Why We Need Electric Cars Now

By Steve Schaefer

Taking delivery of my Chevrolet Bolt EV in January 2017.

This post talks about electric cars, the climate crisis, and actions we all can take to help solve it, including driving electric vehicles (EVs).

A Quick EV History

The Nissan LEAF paved the way in 2010.

The first mainstream EVs in the U.S appeared a decade ago, as the all-electric Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Today, major companies, including GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, and Mercedes-Benz, are proudly announcing their upcoming models (while continuing to sell lots of internal combustion vehicles).  

EV sales, juiced by Tesla’s success, are increasing every year, but still represent a small percentage of the market. Tesla, of course, sells only EVs. Many countries (and even some states) are passing legislation to support the phasing out of gasoline-powered cars in the next 10-15 years.

EV Benefits and Challenges

Electric cars have a lot to offer. They are smooth and quiet. Electric motors deliver all of their torque the moment they are working, so acceleration is amazing, and the low center of gravity from the battery pack helps them handle well.

Electric drivetrains contain a lot fewer parts, so there is much less to go wrong, and routine service is minimal (forget oil changes, tune-ups, radiator flushes, and even brake pad replacement thanks to regenerative braking).

EVs have no tailpipe emissions, but are not 100 percent clean, of course, because like all cars, their production uses energy from various sources. Some companies, including GM, are working to use renewable energy in their vehicle production. Some of the materials for today’s EV batteries must be mined, sometimes in dangerous and unsustainable ways. This issue must be addressed and solved.

There can be some inconveniences. EVs take longer to charge, and there are fewer places to charge them today than there are gas stations. Although the charging networks are expanding, this uncertainty can create “range anxiety,” although most people hardly ever drive more than about 40 miles a day, and modern EVs feature more than 200 miles of range. The ideal place to charge your EV is at home, but some people live in apartments. Some workplaces provide charging, as well. The charging network is being built out and should not be much of an issue at some point in the future.

Right now, there are fewer category and style choices in EVs than there are in the overall market. However, that will change over the next few years, as more companies roll out a range of attractive and powerful models. There are a number of affordable choices today, such as the Kia Niro, Chevrolet Bolt and the second-generation Nissan LEAF. On the luxury side, you can get an electric Porsche (Taycan), Jaguar (i-Pace) and Audi (eTron) now. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have exciting EV models on their way. There are many more.

The second-hand EV market is filled with bargains, if you’re willing to drive a car with a shorter range. Three-year-old vehicles can change hands at a fraction of their initial price. I picked up my pristine three-year-old Fiat 500e, with 25,000 miles on it, for less than a third of its original 2017 retail price. However, its range is only 90 miles, which means I can’t use it for long trips. These older EVs make great commuter shuttles and second cars.

My Fiat 500e has a 90-mile range, so it doesn’t go on long trips.

Some brands now sell or plan to offer plug-in hybrids, which have an electric motor and a gasoline engine too. Unlike regular hybrids, plug-in hybrids can serve as pure electric vehicles for a limited range, say 20-50 miles, depending on battery size. Plug-in hybrids are not as clean and quiet as EVs, but will be helpful transition vehicles as we move to an all-EV world someday. When the fast charging network is built out and minimum vehicle range starts at 250-300 miles, plug-in hybrids will no longer be needed.

Today, electric cars usually cost more than equivalent gasoline vehicles. This is mainly because of the high price of their batteries. However, EVs cost significantly less to operate, so there is a break-even point at which they become less expensive to run than petrol-fed models. So, you have to consider total cost of ownership when you examine the numbers. And sale/lease prices are likely to drop over the next few years as battery costs are reduced, until they reach purchase price parity with gasoline vehicles in mid-decade. At that point, with lower maintenance costs, EVs will be the better deal.

But the most important reason you should drive an electric vehicle is to help fight climate change.

Climate Change

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Our planet is heating up. There may be some disagreement or confusion in the general population about what’s causing it and what we can or should do about it—and there are some climate deniers, too. But among trained scientists, it there is virtual unanimity about the cause—us—and the urgency of acting quickly. The United Nations’ IPCC Report clearly states how we must all work to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid the worst crises. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was held to commit all countries on a path toward achieving that goal.  

Climate change is actually not news, because experts have known about it for decades and have spoken out. But we haven’t listened or done much about it. Now, scientists say that we have about 10 years to get it handled or it could spiral out of control.

How did this happen? With a population rapidly approaching 8 billion, human activities are now substantial enough to change the planet. Every day, we spew about 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into our atmosphere. It comes from various sources, but the major one is the burning of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is only a very thin shell around the earth. As more CO2 accumulates, the atmosphere traps more heat, causing global warming. The science is unambiguous on this.

