Earth Day 2017 – Driving My Electric Car

IMG_8417This Earth Day comes at a time of significant concern for our home planet. Our new president, continuing in his belligerent, ill-advised way to work against the needs of our children and grandchildren, has appointed climate-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. He’s approving pipelines, reducing regulations, and we hear rumblings about backing out of the Paris accords. What can a concerned person do?

At times when the government isn’t cooperating, you need to act on your own. One of the things I do is to drive an electric car. On January 8, just weeks before the election of our frightening new leader, I took delivery of my  Kinetic Blue Chevrolet Bolt EV. As a journalist, I sometimes drive other cars to review them, but my goal for 2017 and forward is to test and promote cars with battery power–full electrics and also the many hybrid options for folks to drive electric part of the time.

Hybrid cars offer a way to slip into EV driving without risk, because you have a gas engine and an electric motor in the same car. Some come with a larger battery for storing some power to drive in a pure electric mode for a while. For example, the plug-in Chevrolet Volt has an EPA range of 53 miles in pure EV mode before a gasoline engine comes on to charge the battery. The hybrid Ford Fusion sedan delivers great fuel economy by blending its engine and motor to stretch out your fuel about twice as long. There’s a plug-in version that gives you about 27 petrol-free miles. Nearly every car manufacturer offers one or more hybrid today.

Until recently, driving a pure electric meant being constrained by battery range. Cars like the pioneering Nissan Leaf, despite their virtues, couldn’t make it past 80 or 90 miles before requiring a time-consuming recharge. Tesla turned that equation on its ear with its offerings, but they remain out of the affordability range for most people.

My Bolt EV, with its EPA-rated 238 miles of range, eliminates most, if not all, of that worry. Unless you’re planning a cross-country or California trans-state trip, you’re gold. I’ve proven that this winter by using my Bolt for commuting, visiting, and errands all over the San Francisco Bay Area–my home.

Now if I wanted a compact five-door hatchback and was OK with using gas, I may have selected a worthy car like the Honda Fit. It resembles the Bolt EV, but without the 964 pound battery and other amenities, it is a very modest investment, starting at under $17,000 including shipping. I also read yesterday that the new Alfa-Romeo Giulia sports sedan is the same price as the top-level Bolt EV–nearly $44,000. Which one would you pick?

There’s an element of sacrifice to spending that much on a compact (but roomy) hatchback from a mainstream manufacturer, but driving and living with the Bolt EV has been a real pleasure. It’s high enough to slide right in. The back seat is roomy for passengers, and it folds down to provide lots of space for the upright basses and Costco visits. The dashboard is friendly, colorful, and provides a wealth of the information you need. And I really like the interior and exterior styling, even if it attracts virtually no attention on the road.

But if you asked me, I’d say the best part remains the nearly silent, buttery smooth powertrain. I cruise down the freeway at 65 mph and listen to the Bose stereo on the way to work and the feeling is sheer bliss. Without the reciprocating pistons, you won’t feel vibration or hear any of the typical engine sounds. Slide the one-speed transmission into Low (L) and you can use your right foot to do “one pedal” driving that provides some of the feeling of control you used to get  from manual transmissions. Just touch the brake when you need it for sudden stops.

I like knowing that my car is contributing less to global warming than internal combustion engine-equipped cars, but doing it without sacrifice is even better. We Bolt EV drivers have an active Facebook page, too, with more than 2,500 members!

We have a long way to go–and not a lot of time to get there–but individual choices, regardless of what our temporarily derailed government says, can make all the difference. Today, I drove my EV on Earth Day. Driving it every day will help make every day Earth Day. Please join me.

Happy Earth Day.

EVs and their Sociable Drivers

Call it a cult, but EV drivers, I’ve found, are a sociable bunch. We love to talk about our cars, look at each other’s rides, and learn more about the EVs we don’t have yet, such as the Tesla Model 3, which has received more than 325,000 $1,000 deposits in just a few days.

I like to group my little Fiat, Fidelio, with other cars, too. Then, I talk with the owners. Sometimes, I just park him near the other EVs and snap away. Here are a few recent shots.

This one just happened – One Fiat, two Nissan Leafs, in repose.

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And for good measure, here’s Fidelio with one  of his Tesla friends–also at the office.

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And, tonight, three members of the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra brought their cars together for a photo after a two-hour rehearsal. From left to right, Esteban’s 2016 Tesla, Bev’s 2016 Chevy Volt, and Fidelio, my 2016 Fiat 500e.

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They’re lucky. Although we all just started driving these shiny new cars, they get to keep theirs. But Fidelio has to go  back to the fleet in 10 days. I’m sad. When you live with an EV for months, it grows on you. The smooth, quiet ride, the silent cabin where the radio plays so clearly. The never stopping at the gas station. The torque.

The Tesla and Fiat 500e are pure electrics, while the Volt–in the center above–is a plug-in hybrid. But the Volt will go up to 53 miles on a charge, so if you don’t travel too far, you can use it as an electric car virtually all the time. In fact, Bev tells me that the new Volt will burn off the gas automatically if it gets too old!

