Aptera – Wingless Design, Incredible Efficiency

By Steve Schaefer

Like a wingless airplane.

In the growing world of EVs, the Aptera stands out, for its unusual design, incredible range, and the company’s plucky chutzpah. I attended a fascinating Zoom presentation by Jason Hill, the company’s designer, where he kindly provided details and shared his excitement.

Company History, in Brief

The company was founded in 2005 by Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony, but faltered and closed down in 2011. But—hope springs eternal, and after a circuitous path, Aptera rose again in 2019 under the original founders. They and their team worked quietly behind the scenes, including a painstaking redesign of the car as a full electric vehicle. In December of 2020 they introduced the Aptera 3 and announced a crowdsourcing campaign, which quickly generated 3,000 deposits from eager customers.

Jason Hill, Designer

Jason Hill remembers seeing the extremely aerodynamic original Aptera on the cover of Popular Science magazine. When the company restarted, the founders went looking for a designer, and through a friend Jason was offered the job.

Jason is founder and president of Eleven LLC, a design studio whose clients include Subaru and other automotive entities. He was the first designer at Porsche’s American design studio, working on the exterior of the Porsche Carrera GT show car.

“I support the vision of the efficiency model and what that means for mobility, transportation, and vehicle design,” said Jason.

Jason found that they had never really stopped working on the car, but he believes that now is the right time to produce it.

“The technology, processes, and general environment have caught up to where Aptera can be a leader in this space,” said Jason.

His task as designer is to mix the engineering with the aesthetics and uphold the company’s design ethos.

The Shape

Aptera means “wingless” in Greek, and is a great name for the car, because it really looks like a wingless airplane. The company likes to translate Aptera as “wingless flight,” but is not taking inspiration from the actual wingless flying insects to whom the term is applied.

Design Is at the heart of Aptera, as Jason explained in detail during his online session for investors, journalists, and other interested parties.

The car has room for two people, and the designer’s goal was to maximize vision, comfort, and the “reach envelope” for the activities inside the car.

“We wanted the perfect shape for aerodynamic functionality, low weight and a high level of design,” said Jason.

Packaging

The design goal was to tackle the question of housing both people and the powertrain, including the batteries. Jason says that for the Aptera 3 redesign, they started on the inside and worked their way out, rather than designing a perfect body and trying to fit the pieces inside it.

“We started with the base of batteries and balanced that with the needs of the shape for the best balance,” said Jason.

They put the batteries into smaller, higher-density packs, so they could fit them more precisely into the vehicle.

The overall design process, per Jason, is to seek the best advice, and not defer to a single decision or direction.

“If it fits, it goes that way,” said Jason. “Nothing is superfluous, and nothing is left out.”

That comes down to a “rightness” from having the best user functionality, where the reach to the controls, cupholder locations, materials, colors and finish have a premium feel but are cost effective to produce.  As seen in other EVs, recycled materials appear here, and per Jason, there’s a much greater variety of sources now from which to procure them.

The Right User Experience

Simplicity, elegance, and recycled materials.

No matter what the shape of a car looks like, most of the human interaction with it is inside, so it has to be right. Jason has given this much thought.

“Functionality—needs and wants—has to balance out,” he said.

For instance, the original interior design had a single screen with all the information on it, and three rear vision cameras. Jason says they can do better now. He listens widely to the words he hears from leadership and tries to match them to the vision.

“That’s exactly what I was talking about,” is what Jason wants to hear when he unveils a new design.

The Aptera is designed to accommodate most people, so it’s designed around the 95th percentile human—typically a 6-foot-2 adult male—and for short people too.

The design ethos is about engaging the driver and passenger.

“We wanted it to be free of hassle and clumsiness,” said Jason. So, there’s no key fob, and not a bunch of buttons and distractions. We wanted it to feel clean and luxurious, but not to be missing anything.”

Unique Interior Features

The Aptera features a center console cover, which incorporates a phone charger. There’s also a soft glovebox that sits on the dashboard, not in it. Drivers can store items safely in a backpack that lives on the back of the seat. The rear storage area will be convertible into a camper with a new tent feature that’s being designed with a “tent developer.”

“We wanted to give freedom of mobility and heartfelt limited use of resources—to go far using little,” said Jason. This includes traveling to out-of-the-way places.

The steering wheel started out quite square but has evolved into a more rounded shape. Jason paid special attention to how it feels in your hands, aiming for the right thickness and providing adjustability.

The rear-view mirrors use a video camera system, with high-fidelity feedback—better than a regular mirror. You can also select a standard mirror with a click. The regular rearview mirror is tied in with side cameras for a wider field of vision.

A Different Exterior

Cars are starting to use phone apps as your key—a la Tesla—and the Aptera adds something special—three round lights on the side near the upper part of the butterfly-style doors. They provide a visual cue for locking and unlocking the vehicle. The owner waves their hand over the door pillar and the lights  display sequentially upwards for unlocking and downwards for locking. The Aptera logo next to them remains lit all the time.

The Aptera looks a little like a stripped-down hotrod, with its exposed wheel linkages. The wheels are covered with wheel pans, which move with the wheels when turning. Design and engineering are working together to make sure changing a tire will be easy.

Solar Technology

The surface and dashboard top of this latest Aptera are covered with solar panels, laid out in an elegant diamond pattern. Jason found that turning the square panels at an angle allowed more of them to be placed on the car. These panels generate up to 41 miles of range per day, so since most drivers drive less than that, you could technically never plug the Aptera in. This would be the first EV to be able to claim that distinction.

Why Three Wheels?

Three wheels instead of four eliminates some weight while maintaining stability. Of course, having the batteries at the bottom of all electric cars provides a lower center of gravity, reducing the risk of turning over and enhancing handling. Jason said they will consider different wheel sizes and widths that are most efficient and also can adapt them for different markets.

Jason Sums it Up

“The process is so rewarding—to be part of setting goals and seeing their manifestation,” Jason said. “The style part is one thing but mixing it with efficiency is even better. This gives us freedom of mobility.”

Order Yours

Tempted to have one of your own? Aptera’s website claims up to a 1,000-mile battery range at the top level, with a  $44,900 price. The entry-level model, with a 250-mile-range, starts at under $26,000. You can get on the order list with a $100 deposit.