So, what does it matter how warm the planet is? The problem with the earth heating up is that it disrupts the stable conditions we’ve lived with for the last 10,000 years or so. Global average temperatures have climbed significantly over the last 40 years. Scientists are concerned that we could eventually have some areas of the earth that are uninhabitable, and the people who have to leave there will create refugee crises.

One visible issue with global warming is the melting of glaciers, especially in the polar regions, where temperatures have risen alarmingly. The water from this melt will raise sea levels worldwide, flooding coastal cities.

Someone could ask, “so what do a couple of degrees matter?” Think of it like when a person is sick and has a fever. Even a couple of degrees of difference upsets the body’s processes, and if a fever is too high, death occurs.

Climate disruption also means that global air flows, such as the jet stream, slow down and get a little out of whack, for example, allowing cold air to move from the Arctic into places that are normally not frozen, like the middle of the U.S. Conversely, the Arctic gets 100-degree temperatures, speeding the melting of polar ice.

The oceans are absorbing a lot of the excess heat, and the warmer air above them holds more moisture. This leads to bigger, stronger storms. A lack of rain in the western U.S. causes draughts, so there are more dead trees, which along with rising temperatures, increases wildfires, as we’ve seen in the last few years. 2020 has already been disastrous, and the fire season isn’t over yet.

Disruption is insidious. What if the worms are ready before the birds arrive to eat them? What if the conditions for laying eggs are ideal before or after the turtles arrive? What if warmer temperatures send deadly virus-carrying mosquitos from equatorial areas to temperate regions where the population centers are? And because nature is an ecosystem, a disruption in one area affects many others. It’s all been predicted and is now beginning to happen. Scary.

The complex interactions of nature can’t be explained in a few paragraphs, but the experts who spend their lives studying the natural world and climate science are telling us that we must change our ways now to prevent the planet from accelerating its warming and becoming irreversible. The earth has a great capacity for regeneration, but we are overwhelming its ability to heal itself.

Green Transportation Is an Important Part of the Answer

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Transportation contributes the largest portion of CO2 to our atmosphere—38 percent in California, where I’m located. There are many other causes, including the production of fossil fuels and burning it to generate electricity. Buildings and agriculture make a significant contribution, too. We need new homes and commercial buildings to be much greener, without burning fossil fuels, and to retrofit the old ones for much greater efficiency. All of this creates many good jobs in a green economy.

To generate clean electricity to power the electric fleets of the future, we need to stop burning coal now and move off of natural gas, too. We need to replace it with solar, wind, and other sustainable technologies. This is doable today, but change is very hard. An encouraging fact is that EVs gets cleaner and cleaner as the energy to power them does. Feeding your EV from solar panels on your roof is the ideal option, if possible.

Fossil Fuel Industry Resistance/Auto Industry Sloth

There are powerful forces at work that want to preserve the status quo. Wealthy oil industry executives are hanging onto their business model—it’s been very successful for more than a century. You can hardly blame them, from a business standpoint. But, if a habit is killing you, you need to stop doing it. Smoking is a killer too—and the answer is to put down the cigarettes.

Another issue with the fossil fuel industry is that the people who run it aren’t suffering from the impacts of climate change nearly as much as the poor people who live near oil wells and refineries or in neighborhoods blighted by freeway traffic. This is why moving to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is a social justice issue, too. Read this report from the American Lung Association about the benefits of clean air.

The auto companies are beginning to get on the EV bandwagon, but other than Tesla, it is not where their profits come from, so they have been moving slowly. However, based on what they are saying, the expectation is that EVs will play a major role in their future products. The questions are “how much?” and “when?” GM, for example, talks about “putting everyone in an EV,” but isn’t specific about a timeline. I believe that if consumers demand electric cars, manufacturers will be more than happy to provide them. So, they are getting prepared now but are still making their profits from the SUVs and trucks that have been sustaining them for years. We can make them move faster by demanding EVs!

Let’s All Take Action

Everyone is part of the problem—environmentalists included. I have an electric car and solar panels to  feed it, but my house still uses natural gas for heat, hot water, and cooking. It’s very difficult –and expensive–to change our ways, which is why providing a method for preserving your lifestyle in a more responsible way is an easy sale. We can’t expect everyone to simply stop driving, can we? EVs can replace gasoline vehicles, but it’s even better if we don’t drive as much, or start riding a bicycle, or walk, or take electrified public transportation. That becomes an urban planning priority, and a lot of work is being done now in this area.  

A Recent Peek at a Cleaner Future

HImalayas
With emissions temporarily curbed this Spring, the view opened up.

