Monday, May 16, 2011

21 Hours with a Volt

Yesterday I went to Rancho Motors, the local Chevrolet dealer (Rancho Motor Company) and picked up their demo Volt for a 24 hour trial (21 because I picked it up around 4 and returned it around 1 the next day). It was charged, and claimed an electric range of 35 miles. I set the AC in "eco" mode and headed out of the dealership for the drive home, a distance of about 13 miles. When I got home the readout claimed I had 19 miles left, so I had used "16 miles" worth of juice to go 13 miles. Not good. On the other hand, our house is about 1250 feet higher than the dealership, so this is not a huge surprise.

I took the car home and picked up the family and we went for a drive. We went and visited some friends who were in the market for a car, and while we were there we plugged it into a power outlet in their garage. They both wanted a ride, so I took them for a spin in it. Since they both wanted to know if it was quick, I floored it, a technique you will rarely find in any hypermiling guide :-)

We then drove it by another friends house (who also wanted a ride) and finally took it home again and plugged it in. After about an hour I drove it to another friends house and plugged it in while I hung out there. All told, we did not use any gas on Thursday for this car and we drove 40 miles. I probably could have gotten away without charging it at all until I finally brought it home for the night, but I wanted to have it fully charge for the morning (didn't quite make it).

I plugged the car in at around 11 (simple 120v garage outlet, we don't have a charger) and went to bed. In the morning it was about an hour from fully charge, and showed 33 miles of range. I had Patty drive the kids to school and then I drove the car back home in order to see what the drive to school would do on electric, as we do this usually three times a day (I put the AC on full and told patty to ignore everything, just drive it like you would any car). The drive had used 14 miles of the 33 it showed when we left. Considering it was an, um, spirited drive to school (Patty did NOT want to be late) and daddy was along (more weight plus full blast AC), it is very likely that a normal day would use 12-13 miles of range. This is awesome, because after dropping the kids at school, Patty could plug it in for a couple of hours and fully recharge it (on 240V) before going about the rest of the day.

That would make it possible for us to go 52 miles per day on electricity alone, which is pretty awesome. It takes 12 kWh to fully charge a volt, and if you have an EV only meter that works out to $1.65 (12 x $.11 overnight, + 3 x $.11 for the morning charge) to drive 52+ miles. Currently we spend $11.77 to drive those same miles in our Honda Odyssey. That means using electricity would save us over $300 per month, not to mention the gas savings difference when we use gas (40MPG is a lot better than the 19 we are seeing now).

My friend suggested that I should see how the car runs when it is out of battery, so I switched it to sport mode and got on the freeway. The car was easy to drive on the freeway had no problem doing 85-90 when called upon. Once I got to work, it got a workout giving people rides and explaining everything. We took it to get donuts, and finally we exhausted the battery and ran on the "range extender" (fancy word for gas engine). The car felt about the same. At one point we went up a long steep hill, and the engine was turning a LOT of revs for a little while, but then it settled back down.

Completely depleted I drove it to lunch. I parked it in front of Holland Burger, and someone came inside and asked who was driving it and started asking me questions. I walked outside with him to show him the car, and as soon as I popped the hood I had a crowd. People are very curious about this car, and most people do not understand how it works. Even the salesman get it wrong, as one of them told a friend of mine that after 400 miles you "had to charge it" which is totally wrong.

After lunch I returned the car. We had driven 95.3 miles and used .8 gallons of gas, for an effective MPG of 119. Not bad. Not bad at all. That is almost exactly 100MPG better than our van...

We are seriously considering a Volt. It's expensive, yes, but it's a marvelous piece of technology that would save us a lot of money in fuel costs and insulate us from both rising fuel costs and the dropping value of the dollar (which results in even higher gas prices). Furthermore, it puts our energy spending into domestic production rather than sending it overseas.

And most importantly, Jacob's tuba fits in the back!


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

More thoughts on EV's

As I mentioned in my last post, we're in the market for an electric car. I specified why in my last post and it was mostly financial. But I have a few other thoughts to add:

Every person I've talked to has tried to talk me out of this (I'm not convinced myself yet either). Every person. Think about that. Have you ever talked to someone about buying a car and had every single person try to talk you out of that specific car? I've been told they burn people's houses down, I've been told I should "just buy a prius" (sorry, no) and I've been told that it will cost me as much or more for electricity as I pay for gas. The sheer amount of misinformation is astonishing. I want to start by addressing those things:

Looking online there was one person whose GEM (glorified golf cart) burned down their house in 2002, and one garage fire that "might have been related" to the Chevy Volt parked inside, or (much more likely) might have been related to the home made electric car sitting next to it... Really? How many people have burned down their house with gasoline? I have a good friend whose garage caught on fire when the fuel lines in his old Chevy burst and ignited. We didn't all abandon gasoline cars because of this, and I'm sure his story is not unique.

Buy a Prius: The hybrid is a bad proposition to me. A Prius costs about $10,000 more than a Honda Fit, and a Honda Fit is a car that I much prefer. The difference in mileage is around 15MPG. In other words, it would take about 8 years to save the money spent on the Prius over the Fit, and I'd be stuck driving a Prius for 8 years. No thanks.