KoBold Metals Tackles EVs’ Biggest Issue

By Steve Schaefer

Climate scientists tell us we must limit the earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to reduce the risks of various catastrophic events. To do it, we need to lower our CO2 emissions by half in the next decade and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Replacing our fossil-fuel-powered auto fleet with electric vehicles is crucial to success. This change will be difficult and take time, but there is one big issue—the mining of battery components—that has been EVs’ dirty little secret.

Kurt House, Ph. D, CEO/co-founder of KoBold Metals

KoBold Metals is a San Francisco Bay Area high tech startup, with Andreesen Horowitz and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate technology fund backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, as major investors. KoBold has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning solution for the sourcing and mining of the precious metals used in our current batteries—lithium, cobalt, and nickel. I met with KoBold’s CEO and co-founder, Kurt House, Ph. D to discuss what they are doing and the impact it will have. House is a serial entrepreneur with an educational background in physics and math and a career curriculum vitae in energy—both oil/gas and sustainable energy. He is also an Adjunct Professor in Stanford University’s Energy Resources Engineering Department.

The move to EVs is accelerating, and major auto manufacturers like Tesla, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and others, are stepping up new EV introductions. However, for mass production of EVs, we will need a mass of the battery ingredients. And according to House, there isn’t enough metal around now to build the initial stock of EVs.

“To beat global warming, we need to electrify everything,” House said. “And we need to do it all in the next 30 years, so we need to build renewable like mad.”

Per House, there are about 1.3 billion cars around today, of which only 10 million are EVs. That total could be 3 billion vehicles by 2050. That means a lot of these metals need to be mined now.

However, while the mining industry does find some new materials every year with traditional methods, it isn’t moving at the pace needed to provide the materials for the batteries in a short time frame. There has to be a better, more efficient way that’s also sustainable and ethical.

House says there are two approaches:

  • Spend more money
  • Do better with the same money

The second approach obviously makes more sense.

“We need to find ore systems that can be mined with minimal impact, in reliable jurisdictions,” said House.

Unfortunately, much of the known cobalt is in Congo, where it is highly concentrated, some of it right at the surface and some in deep mines. Workers, often children, can dig it up by hand and bring it in for a few dollars—which in the poverty of the area is enough to be an incentive. This is obviously not a good long-term plan.

“We are trying to create a diversity of supply,” said House. “Major OEMs and battery manufacturers would rather have a sustainable, ethical choice in where they source their materials.”

That’s where KoBold’s Machine Prospector technology comes in. Here’s what KoBold’s website says about it.

“KoBold’s Machine Prospector technology combines never before used datasets with conventional geochemical, geophysical, and geological data in statistical association models to identify prospects… KoBold’s technology accelerates exploration by efficiently screening large regions and makes our search more effective by identifying the most promising locations.”

This means that KoBold uses AI and machine learning to look at all of the data, from 80-year-old maps to satellite data, to find the most likely sites for drilling.

“It’s aggregated from all over the world and structured into universal data schemas that can be interrogated by our algorithms,” said House.

What they are seeking is “compositional anomalies”—large chunks of rock that can be mined. As an example, House said that if you drilled for nickel under, say, your house, you would probably come up with dirt with 70 parts per million (ppm) of the ore in it. To extract the nickel from that would cost 100 times the current price for the ore. They want to find where it’s at 25,000 ppm, which would make it very economical to extract and process the ore.

So, why hasn’t anyone done this before?

“They couldn’t do what we’re doing even 10 years ago,” said House. “We are standing on the shoulders of trillions of dollars of high bandwidth computing networks that enable us to spin up and spin down dramatically large computing resources.”

KoBold’s Machine Prospector technology first makes predictions about where the ore is concentrated, and then collects additional data that helps to decrease uncertainty. The goal is to quickly eliminate any places that have a low chance of success so that when they do drill, it’s much more likely to hit paydirt.

Today, KoBold has field campaigns on three continents. Unlike many software companies, they do not license their technology to other companies—they use it themselves and partner with companies to do the actual drilling when they have decided on a location. Some projects they own 100 percent, and some are partnerships.

So, what does the market look like and what’s the best plan? Because battery components are nearly 100 percent reusable, they allow for a circular economy, which fossils fuels decidedly do not. House says we need to get all the metal we can in the next thirty years.

“With a circular economy, the metal stays in the system,” said House. “Circular economies require full renewable energy, so we just mine a bunch for a few decades and then we’re done.”

The manufacturers building the coming fleet of EVs want to ensure they have enough precious metals for the batteries they will need, and the battery manufacturers do too. KoBold, by locating safe, accessible locations and providing focused, high-percentage, sustainable extraction methods, helps assure that we can convert to an all-electric fleet in time and with as little environmental impact as possible.

Public Transportation: From the Tom Thumb Rail Road to Hyperloop and Beyond

Review by Steve Schaefer

This 2020 children’s book by Paul Comfort presents a charming and informative history of public transportation, from its origins almost 200 years ago to a look into the future.

Public transportation interests me, too. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by cars, but also by buses and trains. My sons were, too. I rode on the Santa Fe Super Chief at six years old and had my first bumpy airplane ride at around the same time on a propeller DC3. I rode the old Muni streetcars in San Francisco on the way to college and took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when it first opened in 1972. I’ve taken a long Greyhound Bus trip, flown across the world on giant jetliners, ridden the trams in Amsterdam, and climbed the hills of San Francisco on the historic cable cars. More recently, I rented scooters and mopeds in San Francisco. Kids need to learn about this stuff.

Written by transportation writer Paul Comfort and crisply illustrated by Sudeep KP, Public Transportation keeps it simple, displaying a bright, colorful image of one transport method on each page with a one- or two-sentence description. The quality of light expertly mimics a sunny day and makes the images come alive, and cute, smiling children and happy adults appear in most of the images.

Balloons with “Did You Know?” and “Fun Facts” add interesting details for older children—and adults—to learn from. You could look at the pictures and point with a one-year-old or use it as a stepping-off point for a teenager.

The book engages children from page 1 with a bus to color. The Tom Thumb Steam Train, part of the B&O Railroad in Baltimore, Maryland, is the first character and dates back to 1830. It’s an enormous steam boiler in a rustic cart pulling men in top hats, but it loses a race to a horse when it breaks down. Transit has become much more reliable since.