This Spring, when COVID-19 shut down the world for a while, the clear blue skies of yesteryear reappeared quickly. In India, people saw the Himalayas from home for the first time in decades. You could see the difference from space! But, as we’ve resumed more of our travel, the benefits, sadly, have faded away again.

Many Actions We Can Take

There are many things we can do to keep the earth habitable for humans beyond switching to electric vehicles, but getting rid of your gas-burning car is an easy one. Changing to a more plant-based diet is hugely beneficial, too, since the meat industry causes big environmental impacts. Insulating your home and replacing your natural gas furnace with a heat pump is a great way to make an impact, too. Project Drawdown is a great resource for learning more about the many ways you can help.

It’s hard for human beings to think big picture or long range. I consider myself a climate change activist (not an expert), but there are plenty of times I’d rather go have a beer and listen to music than send emails to my congressperson about climate action or improve my house or attend a city council meeting. We all need to do what we can, and urge our local, state, and national governments to do the right thing.

We need corporate responsibility, too. A large company can have a proportionally big impact. If Google moves to renewable electricity sources for keeping their cloud servers cool, it takes a big bite out of dirty energy production. See what Climate Voice is doing on that front.

Al Gore, who’s studied climate change since he was in college and has tirelessly advocated for climate action, founded the Climate Reality Project in 2006 to train others to share the facts about climate change that he presented in his award-winning An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. You can be part of this, too. Go to The Climate Reality Project website for more information about free online trainings. I attended mine in person in Los Angeles in August 2018 and it was a revelation.

Beyond EVs

Scooters have a very small carbon footprint.

Switching to an EV helps, but maybe you don’t need a car at all! In cities, there are many options, including public transportation and shared vehicles (when there’s not a pandemic). Many people are discovering the utility of electric scooters, bicycles, and mopeds—from shared fleets or owning their own. If you’ve ever visited Amsterdam, you know that bicycles, which generate no pollution whatsoever, can be a fine way to travel, especially if cities are designed to make them safe and convenient.

In suburban and rural communities, it’s definitely more of a challenge, but with a growing range of EV offerings, you should be able to switch over easily in the next few years. Electric pickup trucks are almost here!

The Bottom Line

Climate change is heavily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a real problem and we have to move away from it quickly. There are many things we can and must do, but one action we can take today to lower our consumption of fossil fuels is to drive an EV instead of a gasoline car. Bonus points for riding a bike instead.

VanMoof S3 e-Bike — Sleek, Smart, and Saves Your Legs on Hills

By Steve Schaefer

VanMoof-front

Bicycles are ubiquitous. I’ve had one most of my life, starting before the age of 6. I even made a living as a bike messenger many years ago at age 18. I now own a 35-year-old 10-speed and a modern 21-speed cruising bike, but I don’t ride them. Part of the problem is that I live in a hilly area, and while it’s nice to ride downhill it’s a lot more challenging to ride back up. VanMoof has an answer.

VanMoof e-bikes help you pedal, while still retaining the look and feeling of being “a bike.” The VanMoof S3 model I tested has a small electric motor and is packed with loads of technology neatly and securely hidden inside its sturdy, matte black frame.

The S3 and its smaller, but otherwise identical X3 sibling, just came out in April, replacing the previous S2 and X2 while offering more features and better quality, at a lower price! How did they do that? Answer: VanMoof increased the production volume in their Taiwan factory, as well as owning more of the production process and outsourcing fewer of the steps involved. This increased efficiency resulted in savings they could pass on to their customers.

VanMoof is a Dutch company from Amsterdam, but they have a few locations in the U.S., including San Francisco! The narrow, but deep shop sits at 886 Valencia Street in the City’s famous Mission District, across the street from a remarkable mural that’s been updated for the COVID-19 pandemic.

mural

I arrived at the shop a few minutes early and waited patiently for my appointment outside while three employees arrived, including Grace, who became my guide for exploring this exciting bike. Once they opened up at 11 a.m. I entered the shop and saw a few of the bikes set up. Grace brought out a black S3 and explained the good stuff.

This is a beautifully simple looking ride. The surfaces are all painted a deep matte black that looks like it’s an eighth of an inch thick. The handlebars are simple one-piece units with the appropriate brake levers on each side and a couple of little thumb buttons for controls. The left button is an on/off switch and the right controls some settings and lets you select extra boost when you need it while riding up hills. There are matching black fenders that, per Grace, are great for keeping rain from spraying you off the tires. There’s a small but bright LED headlamp up front and a red taillamp.

You can use a phone app with the bike, but I wasn’t able to test it. There used to be one set up in the shop display, but with COVID-19 concerns, it’s a more touch-free environment now. We kept our masks on the entire time, including my photo session. You can do a lot with the bike itself, but the app enables more configurations, and can even be set to unlock the bike when you approach.