The Electric Car Club

When I started testing my little blue Fiat 500e a couple of months ago, I thought, that as part of my EV awareness, I’d attend meetings of some electric car enthusiast organization.I pictured meeting in a place like an old Hof Brau, and standing in the parking lot before going inside for beers and roast beef, looking over each others’ cars in the fading sun.

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What I was picturing was the car club of the past. I met the Corvair owners club years ago that way.

Today, the action is in three places, for me. The first is at work, where I’ve created the Electriccars channel on Slack–our company instant messenger application. We have 12 members–most of the electric car drivers in the company. We post photos, talk about range and what we want to buy someday, and we’re pretty well represented. We have drivers of Teslas, Leafs, Volts, A Ford Focus Electric and a Fusion Hybrid, BMW i3s, and a couple of us with Fiats. Here’s our charging array. Fidelio, my blue Fiat 500e, is at the top of the picture, because my battery is full, and I’ve moved aside to let another driver charge up. With 15 EVs and 6 spots, it’s the only way to make it work.

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I’ve had numerous conversations in the hallway and in our “Cantina” food and party area. One guy proudly showed me his Volt app, where he could get lots of stats on his mileage and driving efficiency. Another wanted to talk about the differences between the different EVs on the market–or the difference between living with a plug-in hybrid versus a pure electric. Another is eagerly awaiting his opportunity to put money down on a Tesla Model 3–that he’ll receive in two years. That’s patience.

The second way I meet EV drivers is at charging stations. While most of my charging happens at home or at my six-slot office charger, I had a fine conversation with two Leaf drivers in front of the Whole Foods recently. A fellow auto journalist drove to meet me for lunch in his EV test car, and showed me where he went to plug it in while we were eating.

There’s lots of EV action online. I belong to the Fiat 500e group on Facebook. For now, I have a car to show photos of, and stories to relate. So do they. There are proud new car photos, oddball charging shots, and interesting customizations. One guy installed new, more powerful, but less energy-consuming, headlamps. Another posted a shot of his little Fiat next to a giant Chevy Suburban. I had recently taken a very similar shot of my colleague’s orange 500e next to the same kind of behemoth, and posted it in reply. We have fun.

Of course there are numerous websites to visit, too. And on Twitter, I post links to this blog, and have picked up a bunch of folks to follow–and who follow me–by going there.

I was expecting more camaraderie between EV drivers on the road, but so far, no-one has waved to me from their car. I, of course notice all of them. Maybe they just like not buying or burning gas and aren’t the social type. More (electric) power to them.

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I did look around for an actual car club, and found the Electric Auto Association. They have various chapters, but from what I can tell, they are the old-fashioned kind of organization. These are the techie guys who used to install dozens of regular car batteries in an old Honda Civic years ago. They are hands-on, and less of a purely consumer group–although I bet that’s changing.

If it were September, I could participate in National Drive Electric Week, but who knows what I’ll be driving by then? I may own my own EV by the time any local events start on September 10.

I love the social part of  being an EV driver. Perhaps it’s the excitement about doing something special that brings some folks together like this. When you drive an electric car, you fit right into the flow of traffic, and especially if you own a model that also has a gas version, you may be invisible to the other drivers. But YOU know you’re battery powered, and that it all makes a difference. Someday, it’ll be the norm.

What’s MPGe? Why Should I Care?

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When the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began measuring the fuel economy of cars decades ago, they created a miles-per-gallon (MPG) rating. It was designed to be posted on the Monroney (window) sticker, so consumers could compare different cars when they were shopping.

However, what happens when you have a car powered completely or partially by electricity? How do you measure a “gallon” of volts? The agency had to find a way to measure all energy, as a “measure of the average distance traveled per unit of energy consumed.”

So, in 2010, in response to the arrival of the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle, the EPA came up with the MPGe rating–miles-per-gallon-equivalent. See this Wikikpedia entry for more detailed information.

I went to my favorite comparison/information hangout online–fueleconomy.gov–and set up a comparison between four kinds of cars, including my Fiat 500e. The Fiat represented a pure electric vehicle, I listed the Chevrolet Volt as a plug-in hybrid, the Toyota Prius as a regular hybrid, and the popular Honda Civic sedan as an efficient “regular” internal combustion engine (ICE) car.

Here’s what I got. Check it out for yourself. There are lots of numbers there, but here’s what I take away from it all.

