The Mini E Field Trial

Last time, I reported on a BMW "One Day University" put on for selected media at the company's Woodcliff Lake, NJ, U.S. Engineering Center. Among the things I learned that day was how BMW has been executing an "EfficientDynamics" engineering philosophy to continuously improve the performance of its products while also boosting their efficiency.

The other session that especially caught my attention was "Mini E Field Trial." It was led by BMW North America's Manager of Electric Vehicle Operations, Richard Steinberg. He began by asserting that BMW is committed to battery electric vehicle (BEV) technology, that the Mini E field trial has expanded its scope to infrastructure as well as vehicle issues and that lessons learned will be applied to future electric vehicle (EV) efforts. "BMW/Mini is in the car business," he said with a grin. "BEVs placed us in the infrastructure business."

As you may already know, the 3,230-lb Mini E's air-cooled, 573-pound., 35-kWh lithium ion pack is made up of 5,088 individual cells, and its 200-hp motor will launch it from rest to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in about 8.5 seconds and then up to a top speed of 95 mph, but not if you want to stretch its range to the claimed 100-plus miles. The pack will recharge in two-to-three hours on a 60-amp commercial charger, three-to-five hours on a 40-amp residential charger or 24-plus hours tethered to a 12-amp, 110V wall socket.

Back in late 2008, more than 1,800 people applied to participate in the Mini E lease program during the five-week online application window. 1,010 were forwarded to dealers in the field trial areas. By June 30, 2009, all 450 U.S. Mini Es had been leased to a mix of private and fleet customers (250 in California, 200 in New York/New Jersey) and a few more were loaned to New York City, Los Angeles and California's Air Resources Board.

The purpose of this program has been to evaluate BEVs in real-world conditions and learn about the effects of temperature, weather and differing driver behaviors on range, reliability and charging status, as well as driver perceptions and opinions on living with an EV. While BMW knew that availability of public charging would "play a crucial role in alleviating range anxiety," it focused exclusively on private installations...and learned very quickly that "infrastructure issues represent one of the biggest hurdles towards mass acceptance of BEVs." Read on after the jump to see what else was gleaned from these stylish plug-ins.


First, the program team learned that the Mini E's plug was incompatible with previous-generation chargers, since there was still no global standard for plug-in connectors. Lesson: "Standardization of charging equipment (SAE vs. ISO?) is crucial." Second, they had to manage expectations: some participants were new to the concepts that battery charging takes a long time, that upgrades to their home charging capabilities might be required and that working with electricians and inspectors can be frustrating. Third, they found that inspection and permitting standards and utilities' options and requirements varied widely.
Some participants experienced delays in charger installations, and post-installation servicing and troubleshooting was a problem. When an EV doesn't properly charge, is it the car, the charger, a circuit breaker, a ground fault indicator (GFI) or a problem with service from the utility? Also, would service be available 24/7? Who pays for a service visit?

Steinberg said the public infrastructure will be a priority of the next program, in cooperation with other OEMs, service providers and utilities...assuming SAE J1772 and ISO standards are harmonized, "which is a big if." And vehicle-to-grid communications will play a bigger role with load leveling, smart-phone reservation apps and subscription plans.

Customer feedback has come through multiple channels: Facebook, an eLog Book, web sites (www.NorthAmericanMotoring.com; www.waterway4.com/mini-e), a University of California at Davis study, individual blogs, and more. "The Mini E community is extremely active, bordering on evangelical," Steinberg said with a wry smile. "The majority are thrilled to be involved in the program, but a vocal minority are extremely critical."

The UC Davis study (developed in conjunction with an EU BEV program) tracked the experiences and opinions of 50 self-selected Mini E drivers, who kept online travel diaries, completed written questionnaires and did face-to-face in-depth interviews. It focused on their perceptions, expectations, driving habits and impressions of EV motoring.

The Mini E community,Steinberg continued, discusses "a myriad of topics," including the behavior and performance of their vehicles, range anxiety, range maximiization techniques, the most miles driven (overall and per charge), charging issues, governmental interaction (through high-occupancy lanes, EZPass and CARB), cost of ownership, community events, media exposure, EV commentary, participation in research projects and dealer issues. A weekly "Plugged In" newsletter addressed and discussed the issues raised. Among the key learnings: BMW's Mini E participants are passionate about EVs and strongly interested in next-generation products; "BEVs meet the needs for typical commutes, but range anxiety remains a hurdle that needs to be cleared." Plug-ins can overcome this anxiety, but so can more access to public charging. For its next steps, BMW needs to proactively engage utilities and inspection authorities, re-think its approach to residential charging to reduce cost and develop a more aggressive public infrastructure strategy. And, like everyone else, it badly needs that elusive common connector.

I learned later that Steinberg reported further conclusions and future plans at the Washington, D.C. auto show, including that the Mini E's range was "sufficient for most trips, charging was not a big issue even without an extensive network of public charging stations, and electric mobility does not mean an end to driving fun." The Mini E households reported 70 to 100 miles of usable range, and 45 percent said they used their Mini Es for 90-100 percent of their trips. Most recharged at night, found public charging unnecessary and did not need to charge every day. The only significant issue with the (two-seat and trunkless) car itself was "limited space for passengers and luggage."

"Challenges that we think everyone will face include the fact that there is no standardization for things like charging unit installation," Dave Buchko of BMW Product Communications tells us today. "There are something like 30,000 permitting bodies in the U.S. that would have some jurisdiction over installations, each with its own parameters."

Related GalleryDC 2010: BMW ActiveE


As you may also know, the 600-car global Mini E field trial was the first phase of a three-stage plan BMW calls Project i. In 2011, a second field trial using a yet-to-be-determined number of 1 Series-based BMW ActiveE coupes with room for four passengers and luggage and (unlike the Mini E) in-house-developed powertrains. Their packs will have liquid heating and cooling for more consistent range, and their drivers will be able to use advanced smartphone applications to remotely check state of charge and signal their cars to begin heating or cooling while connected to the grid. Phase three, beginning in 2013, will bring BMW "Mega-City Vehicles" powered by a further development of the ActiveE system.

Meanwhile, Buchko adds, BMW has offered Mini E lessees the opportunity to continue for a second year, and about half of those who responded said they would like to do that.


Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.