Horses are the mode of transport itself on the next page, pulling multi-rider carriages. The book then moves on to a massive steamship, subways, and the historic transcontinental railroad in the U.S. with its famous golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. Hard to believe that subways go back even further, to the London Tube in 1863!

Then, cable cars, trains, and trolleys take center stage, with unusual projects like monorails showing a future that hasn’t panned out (except at amusement parks). After checking out city and school buses, Comfort introduces a global positioning satellite—the beginning of today’s high-tech transportation options.

Children get an introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which explains why buses they may encounter have wheelchair ramps or lifts to allow everyone to ride.

Moving into environmentally friendly transport, we see racks of rentable bikes and learn about electric buses. A page discusses mobility apps and high-tech ways to pay our fares, such as mobile phone apps and wearables. There’s even a nod to autonomous vehicles, featuring the first AV in regular service—Switzerland’s Trapizio.

Futuristic Maglev high speed trains would likely not be seen by American children unless they vacationed in Japan, China, or Europe, but they appear here, followed by a look ahead with the Hyperloop train and electric vertical takeoff and Landing (VTOL) passenger drones.

Before you know it, the book’s over, but reading it is a fun ride in itself and helps prepare kids for a future full of public transportation options.

For more information, see: www.futureofpublictransportation.com and www.paulcomfort.org.

The Future We Choose – Surviving the Climate Crisis

A review by Steve Schaefer

The year 2020 was a difficult one. But now, it’s 2021, and I’m ready to renew my commitment to ensuring a safe, healthy, and happy future for my children, grandchildren, and everyone else who will be living in the second half of the 21st century, after I’m gone.

Clear, actionable prose helps you take action.

Reading an inspiring book is a great way to light the fire of climate action in your belly. So, I pulled The Future We Choose—Surviving the Climate Crisis off my bookshelf. Its two authors, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac have excellent climate credentials—they were the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement. They are also cofounders of Global Optimism, an organization focused on bringing about environmental and social change.

I ordered the book last year when it came out, but for some reason, I only got through the first two parts before putting it aside. I got distracted and disturbed by the COVID-19 lockdown and six months of job searching, among other things. But with the U.S. about to re-enter the Paris Agreement under our new, climate-action-focused president, it seemed like an appropriate book to read right now. The book’s 210 pages went by fast, as the message is expertly written in clear, actionable prose.

Two Scenarios for 2050

Part 1 of the book, Two Worlds, offers a brief introduction and two views of life in 2050—one if we don’t act and one if we do. They are jarringly different scenarios, and of course, we want the second option. Chapter 1 opens the book with a brief review of the now familiar basic science of climate change. Chapter 2 presents a dystopian tale of rising temperatures and oceans, more powerful storms, mass dislocation, droughts, political unrest, and the other scary topics that Al Gore clearly laid out in his An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. Chapter 3 offers the alternative future, where we had the right vision and  took action, keeping the earth a good place for people to live. In a way, it follows Mr. Gore’s slideshow’s template—education—emotion—action.

Three Mindsets for Success

In Part 2, Three Mindsets, the authors lay out three ways of thinking we need to practice in order to be good citizens of the earth and do what’s necessary to succeed. The introduction begins with a warning that we too often start “doing” before first reflecting on “being”— knowing who we are and what we personally bring to the task and what other people can do. The authors quote Gandhi, who said we want to be the change we want to see. It reminds me of ideas I heard in my college philosophy classes. It’s certainly important to be centered, grounded, and know what our goals are.

They also say that we need to make a total shift in our thinking. Part of why we’ve done so much damage to the planet is that we don’t see and feel how we are intimately connected to all of nature in everything we do, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the materials we take from the earth and the waste we leave behind. We need to move to an attitude of connection and stewardship, away from one of exploitation and disposal.

The three mindsets are:

  • Stubborn Optimism
  • Endless Abundance
  • Radical Regeneration

Stubborn Optimism

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale and the complexity of the climate crisis, but the authors urge us to not feel helpless. By recognizing our thought patterns, we can start to transform them, and move towards optimism. Optimism, in their definition, means an intention to see beyond the immediate horizon, have comfort in the uncertainty of the outcome, and make a commitment to keeping this mindset.

We want to focus on positive thoughts, while also clearly seeing the real issues, remembering that another future is possible, but not promised. We can use the power of hope to create a new reality.

“Optimism is about having steadfast confidence in our ability to solve big challenges. It is about making the choice to tenaciously work to make the current reality better.”

Endless Abundance

Picturing the world as a zero-sum game gives us a perception of scarcity, even when there isn’t any. This leads to competition and self-centeredness, which historically has been very damaging to the planet. However, with a rapidly expanding population and reduced resources, the earth is now approaching actual scarcity, so collaboration is now our only option.

“The practice of abundance starts by shifting our minds away from perceived scarcity to what we can collectively make abundant.”

Radical Regeneration

Regeneration here means two things. In one sense, our planet can no longer support one-directional growth, with continued extraction without restoration. One example of a solution is rewilding, where areas of the planet are allowed to return to their natural state. The other meaning of regeneration applies to us. The authors suggest meditation and mindfulness to stay personally grounded through the challenges of climate action. Also, time spent in the natural world is restorative, especially with so many of us inside suffering from “nature deficit disorder.”

Ten Actions to Take

In Part 3 Figueres and Rivett-Carnac lay out ten actions we all should take. They believe that while having the right mindset is crucial to success, we have to manifest it in our actions as well. It’s also important to reject the cycle of blame and retribution we get when looking at the past and embrace the shared endeavor while “transforming our priorities to an everyone-everywhere mission.”

“The time for doing what we can is past. Each of us must now do what’s necessary.”

Here are the ten actions.

Action 1: Let Go of the Old World

Fossil fuels have built our society, and brought a lot of people out of poverty, but it’s time to move on. We have to avoid nostalgia for the good old days and focus on where we’re going, not where we’ve been. It’s time to challenge our assumptions.

Action 2: Face Your Grief but Hold a Vision of the Future

With an uncertain future, we need to muster as much courage as we can. We need a vision, not simply goals, while keeping our eyes on what’s to come. It helps to believe that the world is worth saving and that a regenerative future is possible.

