Hudson Valley, and several other stops in-between. To get there and back, Don organized a “Power Support Team” to recharge his MINI E #364’s batteries every 70 miles or so with high-voltage pit stops.

IMG_0941

Original Art by Lea Miller

But Don didn’t just stop with the idea to take a high-mileage round-trip, he made an event out of it. Dubbing his journey the “MINI E E*TOUR”, he had custom window wraps and car magnets created to advertise and celebrate both his tour and “Power Support Team”, and also created his own t-shirts to give out to the many people he’d meet along the way. He also contacted a local newspaper in Bethel and did an interview there; plus he took the time to meet with strangers and bartenders (and probably some strange bartenders too) to show off the car and relate his experiences driving it.

I just love these kind of individual, people-powered quests, and my wife and I were very proud to support Don and fill him up on some solar-generated electrons last Thursday and Sunday. Infected by his enthusiasm for the project, my teenage daughter and I put together a poster to welcome Don and mark his journey to our home. Creating the poster gave us a chance to talk about things… like how weird it was that we were going to welcome a “complete stranger” to our home while most of us were away so he could plug his car in; about how normally we wouldn’t do such a thing; about how it was OK this time because we were all part of a broader community of people involved in the same thing – so while Don may or may not be strange ;-), he was driving a MINI E just like us, for all the same reasons and with all the same desires for a better future, and that disqualified him as a stranger.

As Don himself noted, “On my MINI E E*Tour, I’ve had great experiences with 8 MINI E’ers, 2 companies, 3 corporations, and 1 foundation. I also learned that stopping once in a while to make new friends, and talking to bystanders about GP? (#364), is as nice a way to travel as I can imagine.”

At the risk of sounding corny or melodramatic, I imagine his experience was very similar to the old Pony Express system – Don too set out on the road in full awareness that his journey would only be complete if a group of people he’d never before met came together to help him. He too had to rely on faith in an unmet community. And in this day and age – where we rightly teach our children to be wary of strangers, and where we rely on standardized systems for everything from dining to refueling – what a unique experience that is.

In the few short years ahead, at just about the time my daughter will learn how to drive, electric cars will no longer be the domain of a few hundred pioneers. The frontier of “limited range” will be closed with the solutions of public recharging at the old ‘gas’ stations, battery swap technology, electrified liquid, or some other kind of innovation which will be hugely convenient and enable our modern and mobile lifestyles – but which will also be a bittersweet signal that this particular kind of unique, individual, community travel experience is unnecessary.

Don’s promised to post photos and tales of his experience, and I’ll be sure to link to them here.

New Bling

IMG_0840 I took the “window word stickers” that MINI sent out to the “MINI E Pioneers”, and cut out the url to this blog. Some may say it was a waste of time, while others would say it was an incredible waste of time. But I figured that with just one xacto knife on a lazy Saturday morning, I could hit two birds with just 25 hand-cut characters:

– publicize the blog (I’m already at 1,000 views – my goal is 10,000 in 1 year)

– get some attention to the fact that this is an electric car (see my July 2 post on “The Incredibly Invisible Electric Car”

So far I’ve it on my rear window for a week, and I’ve actually noticed a slight uptick in the daily visitors (above 20/day now, used to be 15 or so) – looks like this advertising thing really works.  But it would be fun to confirm it – so if you’re reading this now as a result of seeing this URL on the back of my car, please make a comment!

As for the car itself, it’s been a quiet couple of weeks as I’ve been watching my daughter’s 11/12 Softball All Star team play in the Eastern Regionals in Albany – at 144 miles away, just outside the range of #217’s batteries.

Electric: $.03/mile vs. Gas: $.13/mile

Disclaimer: Math has never been my strong suit, so double check me on this.

Tom Moloughney gave me a very handy equation to figure how how many kilowatt hours I was using to recharge #217:    Amps used per 100miles (Ah on my gauge) x 390 (voltage on MINI E) = watts, divided by 1,000 to get kWh.

In my case that is:  67×390/1,000 = 26 kWh.  From what I can tell (Orange & Rockland utilities doesn’t make it easy to find this #)  our electrical rates are $.15/kWh – so that means I’m paying about $.03/mile.

My gas car gets about 22 miles/gallon, and figuring gas costs around $3/gallon (premium), that equals $.13/mile.

IMG_0817In my case the calculation is a little more complicated because I generate around 24kWh each day from Solar Panels, so what that electricity actually costs me is probably a little less. However the point is the same – mile for mile, electricity is a much cheaper, and greener, fuel to power my commute. Over a 1-year period, I should save approximately $2,250 in fuel costs alone by driving electric instead of gas (and that doesn’t consider that I’m also not paying for oil changes and other gas engine-related maintenance costs).

Many other factors need to be added to the equation – I once figured that I would need to drive an electric car for about 3 years to generate enough savings to offset the current high-cost of batteries; there are usability issues related to range/recharge time and infrastructure; I don’t yet know how the car will perform in the very, very hot (100F+) or very, very cold (20F-) weather we get in the Northeast; others in the MINI E field test have experienced maintenance issues and even battery failures; etc., etc.

However, I have the answer to the most commonly asked question I get – “how does it compare to gas cost-wise?” – it beats it by $.10/mile. And in that answer lies the true promise of a commercially-viable electric vehicle: a much lower-cost over the medium-long term, and an ecologically-superior propulsion system from the start.

1,000 Mile Review

Last week saw a major milestone, as I guided #217 past the first 1,000th mile (ironically, it was a pretty dull mile on I-287, just north of The Quarry). In honor of this occasion, I thought I’d chronicle the biggest differences i’ve noted so far about what it is like to drive an electric car. Here goes:

1. One-pedal Driving — thanks to the magic of regenerative-braking, the accelerator now also acts as a decelerator, and that yields a kinda different, but kinda fun, way of driving.

2. Range Anxiety — I need to drive a minimum of 90 miles each day, and fit that in the official “about 100 miles” range of the MINI E. In practice, I know I can drive at least 108 miles, and probably get closer to 120 miles if i had to. But the practical effect of this is what the MINI E newsletter termed (cue the echo sound-effect) “rAnGe AnXieTy”. Ya get a wee bit concerned watching that charge meter charge towards 0. I think most of this can be relieved with a larger-capacity battery, and software that can be better calibrated to give a more accurate estimate – both items I know are on the drawing board at BMW/MINI. I’m pretty comfortable that I can make my 90 miles, but I also haven’t yet pushed it as much as I’d like to.

3. No Pumping Required — just before I took delivery of #217, I timed a visit to my gas station. From the moment I exited the highway, to the moment I got back on (and this is a station that is about 400 yards off of I-287), it was about 12 minutes. For me, that was 12 minutes every 4 days, which compares to the:15 seconds it takes me to plug/unplug a day. That means I’m saving 1 hour a month. It’s nice.

4. The Four Hour Fill Up — so, as much as I love skipping the lines at the gas station, I have to admit that gas stations are terribly useful things when you’re on empty and 12 minutes gets you another 400 miles. Especially when compared to the 4 hours it takes me to fill up #217’s electrical tank. For most of the time though that four hours happens when I’m home for the evening, usually sleeping. 5 days out of 7, that’s just fine for me.

5. The Sounds — I knew of course that an electric car would be quieter than a gas car, but i really didn’t expect this. On the highway I notice it because I can keep the radio at a lower volume. In town, I notice sounds I never knew were there – kids in some nearby backyard, the idle chatter coming out of a restaurant, etc. It’s weird. Nice, but weird.

Those are the big and obvious things. I’m sure the next 1,000 miles will turn up some more subtle differences.