It will cost as much as gas. Sorry, not even close, but it IS possible. I've talked with people using my electric company who say that with the EV time of use rate, it costs about $2.50 to fully charge the Nissan Leaf overnight. That means a maximum of $75 per month in electricity, versus $479.42 to drive those same miles in our van, a savings of over $400 per month. That's at the EV rate from Southern California Edison. If you don't make changes to your electric plan with Edison, you could spend a lot more though.

So, lets move on to some other thoughts, because it's not all roses either.

The electric rates are huge in the value proposition of the electric car. They make the difference between worth it or not. Unfortunately, to get the EV (Electric Vehicle) rate you have to have a second meter that is only connected to the EV. While Edison will provide the meter for free, you still have to have it installed and wired, something that is not cheap. Then you need to buy a home charging station. All of this will add $2000-$3000 to the price of the car.

There are federal incentives, yes, for buying an electric car. These will go away, hopefully soon (we need to cut over a trillion dollars from our budget and stuff like this should be first to go), but you still pay tax on the purchase price of the car. Thus, tax and license adds another $3000 or so on the purchase price of the vehicle.

Reselling an electric car is most likely more difficult than reselling a gas car. It's a smaller market, and on top of that, there is the HUGE question of long term battery life. The battery is the single most expensive part of this car, and rechargable batteries do not last forever. With a laptop when the battery life gets shorter it's annoying, and you find yourself using it plugged in more. It is difficult to drive an electric car while it is plugged in :-) As the range decreases, the value of the car severely decreases, particularly with an all electric vehicle like the leaf.

I firmly believe that resale values on early electric cars like the Leaf is going to be poor. Competition is good, and right now there isn't any. If Ford, BMW, Honda etc. all jump into this market, then there will be vastly better options when its time to get rid of the Leaf. And unlike a gas car, the leaf won't be as good then as it is now, because there will be age and miles on the battery.

For us, the mileage we plan on putting on the vehicle makes a lease a bad option. At 25,000 miles per year, the mileage penalty would kill us.

The things I like about an electric car are easy. No more trips to the gas station, simply plug it in at night, at work (if they will let you, a leaf can take a slow charge from standard 120v electric at a cost of about $.15 per hour), or both. Complete isolation from the oil market, and some isolation from the currency market. Since power grid energy is produced domestically, you are also sending money into the US economy rather than the economy of the OPEC nations, and that's a very big deal. If you buy solar or wind, you can eliminate your fuel cost for your local transportation altogether.

I'm not sure what we will do yet. I'm less interested in the Leaf the more I get to know it, probably because it feels like a $35,000 Versa, and I've never thought the Versa was a very good car to begin with. I also agree with the chairman of BMW who says that electric car subsidies should go away and the cars should compete in the marketplace on their own merits. I think the merits are there, but the cars definitely have to make a case for themselves.

But as I said before, it is a huge uphill battle. The reason is simple: as Americans we are very prejudiced against electric cars. They are inadequate as an only vehicle due to their limited range. When I was a kid my family had one car. That one car could not have been electric, we traveled all over the country in it. But despite the fact that many families have more than one car now, we still hold to the idea that a car with a limited range is a useless car, even though we almost never take more than one car on long trips. That is something we have to get past intellectually. Electric cars are a great option as an additional car.

Now to find the right one.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

I want an electric car

why can't I buy one?

The Nissan Leaf is advertised EVERYWHERE. On tv, in magazines, on the internet, it's hard to get away from. The Nissan Leaf is an all electric car that is reasonably cheap ($25K or so after rebates) and seats four. But try to buy one. Go ahead. They opened up a US pre-order signup process over a year ago (only open to certain geographic areas), and it was instantly over-subscribed and they cut it off at 20,000 vehicles. They were supposed to ship in 2010. By January of 2011 they had shipped around 60 cars. Worldwide.

Nevermind the madness of spending money to advertise a car you can't ship (those pre-orders all include a deposit, the people are serious), why is this taking so long? (I know the earthquake in Japan has delayed this further, but these cars were supposed to have shipped prior to the earthquake)

I don't need public charging stations, I'm not waiting for any silver bullet. What they are offering we could use, right now. We have a minivan. It averages 18.1 MPG, and our average use is 71.1 miles per day. This is not speculative, it is hard data from the last three years, calculated by my iphone and the trusty MPG app. If you do the math, we spend over $500 per month for my wife's van, and if you look at the mileage, we average 70 miles per day, right in the sweet spot for an electric vehicle (generally they go 90-100 miles per charge).

So the Leaf isn't shipping. What else is out there? Well, the Ford Focus electric has gotten a lot of attention, but there is no shipping date. What about now? I'm tired of spending this money on gas right now... The only other choice that even claims to be shipping in 2011 is the BMW ActiveE. The problem is there is no firm date, and it looks like limited availability and a two year lease with a pretty hefty up front charge.


At the end of the day, there simply aren't any options available for a family of four looking for a fully electric car. There are a lot of vehicles announced, but none of them you can actually purchase. The closest thing is the Volt, which is a plug-in hybrid, but it's not a pure electric and it's rather expensive for what it is.

If the motoring press is to be believed, 2012 and 2013 should bring a lot more choice in this area. In the meantime, we are stuck paying an escalating percent of my paycheck for gas, with no relief in sight.

Choice is good. Bring on the electric car.