Action 3: Defend the Truth

In the internet age, there is plenty of disinformation and lies out there. We have to beware of “confirmation bias,” where we see truth in things that reinforce our existing beliefs. We should verify sources and learn to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience. We can make a positive impact by interacting with and listening to climate deniers to learn where they are coming from and find ways to communicate with them.

Action 4: See Yourself as a Citizen, not a Consumer

It’s crucial to resist the rampant and unsustainable consumerism of today, where “the good life” means constantly consuming new things. When you do buy things, be a good consumer and support companies that make their products sustainably. Even better, work to dematerialize.

Action 5: Move Beyond Fossil Fuels

This is a favorite of mine, as an EV advocate. Beyond moving to electric cars, the authors suggest making an energy audit of your home and systematically reducing your carbon footprint. And we can all demand 100 percent renewable energy from our utilities. We need to make the transition in a planned and measured way to keep the economy intact, but we must do it now.

Action 6: Reforest the Earth

Trees are natural, non-tech CO2 absorbers, and they are cheap and safe. By letting nature flourish we can undo a lot of damage. Trees help cool cities, too, where temperatures are already heading upward. Scary: 80 percent of the deforestation of the rainforest in Brazil is for raising beef cattle. Going to a more plant-based diet has a big impact. We can boycott products from companies that are contributing to deforestation.

Action 7: Invest in a Clean Economy

We need to move more in harmony with nature, repurpose used resources, and minimize waste. The book proposes moving away from using the GDP as a measurement of success—it’s based on extract, use, and discard. Places like Costa Rica and New Zealand are moving away from this model.

“We need to reorient our underlying sense of value toward quality of life.”

Action 8: Use Technology Responsibly

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a powerful tool and has exponential potential if deployed and governed well. It’s important, however, to apply the technology to a society that’s already moving in the right direction. Using AI to extract coal faster obviously isn’t the way. Redesigning energy grids and preventing methane leaks from pipes are good uses of technology. Find out what your government and local community are doing.

Action 9: Build Gender Equality

It turns out that women are better leaders during a crisis. They are more open and sensitive to a wider range of views and are better collaborators. Opening up educational opportunities to women worldwide leads to smaller, healthier families, which is crucial for limiting a growing world population. Project Drawdown has made this point clearly, as well. We need all the deep listening, empathy and collective wisdom we can get.

Action 10: Engage in Politics

We need stable political systems to be responsible to the planet’s changing needs and citizens’ evolving desires. Sadly, corporate interests have captured our democracies. Although climate change action is a higher priority for more people now, it needs to become the top priority. Peaceful civil resistance and civil disobedience are the moral choice and historically have proven to be very effective. It only takes a small number of people (3.5% of the population, according to the authors) to move change in a society.

The Conclusion

The book winds down by making two points, and then proposing an action plan. The points are:

  • We still have a choice—and every action matters
  • We can make the right choices about our own destiny

The action plan is a checklist called, “What You Can Do Now.” It proposes actions for right now and far into the future:

  • right now
  • today or tomorrow
  • this week
  • this month
  • this year
  • by 2030
  • by 2050

Thinking about these categories and planning what you will do helps you understand that your actions today matter, and that you need to be thinking long term, too. By 2050, those of us who are still around will know if our actions were successful.

Next: I’m going to fill in my What You Can Do checklist.

Figueres, Christiana and Rivett-Carnac, Tom. The Future We Choose—Surviving the Climate Crisis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

Climate Action in the Land of Denial and Distraction

by Steve Schaefer

Today, armed Trump supporters stormed the sanctity of the nation’s Capitol and rioted, personally egged on by their toxic narcissist sore loser leader. This is just the latest outrage in the country where COVID-19 is labeled a hoax, mask-wearing is seen as a sign of weakness, and, yes, climate change is called a hoax, too.

I’m sitting in the San Francisco Bay Area, in California, so I am far away physically and politically from this uproar, but I am deeply concerned about the future of the United States of America and the world.

The U.S. was a leader not so long ago. We have been a beacon of hope for acceptance, fairness, and democracy. We had elections where the loser called the winner to congratulate them, and then helped in a peaceful transition. We led by example.

Yes, our history is tainted with injustices to native people, minorities, and the poor. Our capitalism claims that anyone can be successful, but over time has reinforced class structures, with the wealthy getting more so, the poor losing protections, and the middle class having stagnant earning power.

Now, the world needs leadership to battle climate change—along with the worst pandemic in a century. This time, thanks in part to the reign of Donald J. Trump, we are unprepared to lead.  

In 2018, I spent three days at the Climate Reality Leadership Training with Al Gore and other leaders and learned how to present the story of climate change. The former vice president is famous (and was awarded) for his An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. At the training, he showed us how to do our own version of it. The PowerPoint starts with basic climate science, then segues to some truly frightening photos of fires, floods, and droughts, and then some hopeful images of windmills and solar panels. The sections are “Must we do it?,” Can we do it?,” and “Will we do it?.” The “Will” section shows shots of the Paris Agreement and peaceful demonstrations.

Since late 2018, I have given nine Climate Reality presentations, including one just a month before COVID-19 crippled our ability to meet in groups. My personal focus, as an auto writer, has switched to electric vehicles, and I test and promote them enthusiastically.

The problem I see, though, is that in this social climate, presentations like this and simply reporting on electric cars may not be enough to get the job done in the short amount of time we have to make an impact. Today, a vast number of people are fed disinformation and lies, and last November, were willing to give a second term to an obviously dangerous COVID-19 and climate change denier. Away from the coasts and urban areas, there’s a vast distrust of science—you might even say a loss of reason—in the population. With social media, anyone can find a like-minded believer of any conspiracy theory, and right-wing media has promoted an alternative universe of beliefs and “facts.” It’s hard to know what’s the truth anymore.

But facts are facts, and one of them is that the earth is continuing to warm, and that it will lead to drastic changes, including coastal flooding, more powerful storms, droughts, loss of species, and a general disruption of what has been, for ten millennia, a stable climate. Unfortunately, while a small group toils to fix, update, improve, and change the situation, most people either don’t care or are too absorbed in their own lives to act. I know, because even as a trained Climate Reality Leader, I spend a lot of time doing things that either hurt or don’t improve the climate situation. And I know better!