A compact display is built into the top of the upper bar, and with a small flush field of little lights lets you set five levels of automatic assist, from none (0) to 4. You can also see the level of battery charge and note your speed when you’re out riding; it also displays messages from the anti-theft system. You can use the display to unlock the bike, too, tapping in a three-digit code.

This is an assisted bicycle, so you won’t be cruising along with your feet sitting on the pedals doing nothing. It just makes it a lot easier to ride. You can decide what level of assist works for you, although my brief test had the max setting.

This bike has one sophisticated anti-theft system, too. You line up a couple lines on the wheel and hub and press a small button behind the left pedal. Chunk! The wheels are locked up tight. A thief would not be able to use the bike, even if they cut the chain lock and dropped the bike in their truck. And, an alarm sounds when the locked bike is moved and gets louder if the thief continues to fool with the bike. The display shows a flashing skull to presumably further discourage the bad guy. If they do run off with your bike, within 15 minutes its hardware sends out an SOS to VanMoof, where an employee can track its whereabouts. I’m not sure how exactly they confront the perp who stole it (find a cop?) but VanMoof promises recovery or replacement if they can’t recover your bike within 2 weeks (a loaner is provided). This theft policy costs $340 for three years—well worth it, I’d say.

Once Grace showed me the tricks of the bike and adjusted the seat for me, I walked it out the door and took off for a short test ride. In San Francisco, there is no shortage of hills to climb. I learned right away that you must pedal to use the boost button. The transmission itself is an automatic—you don’t select gears, so it downshifted for me to start out and I could feel it shifting when it sensed I needed it.

When I hit the first hill, a real steep one, I pushed the boost button but the motor (or more likely, I) petered out partway up. It may be that some hills are just too steep for the boost. More likely, I am not in great shape so I needed more than it could provide.

So, I came down the hill and was able to test the hydraulic disc brakes. These really work well and are likely to stay good for a while. You can see the metal discs and the small pads sitting over them, just like in a modern car (but much smaller). Brake pads do wear, so VanMoof recommends purchasing the service package. It takes care of all your routine maintenance for $340 for three years, which just happens to be the same price as the anti-theft package. That’s also almost exactly 300 Euros, so maybe they just do a straight conversion from the Amsterdam even-numbered price. You can also get occasional service without a plan, but it’ll be just like going to the car dealer—you need at least some maintenance, it could add up, and parts are extra.

I tried the boost on a few less daunting hills near Dolores Park and the little motor gave me the help I needed to climb them. And, cruising on relatively flat streets is magic. It’s like walking on those moving sidewalks at the airport—normal effort gives you extraordinary velocity.

VanMoof-S3

The S3 has 28-inch wheels and a full-size adult bike frame.

Stats

The little motor in either the S3 or X3 provides boost torque of 59 NM (43.5 ft.lbs). It’s powered by a 504 Wh (Watt hour) battery. Note: I’m used to talking about kWh (kilowatt hours) from electric cars. This tiny motor puts out just over half of one kWh. A Chevrolet Bolt, for example, has a 60-kWh battery, making it 120 times more powerful than the bike. Of course, the Bolt’s battery weighs 900 pounds and the one in the S3 fits neatly inside the bike’s vertical tube.

Battery range varies tremendously. If you use the minimal assist (level 1) and are pedaling moderately on a flat surface, you can get some assist for more than 90 miles. If you have it set to maximum assist and are using boost a lot, it could be more like 37 miles. “Your mileage will vary.” Of course, you can pedal without assist for as long as you like.

It takes about four hours to fully charge the battery on 110 household current. The battery is not removable, so you need to bring the bike close to the outlet—a task easier in a garage than in a third-floor walkup apartment.

The S3 has 28-inch wheels and has a regular full-size adult frame. It accommodates riders from 5-8 to 6-8, which just includes me (at the lower end). The X3, with 24-inch wheels and a smaller frame, accommodates riders from 5 foot even to 6-5, so I could pick either one, I guess. Below, it’s shown in the other color, a rich light gray (the black S3 better matches my outfit).

VanMoof-X3

Nokia 2000_trimmedSo, what’s the price, you ask. It’s $1,998 for either the S3 or the X3. If that seems like a lot think of it as an Apple iPhone 11 and a regular bike as a Nokia cell phone from 2000. This is no ordinary bike. There’s a lot of sophisticated brain power in these e-bikes, and they are built like fortresses to protect the hardware—and keep it from being stolen. If you have the means and the desire to ride a bike for an extended distance for commuting or just fun, the VanMoof bikes are worth the investment.