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I have been following some of the stories in the press and public regarding the Mini-E program for the obvious reasons.  Some of the latest discussions on the EV movement as a whole and Mini-E in particular has got me thinking about the calculus of an EV enthusiast.

Lately a story that started off to me as some comments on twitter and evolved into a press release from Plug In America about Mini "Botching" their EV program generated quite a few headlines.  It was picked up by the main stream press and various"green" websites.

I understand many of the issues the article addressed and even the views of a couple of the participants that were quoted as having large problems with the program.  I would be the first to say that the program rollout has not been completely smooth.  However, I feel pretty strongly that parts of the message was overstated and the problems encountered were not as severe or unexpected as they made out.  I also had problems with some of the details.  Particularly given that we are only one month into people really having the cars.  I think the participants (at least the many that I have talked to personally) are very enthusiastic still about the cars and the program. I know I am certainly one of them.

Read on for an insomnia driven rant about the the mathematics of the Mini.

De-"Botch"-ery

My big problem with the release and the subsequent re-reporting was I believe their message may do damage to the cause they are trying to promote.  The wording of the message, rather than pointing out issues and problems with the program as well as acknowledging the difficulties of any company trying to release an EV car to the market at this time, could serve another purpose.  It seems to me that the message of the vast demand and excitement over these vehicles was being cast by the forces opposed to them as proof that electric vehicles were not "ready for prime time" and Mini's efforts were proof of the futility.  Some slightly different wording on the same press release would have changed the message from "Mini Botched the EV program" to something like "Mini struggles to meet expectations to an eager public".  If we have learned anything in this, message matters.

I should say that I have had a very nice conversation with Paul from Plug In America about this topic and believe that they are sincere in both their mission and belief in how Mini could have handled things better. I definitely agree with many of the issues they raise. Particularly when it comes to how poorly prepared our local governments and utilities are to deal with the coming EV and PEV revolution.

But this discussion really got me to thinking about the issue.  Clearly Mini would like the program to be a success and would like to see the EV community embracing their efforts.  This has happened to some extent but it has definitely been a bit of a bumpy start.  I realized what I think is one of the main issues.

Personal Calculus

I believe many of the people involved with the Mini-E are very excited about the program.  That is definitely how I feel as well.  However, each participant has had to do some personal calculus to justify it to themselves.  In particular, for me, the calculations goes something like this.

  1. I believe that electric vehicles are the way forward for the future of transportation.  I believe that we are a small set of innovations away from changing the world and how people move about.  It feels like this innovation is about to happen and just needs a little push.
  2. If it is not too much of a burden on me and my family, I would like to be part of this push.
  3. I believe that a commuter EV with ~100 mile range would suite my needs well for the majority of my driving.
  4. The cars available to serve that need now are either EVs from the last generation at the end of their battery life cycle and/or require an enthusiast level of expert maintainance or impractically expensive for this purpose.
  5. Most of the vehicles on the edge of release are not available for driving or consideration for at around 1-2 years.
For many, given similar goals, something like the Tesla or a DIY EV makes sense to them. But I didn't see that for me.

Once the Mini-E program came along, the math made sense.  Commit a large but manageable amount of money to try out one of these vehicles for a limited time while at the same time making a strong statement about support for the market.  As a bonus see if this car really worked for me like I expect it to.  At the end of this test, Mini and I will both have learned a great deal and will be ready for the next phase.  Made sense to me so I signed up. I get that others would reach a different result, but that what is great about people.

So as I watch what unfolds with Plug-In America and some of my fellow participants, what has changed?  Well seems to me, it is this equation.

Partners In Business

Mini in particular would like to think of the program participants (and the EV community to some extent) as partners I believe.  However, by charging such a premium for the experience (much more than any car most would ever consider buying) the participants can't help but think of the process as a business relationship.  We are paying for something of value to us.  And with any business relationship comes some pretty specific expectations.  In a true partnership, it is much easier to look past the little issues.  Each of the participants feels they are sacrificing for the greater whole.  But by charging so much, it is much harder for the program participants to feel like they are not making a great sacrifice to be a part of the program.

Changing the Equation

So what happens when people hear others are getting a different deal on the car?  It changes their personal mathematics.  For some, like me, this isn't a big impact since the other factors are more important and I acknowedge entities like governments contribute a great deal in different ways.  But it does effect some.  Likewise when there are issues with the install or the car.  It can change the business relationship.

What could change the math for me?  Given my assumption that it would be around two years or so before I could buy an EV that suited my needs, what happens if I am wrong?  What if someone like Nissan or Mitsubishi or others come through with an EV that I can buy within the next year that fills my goals.  Suddenly, the math changes and the large amount of money I am spending on this program could be better spent to the same goals.  If the monetary investment wasn't as large, I might be more willing to wait it out or do both.

Now I doubt this scenario (though I think it would be amazing).  But it illustrates perhaps one reason why a couple of people may become disillusioned with the Mini program. I understand a lot of reasons why Mini would have structured their program the way they have.  However, there are many ways including the price, tax, and personal issues that could have turned the experience into much more of a true partnership with the participants rather than a business relationship. I am sure I am not the only one thinking about this stuff. I think the program authors and other car manufacturers are likely rethinking their calculus for future programs as well.

Enough quasi-mathematic philosophy.  The car is still really fun and I hope everyone gets to enjoy the EV experience soon.


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