What’s the answer? How can you teach even basic science, such as the basics of climate change or the essentials of disease transmission, to minds that are closed to being educated and whose emotions are focused on illusory things?

Do climate leaders, some corporate CEOs, and some nonprofit organizations have to be the parents who take care of all of these wayward children? How can we reach out across the wide political divide, and get everyone on the same page? We could have had our “World War II” moment with fighting the COVID-19 virus, but thanks to our disengaged, lying, self-centered chief executive, we are behind most other countries. There is no talk of sacrifice and no feeling of shared responsibility. My mask protects you! Why is that so hard to grasp?

When we are finally back to being physically together, how do we heal the wounds that we’ve suffered from this disruptive chapter in our history? Are Climate Reality presentations relevant anymore?  

We need to act quickly, in a way that gets the message across. But what is it?

An Autumn Sampler of the Three Kinds of EVs

By Steve Schaefer

Photo courtesy DENISTANGNEYJR – GETTY IMAGES

Over the last few weeks, I’ve test driven all three types of battery-powered electric cars—full electric, plug-in hybrid, and hybrid. Frankly, with the pandemic and my decision to no longer test gas-only vehicles, I’ve had little chance to drive anything since March. However, I sampled a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid in the middle of November, spent 45 minutes on the last day of November driving the all-new, all-electric Volkswagen ID.4 crossover, and in my driveway sits a stunning BMW 330e plug-in hybrid.

If I had it my way, we’d all be driving gas-free electric cars today. But as we’ve seen lately, life throws you curveballs, and some things take a while longer to develop than we hoped. What’s most important is to set a clear direction and work towards the goal. In the case of the climate crisis, we have a limited amount of time to accomplish the task.

Yes, the climate crisis hasn’t gone away just because we’re in the middle of another immediate crisis.

Pure-electric, battery-powered cars don’t work well for every driver yet, which is why we need to have alternatives. That’s where hybrids and plug-in hybrids still have a role to play.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

All new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is for sedan lovers.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is an all-new design that will suit anyone who still likes cars and is looking for a largish five-person sedan. Honda Accord and Toyota Camry owners, this means you! With its hybrid powertrain, the Sonata Hybrid earns up to 52 miles per gallon (Combined) per the EPA.

As with other hybrids, you never have to do anything except jump in, push Start, and go—no charging cables or plugs. Travel wherever you want, fill up at any gas station. You’ll find yourself there only half as often, of course. To have the most beneficial effect, you can drive gently, avoiding aggressive acceleration and hard braking. Regardless, if a hybrid replaces a standard gas sedan, it puts only half a car’s worth of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s not insignificant. Read my review on Clean Fleet Report.

Volkswagen ID.4 Battery Electric Crossover

All new ID.4 is perfect for America.

I had a masked, distanced 1-on-1 with the long-awaited Volkswagen ID.4 back in September. I got to look at it, sit in it, watch a PowerPoint, and chat with knowledgeable VW representatives. I was pretty impressed. Read my impressions on Clean Fleet Report.

The follow-up visit on November 30th was a real drive, and in the spirit of COVID-19 safety, I got a sanitized gleaming white preproduction car all to myself. They handed me a preset route map that took me through city traffic, freeway cruising and along empty, winding country roads.

The car was engaging to drive and was attractive out in the wild. The interior is up-to-the-minute stylish and airy. The ID.4 is VW’s second all-electric car in America, following the e-Golf, and is built on an all-new EV-specific platform. While the e-Golf, a motorized version of the popular gas version, could at best go 124 miles on a charge, the new ID.4 goes twice that far.

The e-Golf’s spiritual successor is actually the ID.3 hatchback, out in Europe and elsewhere already, but VW’s leaders wisely chose to give us a more spacious crossover in the U.S. of A., since that’s the kind of vehicle most of us in the States are buying. See my drive review of the new ID.4 on Clean Fleet Report.

BMW 330e Plug-in Hybrid

BMW’s Ultimate Driving Machine offers a partly electric option.

The BMW, in Alpine White, served as my ride to the ID.4 test, which was based out of a suburban VW dealership. As a plug-in hybrid, the BMW 330e uses an engine and a motor, and employs a much smaller battery than the all-electric VW, although its battery is larger than the one in the Sonata Hybrid. You plug the car in to charge, and it only takes a couple of hours at 240 volts (level 2) or overnight on regular household current (Level 1). The BMW is good for about 22 all-electric miles, so it’s perfect for local driving, such as commuting, shopping, and errands. When you take it on longer trips, it becomes a hybrid, using gas and electricity efficiently.

On my trip to the dealership for the ID.4 test, I set the car to “Electric” so it would use only electric power. When it ran out of juice, it automatically switched to “Hybrid” mode, informing me of the change on the large center screen. As my destination was 24 miles from home, I almost made it petrol free. If I had been able to use a charger at the dealership, I could have driven on battery power for most of the trip home. I’m pleased to say that the mostly gas-powered return trip was nearly as quiet as the electric leg of the trip, which shows that the gas engine is smooth and quiet, and that BMW has used plenty of sound insulation.

My second trip in the BMW was to spend a couple of hours rehearsing with my three bandmates, who, through careful planning, have become part of my COVID bubble. Because the drummer’s house is only 4.2 miles away, I was able to drive both ways without using any gasoline. That’s what makes plug-in hybrids so appealing—mostly electric driving, but never any range anxiety. The downside is that you may have the best of both worlds, but also must lug along the hardware of both words—engine + motor, battery + fuel tank, radiator, motor oil, etc. and occasionally take the car in for service on those components. Battery-electric cars have little service other than tire rotation.

I believe that people buy and love 3-Series BMWs because of the model’s long history as The Ultimate Driving Machine®, although it has become larger and less sprightly over the years, as most 45-year-olds tend to do. I drove my first BMW test car in 1992, shortly after I began my car column, and I was blown away. My older son enjoys his, and I’m hoping to move him into a 330e when his lease is up. While a hybrid can take half a car off the road, a plug-in hybrid, driven locally most of the time, can do much better.

