Wheego Electric Cars CEO Mike McQuary
On electric cars and the future of transportation.
Web2Carz Staff Writer
Published: August 18th, 2012
"I realized that electric-car owners were people who are unafraid to try new technology."
heego Electric Cars first appeared on the scene in 2009 with a two-seat compact car called the Wheego Whip. The Georgia-based company has since begun to make a name for itself in the electric-car community and shows signs of longevity.
Web2Carz had the opportunity to talk to Wheego’s CEO Mike McQuary about the history and his vision on the company’s future.
Mike, what were you doing before you wound up in the electric car business?
My last large career experience was starting up the internet service provider Mindspring. We weren’t the first ISP, and there were a lot of big competitors in the space, but our focus was about offering the best possible internet experience, and to that end we always focused on the customer experience and having the best technology to back it up. We grew to be the second largest ISP in the world behind AOL (every year that I was involved we won the JD Powers Award for best ISP) and then conducted a merger with the third largest ISP provider which we named Earthlink. I stayed on as president and CEO of Earthlink and when I left we had five million happy subscribers.
Jumping forward a few years, I was watching the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? I wasn’t so much struck by the story of how the legislation was overturned and the cars were pulled back. But I was moved by the drivers that were interviewed who said things like, “I loved my electric car and was sad when they took it away” or “I would buy another one tomorrow if I could”.The only time I ever heard that in a voice of a consumer in my career had been in my early days at Mindspring when grateful customers would tell us things like, “I love Mindspring and got two co-workers to sign up for your service and here’s 10 extra dollars because I don’t want you to go out of business.”
Why did that resonate with you?
Well, I knew that type of customer and consumer base really well from my days of working at Mindspring. And, I realized that electric-car owners were people who maybe weren’t complete geeks about technology, but who are also unafraid to try new technology, particularly if they could get the proper hand holding and customer service that would make them feel comfortable in answering any questions about the product. And just that, innately said, it sounded like these people need an electric car and I wondered if I could build them one. That set me about the venture that eventually became Wheego Electric Cars.
It sounds like your motivations weren’t exactly dollar driven.
I think too many people get into business because they think they’re going to make money- some are lucky and make money- but I think the right reason to do it is to satisfy the customer’s needs and if you focus all your attention on achieving that goal you’ll end up with a significant company and you’ll grow plenty big enough, make money, and investors will have a great return on the money they’ve invested.
Did you think you’d find the same success amidst the established competitors, like Tesla Motors who have already been in the electric-car business for a while?
I did and I figured there were going to be deeply entrenched competitors that couldn’t move as nimbly as we could, and who might pay lip service to their custome and wouldn’t let the customer be the deciding factor in driving changes to the product or service. Early in my career, one of my first jobs was with the Mobil Corporation, which at the time was one of the largest corporation in the world, so I was familiar with what huge corporations do well and what they don’t do well. Having had that experience I wasn’t intimidated to go up against big competitors.
Big or small what is the common denominator in a company’s succees?
Understanding your customer base and hearing the customer’s need in the product when you’re starting out. When I was just starting out in the electric car business I clearly heard, “I need a car that goes 100 miles on a charge.” Well I think that’s more of a psychological hurdle than a factual hurdle because AAA puts out numbers on the driving habits in the United States and 85 percent of drivers here drive less than 30 miles a day.
So, the factual need differs from the psychological need but since people’s buying habits are driven by that psychological need we knew that our cars that needed to go 100 miles on a charge. And, since people were nervous about the technology we also knew the cars had to work reliably; we knew the car couldn’t be complicated to recharge and just be able to just plug it in and know that’ its charging. We also knew people would have questions about any new technology. Where you’re combining the latest software and hardware, there are certainly issues and you’d want to get someone on the phone right away at the company that could talk them through their issues. We want our drivers to be our biggest advocates or even evangelists for our product and we want them telling their neighbor or coworker that its a great car and they should consider it the next time they’re buying a car. We don’t necessarily want to be the biggest company but we want to have the happiest customers.
Price is also a concern.
Yes. The other thing we’re concentrating on is making the car as affordable as possible. Tesla has done a marvelous job validating the electric car space but frankly it’s a small set of people who could afford to pay100k for an automobile. And while I think they’re brilliant at what they do they’re after a completely different marketing segment than we are. Our mission is to make an affordable automobile and make electric cars a significant segment of people’s personal transportation needs. Tesla is going to be the dominant provider of cars in the luxury segment we’re going for the affordable car segment-both sport cars and high end luxury sedans-their competitors are Mercedes Benz and BMWs. We’re really at the other end of the spectrum and we’re trying to make the most affordable electric car. I can’t see us ever selling a car priced over 55 thousand dollars.
Let’s talk about the benefits of owning an electric car.
Affordability at the gas pump for one, and helping people’s personal home budget by reducing the amount of money they’re spending on gasoline.They also address clean air issues. In our major metropolitan cities air quality is an issue and with zero emissions contributing to that problem, you’ll absolutely be removing a lot of carbon from the atmosphere versus driving a gas powered car. There’s a lot of debate raging about climate change but if you listen to the leading experts, our carbon emissions are affecting changes in the global climate and electric cars are a significant improvement upon that and could be part of that a solution as well.
On the political spectrum, in the US in particular, our foreign policies have been clearly dictated on our dependence on foreign oil and if we could unyoke ourselves from that we’ll make better foreign policy decisions.
What about skeptics who say that there are still going to be adverse effects on the environment with electricity because there’s coal being burned. Are we trading one form of pollution for another?
Absolutely not. Look, I used to work for Mobil Corporation, an oil corporation and cradle to grave, if you’re going to look at the creation of the energy you’re talking about going all the way back to the actual drilling into the earth to extract the oil and the transportation and distribution of the oil to its ultimate end at the gas pump and the emissions out of the tail pipe. Compare that even to the worst source of electricity generation which from a pollution standpoint is coal burning and you’re still significantly -- by an order of magnitude- better off driving electric cars than you are internal combustion cars.
What needs to be done to influence the public’s perception about the benefits of electric cars?
A lot of it is simple education. When you get down to the facts and science its really irrefutable. But it's a lot easier from a lobbying perspective to make it a political issue. I think clearly most even-minded politicians (left or right) are going to say that electric cars are a good thing but you’re also going to get the radicals on both sides who aren’t going to listen to facts and be histrionic and emotional about what they think people should be doing. But over time facts will bear out and rational thinking is going to replace the political rhetoric and when that happens electric cars will be adopted more and more.
Are you optimistic?
Yes. The fact that every single major automaker is now working on or has launched an electric car is complete validation of the fact that the there’s a demand and that the electric car is here to stay and will continue to grow in the future.
Have you gone completely electric?
I think you need the right tool for the right job. I’ve got a Wheego that’s my daily driver for work. But I also have four kids and since they all can’t fit in a Wheego I have a minivan when I have to take them for soccer games.