The Bottom Line

With many auto manufacturers announcing big plans for EVs over the next few years, there will soon be a generous assortment of EVs in every category to choose from. Then, it’ll be up to consumers to buy or lease the cars over the next decade. Realistically, we won’t hit 100 percent EV penetration in new car sales by 2030, but we have to try—and it will accelerate once the marketplace is well stocked.

Yes, I’ve often wondered what we are going to do about all the perfectly good gas cars that will still be around. I foresee a massive recycling and repurposing operation, but they are not going to go away overnight. But we need to stop driving them.

Throwing down the gauntlet, the state of California, long a leader in clean transportation and higher fuel economy standards (and home of Tesla) has legislated that you won’t be able to sell or buy a new non-electric car in the state after 2035. That gives us 15 years to get the deal done. You can expect more states to follow, and perhaps a national mandate at some point. But the most powerful selling point will not be an appeal to saving the planet, but getting to drive a better, quieter, smoother, car that costs less to operate.

To support widespread EV adoption, we must build out a robust and widespread charging network and support home charging fed by rooftop solar panels where possible. We must work to ensure that the energy to power the fleet comes from 100 percent sustainable sources. This means no more coal and a swift reduction in natural gas for power plants. Solar and wind energy are already cheaper than the old school fuels, and with good battery storage, they can provide a steady and reliable energy supply for everybody. We also have other options, including mass transit and micromobility like scooters and e-bikes. And there’s always walking, if you’re close enough to your destination. No car is always cleaner than any car.

The move to replacing the internal-combustion car fleet not going to be simple or easy, but driving an electric car is going to become easier. I’m looking forward to the day when we’ll look around and suddenly realize that the EVs have taken over. The roads will be much quieter.

But first, let’s get ourselves out of this COVID-19 pandemic. Stay home, wear your mask when you go out, socially distance, and please stay healthy.

Understanding the Green New Deal and the Biden Plan

By Steve Schaefer

The Green New Deal has received a lot of attention since it was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in early 2019. But how many people have actually read it and know what’s in it?  

The bill isn’t long, as bills go, but it’s dense. I’ve tried to pull out the main points below. You can read the complete text of the bill here.

Joe Biden has a lengthy description of his ambitious climate plan on his website. It’s based on the Green New Deal and contains many specific proposals.  I walk you through it below.

In the interests of space and clarity, I am using an outline format with bullet points in some parts of this post.

The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal, H.RES.109, is not a law—It’s a framework for dealing with the climate crisis while also boosting job creation and addressing systemic racism and discrimination. It was named in the spirit of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped pull America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It also is meant to reflect the efforts and sacrifices that the United States made during World War II.

On February 7, 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the bill’s sponsor, introduced the Green New Deal in the U.S. House of Representatives of the 116th Congress, 1st Session, along with 68 other cosigners.

To back up its climate change proposals, the bill references the October 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees by the UN’s IPCC and the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment Report.

The reasons given for presenting the bill were:

  • Human activity is the dominant cause of climate change
  • Climate change leads to many catastrophic results, including sea level rise, wildfires, storms, droughts, and more
  • Global warming over 2 degrees Celsius will create even greater issues, such as mass migrations, lost economic output, destruction of coral reefs, and damage to infrastructure.

The stated climate goal is to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C. This means reducing greenhouse gases by 40 to 60 percent by 2030 with the longer-term goal of net zero global emissions by 2050. These numbers reflect the latest scientific consensus and commitments now being made by large corporations and other nations, as built into the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. The United States is officially out of the Paris Agreement as of November 4, 2020 but will presumably re-enter it next year under a Biden presidency.

The actions described in the Green New Deal would commit the United States, a major polluter, to  taking a leading role in fighting climate change. It lays out a 10-year plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition, creating millions of good new jobs in a sustainable infrastructure and industry, as well as secure clean air and water, climate resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment.

The Green New Deal also promotes justice and equity for people of color, indigenous communities, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income communities, women, the elderly, the unhoused, disabled, and youth.

Climate Action Goals

The bill contains a long menu of goals and tasks, but the main ones for climate action include:

  • Building climate change resiliency against disasters
  • Repairing U.S Infrastructure
  • Moving to 100% clean, renewable, zero-emission power, including smart power grids
  • Upgrading existing buildings
  • Growing clean manufacturing
  • Working with farmers and ranchers to remove pollution and greenhouse gases
  • Overhauling transportation systems to remove pollution and greenhouse gases
  • Mitigating and managing the effects of climate change
  • Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and restoring natural ecosystems
  • Cleaning up hazardous waste
  • Sharing technology, products, and services with other countries
  • Protecting public lands, waters, and oceans

Economic and Social Goals

The economic and social goals include:

  • Having the Federal Government account for the complete environmental and social costs and impacts of emissions in existing laws
  • Creating new policies and programs
  • Protecting frontline and vulnerable communities
  • Providing resources, training, and education to all people
  • Making public investments in research and development of clean technology
  • Investing in economic development, including high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages and have family medical leave, vacations, retirement, and security
  • Strengthening and protecting the rights of workers to organize, unionize, and bargain collectively
  • Enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments
  • Obtaining informed consent of indigenous peoples for decisions that affect them and their territories
  • Ensuring a business environment without unfair competition
  • Providing to all people of the United States:
  • High-quality healthcare
  • Affordable, safe, and adequate housing
  • Economic security
  • Clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature

Summary

The Green New Deal is a proposal, not a law, and is wide ranging in its scope. I have shown only the outline of it above. If its goal is to move the conversation forward, it has already been successful. However, we need to work on enacting the parts of it that we can over the next decade to keep the global average temperature down.

Joe Biden’s Plan

As president, Joe Biden will have a huge task before him. His climate plan borrows the spirit and many of the specific proposals from the Green New Deal. Its goal is a national effort “to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future.”

The $2 trillion plan creates millions of construction, skilled trade, and engineering jobs to build this new infrastructure while providing pathways for workers of all ages and people from all backgrounds.

The investments will be in Infrastructure; the auto industry; transit; the power sector; buildings; housing; innovation; agriculture and conservation; and environmental justice. The plan includes the good union jobs and rights to collectively bargain and organize we saw in the Green New Deal. It asks employers who benefit from this program to pay at least $15 per hour and provide paid leave and overtime.

The plan promotes diversity in hiring and keeps jobs local. There will be job training and pre-apprenticeship programs, too. It also commits the country to helping workers from industries that drove our economy but are now declining, such as coal and oil, to retrain for the new green economy.

Key Elements of the Biden Plan

These are key elements for the building out the infrastructure and a clean energy future.

Build a modern infrastructure – The plan outlines using American labor to transform the transportation infrastructure by fixing the railroads and investing in municipal transportation networks. It also includes steps to revitalize communities across the country by ensuring clean drinking water, expanding 5G broadband to all, and cleaning up brownfield properties, including old powerplants, landfills, and abandoned mines.

Help the U.S. auto industry to be leaders – The plan will create a million new jobs in manufacturing, supply chains, and infrastructure.  It also works to increase demand for American-sourced clean vehicles, especially in fleets, while encouraging consumers and manufacturers to move to EVs through programs like the Clean Cars for America proposal to swap out old cars. The plan will make major EV infrastructure investments, including building half a million EV charging stations. This effort will create good jobs that support vehicle electrification, including training programs. Another requirement for EV growth is to accelerate battery research and development. Specific references in the plan include converting all 500,000 buses in the U.S. to American-made zero-emission vehicles and establishing ambitious vehicle emission standards.

Have a carbon pollution free power sector by 2035 – Biden plans to create millions of jobs in the clean energy sector, for example moving from iron casting and steel fabrication to solar and wind industries jobs. The plan lays out a goal to build out the electrical grid to support the electrical transportation and battery storage infrastructure, create tax incentives and financing options to involve the private sector, and establish a technology-neutral standard for utilities and grid operators. This will help to achieve carbon-pollution-free energy by 2035. The plan also discusses leveraging and improving existing infrastructure to handle the new technology, including  funding research investments and tax incentives for carbon sequestration for existing powerplants and the development of green hydrogen.

Make major investments in energy efficient buildings – The plan includes creating a million jobs to upgrade 4 million homes and weatherize 2 million more, as well as building 1.5 million affordable new energy-efficient homes. The goal is to cut the carbon footprint of the national building stock by 50 percent by 2035. Financial incentives include almost 25 percent of the retrofit savings going back to state and local governments. Families can get rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade home appliances to high-efficiency ones and replace old windows. Schools are slated for modernization, too, aiming especially at low-income urban and rural schools.  

Invest in clean energy innovation – Biden wants the U.S to be a world energy leader, and plans to procure $400 billion for batteries, EVs, and upgrading of industrial manufacturing processes over the next four years. This includes creating a new Advanced Research Projects Agency on Climate that looks at a variety of low-carbon options. He wants to bolster the supply chains for these clean industries, invest in national labs, and strengthen land-grant and historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Advance sustainable agriculture and conservation – Biden proposes creating a Civilian Climate Corps that works on conservation and climate resistance. This includes scientifically based forest management, restoring wetlands, repairing irrigation systems, planting trees, restoring coastal ecosystems, and more. The plan includes creating more than a quarter million jobs cleaning up old mining sites and plugging abandoned oil and gas wells. The plan will work with farmers on the next generation of agriculture and conservation. This means leveraging new technologies, techniques, and equipment, choosing new crops, and sequestering carbon. It also involves changing trade policies to protect workers, bolstering the security of the food supply, and making sure farmers have access to fair markets. There’s even a plan to help minority farmers get equal opportunity and protect farmworkers.

Secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity – Biden’s plan includes making sure that disadvantaged communities receive 40 percent of spending for clean energy and energy deployment, clean transit and transportation, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, pollution remediation, and development of a clean water infrastructure. This involves creating a screening tool to identify disadvantaged communities. Biden will overhaul and update existing programs and establish a new Climate and Environmental Justice Division within the Justice Department.

Summary

The Biden plan will:

  • Build a modern infrastructure
  • Help the U.S. auto industry to be leaders
  • Have a carbon pollution free power sector by 2035
  • Make major investments in energy efficient buildings
  • Invest in clean energy innovation
  • Advance sustainable agriculture and conservation
  • Secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity

This will be an enormous undertaking, but it will put America on the path to being environmentally responsible over the next 10 to 15 years, when it’s crucial, and creating millions of good jobs for those who need them. After four years of inaction and rollbacks, it’s a very welcome sign.

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.

Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid–One of 3 Gas-Saving Flavors

By Steve Schaefer

Kia has been good about offering “Neopolitan” choices for a few of its models. In ice cream, Neopolitan means strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. With a Kia Niro, it means Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and pure EV. If the flavors are laid out that way, it would be the “vanilla” selection—the PHEV—that visited my driveway recently.

I have sampled the other flavors of Niro. The hybrid, like all other hybrids, is a way to drive further on less gas, thanks to an electric motor that automatically regenerates power from regenerative braking and stores it in a small battery. There’s no effort required on the driver’s part. With the all-electric model, the Niro challenges other EVs with a high level of equipment and a terrific 239-mile range in a crowd-pleasing SUV shape.

As a PHEV, the Niro offers significantly more electric range than the hybrid, but is still lugging around a gas tank, engine, radiator, etc., which you’ll need for when you want to drive more than 26 miles without a charge. However, you can drive anywhere you want to, anytime.

As they say in the software business, it depends on your “use case.” If you travel long distances a lot, a hybrid is a no-brainer. The plug-in hybrid is great if you occasionally want to drive hundreds of miles unimpeded by a charging stop, but you get nearly full-electric motoring for your short trips around town. The EV is the most environmentally friendly, and you can go over 200 miles before needing an electron fill-up, but charging still takes time.

The beauty is, all three version look and drive about the same. The EV is missing the 1.6-liter, 139-horsepower engine, and its 64-kWh battery is much larger and heavier than the one in the PHEV. The PHEV, like my Horizon Blue tester, has a much smaller 8.9 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery for its more modest range, so it’s in the middle somewhere.

You can spec the PHEV at the LXS, EX, or EX Premium level. My tester was the EX Premium, so it came with some extras that even the regular EX didn’t get. These include a 10.25-inch dash screen instead of the standard 8-inch, a power tilt/slide sunroof, a Harman Kardon 8-speaker upgraded audio system, heated artificial leather seats (new this year), LED interior cabin and cargo lighting, deluxe scuff plates, and more.

The driving experience for the Niro is pleasant, as it cruises silently around town on electricity. The engine comes in when you run out of juice, but during my COVID-19-reduced driving regimen, I rarely heard it. What I did hear, though, was a strange artificial swishing sound below around 20 miles per hour. This is provided to alert oblivious pedestrians, who can’t hear the electric motor in parking lots.

The design of the Niro owes something to the hand and the vision of former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer. He has been at Hyundai/Kia for a while now, so the satisfying balance and distinctive look is now part of all Kia products. For 2020, the instrument panel gets an update, but without a ’19 next to it I can’t say what’s different.

Inside, the controls are typical Kia—easy to use and understand. The oversize screen in my tester featured large displays and setting up Apple CarPlay was a snap. The leather-wrapped wheel feels nice, the seats are comfortable, and it’s all carefully planned to make driving nearly effortless.

Easy to read and easy to use.

The exterior receives midcycle grille and fascia upgrades up front and some upgrades to the tail, too, but nothing too different. This is a nice-looking, if not eye-popping vehicle, so there was no reason to mess with that.

A fresh face for 2020.

Environmentally speaking, the car gets fuel economy numbers of 48 City, 44 Highway, 46 Combined mpg as a hybrid. As a plug-in, it’s rated 105 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) if you charge it up. A full charge from zero on Level 2 240-volt current takes about two hours and 15 minutes.

The EPA green scores are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Gas. The Niro PHEV emits just 90 grams of CO2 per mile, which isn’t very much considering some gasoline vehicles I’ve tested spew out well over 300. The more you use the battery the lower that actual number will be, of course.

Prices, including shipping, start at $30,610 for the LXS and range up through the EX at $34,350 and EX Premium at $37,510. My tester came to $37,790 with additional cargo mats and net.

Unlike some Hyundais and Kias, which are built in the U.S., this one is assembled in Hwasung, Korea. These days that doesn’t really mean much, but now you know.

As a reasonably roomy, high-utility crossover, any Kia Niro is a perfect choice for many people. You pick the battery size for what suits you.

BMW X3 xDrive30e – Luxury SUV with Some EV Cred

By Steve Schaefer

BMW’s midsize plug-in hybrid SUV lives in the trendy part of the marketplace. In the BMW stable, the X3 is “right-sized,” with the smaller X1 as the entry point and the larger and more expensive X5 and X7 above it.

You can get the X3 xDrive30i, with a gasoline-only powertrain, but opting for the xDrive30e means your vehicle combines a 2.0-liter turbo-charged four-cylinder gasoline engine with an integrated electric motor and a 12-kWh battery. Officially, you can plug in your car and then drive about 18 miles on electricity alone, making a big impact on local trips.

Getting more specific, the X3’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor together generate 288 total horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque, good for an under-six-second time to push the 4,586-pound SUV from zero to 60. So, although it’s taller than a 3-Series sedan, it still gives you the performance you seek from a vehicle that wears the blue-and-white BMW roundel.

My tester came in a typical BMW gray shade called “Dark Graphite Metallic.” Numerous other colors are available, including the Phytonic Blue Metallic I’d likely choose. The twin kidney grille sits prominently up front, and the styling is typical of today’s BMWs.

You can get the gasoline-only X3 with rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, but plugins are all-wheel-drive only. This isn’t so much for climbing rocks as providing extra traction in inclement weather and heightened security on the dirt road to your summer cabin.

You’ll know you’re entering a BMW the moment you open the door. The traditional two-tone theme prevails, the nickel-finish metallic trim gleams softly, the Cognac Vernasca leather smells great, and the Fineline Cove Matte Finish wood trim is bumpy and fake-looking. In my tester, the black headliner helped create a cozy feeling while the fat leather wheel was great to grip. BMWs have to look and feel like BMWs or what’s the point?

There’s little downside to adding the electric powertrain, although the base price for the plug-in is $4,600 higher and you lose 1.5 cubic feet of cargo space, since the battery protrudes a little from the cargo hold where it lives. The cargo reduction shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it’s something to be aware of.

A little cargo space is taken up by the battery.

The seventh generation of iDrive delivers a 12.3-inch high-res screen that you can interface with using voice, touch, and haptic controls. There’s all the tech you could want, with some of that complex German engineering that means you have to figure out things rather than just learning them intuitively.

As a luxury brand, BMW follows the “but wait, there’s more” approach to options. My $48,550 test vehicle topped out at $65,020 when all was said and done. Large pieces of this included the M Sport design upgrade ($5,000) and 15-item Executive Package ($4,500), and there was plenty more. Check out the website for details. An upgrade to double-spoke bi-color 20-inch wheels added another $950. I certainly enjoyed the audio upgrade to the Harman Kardon surround sound system ($875).

The whole purpose of having a plug-in hybrid is to increase efficiency, so how do the numbers stack up? The xDrive30e earns 60 MPGe combined city/highway when using gasoline and electricity. If you don’t charge up, the combined number is 24 mpg. If you opt for the all-wheel-drive version of the gas-only xDrive30i, it’s 24 City, 29 Highway, and 26 Combined. The EPA Green scores are 7 for Smog and 9 for Greenhouse Gas for the plugin and 7/5 respectively for the standard gas model. The plugin earns the EPA’s SmartWay designation, while putting out 204 grams of CO2 per mile versus 345 grams for the gas model. That’s not insignificant.

The point being, make sure to plug in the car to get maximum benefits. With the small battery, you should be able to use regular household current in your garage to fill it up overnight—you don’t need to install a more expensive (but faster) 240-volt Level 2 charger.

Cars are meant to be driven, and I hate to say it, but during a pandemic, not a lot of driving gets done. I put few miles on this car but tried to make most of them electric. The motor is responsive, smooth, and silent, as expected. The driving experience is not especially sporty, but the BMW ambiance makes it seem so. If you like BMWs and want a crossover, this is a good option. Competition is fierce in this market segment, and plug-in hybrids are likely to be popular in the 2020s until full EVs take over. This car can give you unlimited travel options with zero range anxiety, however, it is only incrementally helping to solve our climate crisis. It is a good way to learn about plugging in and visiting the gas station less.