  1. Electric cars have only the MPGe/MPG score, and it’s much higher than the MPG scores. The Fiat was tops in this comparison, with the Volt just below, with the two non-plugin cars way below. Use this number to compare all-electric cars to each other (and check the range, too).
  2. Hybrids are much more fuel efficient than regular cars. Keep in mind that the Prius has the best fuel economy of any hybrid car, and the Civic is one of the most fuel-efficient ICE cars.
  3. Driving the Volt in electric mode–keeping your trips within the battery range and recharging regularly–delivers nearly as good a rating as the Fiat. Driving it long distances using only gasoline isn’t much better than the ICE Civic. But if you’re the typical driver, and make sure to charge up regularly, and you’ll get the best of both worlds.
  4. Hybrids, like the regular Prius, don’t plug in (there is a plug-in version too). They’re given an MPG number based on overall performance, because they switch back and forth between gasoline and electricity, depending on driving conditions. The numbers look pretty good, though.
  5. The Prius, in this four-car comparison, saves the most per year compared to the average car. Remember, there are lots of other factors, though. Still interesting.
  6. Notice there’s a “per 100 miles” measurement in the same box that contains the MPGe and MPG number? That’s where the “equivalent” comes in. The Fiat, for example, shows 30 kWh per 100 miles while the Honda shows 2.9 gallons per 100 miles. The question then comes–how much does it cost for 2.9 gallons of gas or 30 kWh of electricity? My experience, using a public charger at work, is that I can get around 15 kWh (about 50 miles worth) for a couple of bucks. Gas, in California now, is currently running about $2.25 a gallon. Doing the math, the Honda costs roughly $3.50 for gas for the $2.00 the Fiat runs. Charging my car at home, at night, would likely run a bit less.

Are you enjoying that comparison chart? Good. Now, click the Energy and Environment tab and you’ll see where electric cars come out on top for greenhouse gas emissions. The Fiat gets a lovely zero grams per mile. The Volt is mighty good at 51. The Prius more than triples that to 170, while the Civic gets 256. Many larger cars can emit 400 or 500 grams per mile. So even downsizing from a large to a smaller ICE car is an improvement.

Yes, it’s true that an electric car must use electricity that’s generated someplace using some method that could cause an environmental impact. And there’s the fuel that went into the tank of the transporter truck that delivered your EV to the dealership. Ideally, you generate power from solar panels on your roof, although remember, some energy was consumed to produce the panels. If your power is generated using hydroelectric, wind, or a giant solar farm, you’re good. Natural gas–not as good. Coal–not good at all. Here in California, there are no  coal-powered plants (as far as I know), but PG&E, the utility, could  buy power from another company that used coal to generate it. We have some nuclear power generation here, too.

Still, at this point, there are many fine reasons to drive an electric car, if it fits your lifestyle. But even driving a Prius cuts your carbon footprint down significantly. If you work it right, a plug-in hybrid, like the Volt, would be even better than the Prius (the more you use the electric and the less you burn fuel). And if all else fails, you can still drive a Civic instead of a Cadillac and reduce your environmental impact a bit.

Until we have affordable electric cars with a 300-mile range, these other options–plug-in hybrids, hybrids, and highly efficient regular gas-burners, will have a place in the automotive market.

 

 

 

 

Electric Cars: A Drop in the Bucket

Today, I read on the Clean Fleet Report website an interesting piece by Michael Coates about the Bestselling Electric Cars in the U.S. in 2015. Take a look and you’ll see the usual suspects.

The top seller was, surprise surprise, the Tesla Model S, with 25,700 sold at $63,700 apiece after tax credits.

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The Nissan Leaf, the previous leader, placed second, with 17,269, at a much more affordable $22,360 after tax credits. My baby, the Fiat 500e, came in at 7th place, with 6,194 sold at $25,700, after tax credits. Read all about them in the article.

The point, though, is that even though sales are increasing, this represents a minuscule portion of the car market. 2015 was a huge year, with around 17.5 million vehicles new vehicles sold. The industry has, by pretty much any standard, recovered, although not all companies are succeeding as well as others.

As I drive Fidelio to work and back I see a smattering of Volts and Leafs, an occasional “twin” 500e, and a Tesla or two, but we are a tiny minority. Mostly, we’re swimming in a sea of gas-burning cars and trucks of all shapes and sizes.

If we want to have an impact on the CO2 problem, there have to be LOTS more electric vehicles on the road as soon as possible.

Please join us. Even driving a new Chevrolet Volt, which features a gas engine along with its electric motor, has an all-electric range of up to 53 miles, which can make an impact.

 

EV Drivers – Pioneers and Tiny Minority

As I look over the pretty white dashboard with the silver rings in my Fiat 500e, I smile when I see another 500e on the road. Most of them have their stickers so they can ride in the car pool lane and skip tolls on the bridges. As a borrowed test car, mine doesn’t.

I enjoy seeing a BMW i3 whiz by. Nissan Leafs are common, distinguished from each other only by color. It’s nice to see the new 2016 Chevrolet Volt is taking off. I see them frequently, with their all-new look. Their unique taillamps flaunt a fresh signature on the way home at night.

But, we EV drivers are still a tiny minority on the highways and byways of America. For every one of us there are 100 Ford F150s or Toyota Camrys or Chevrolet Tahoes. Cheap gasoline has encouraged a boom in larger cars, so even intelligent choices like the Honda Fit or Hyundai Elantra languish.

Sergio Marchionne, head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said he’s ramping up production of big Jeeps and reducing production of smaller, more efficient Dodge Darts and Chrysler 200s. Why? Because big Jeeps are the cars that people are buying, and he has to run his company at a profit. It’s a good–even necessary–business decision, but it’s not helping the environment. Marchionne has already stated that FCA loses thousands of dollars on every little Fiat 500e it sells (although the company gets credits towards its Federal clean air obligations).

The people are speaking, and most of them are not EV enthusiasts. They want what they want and like. You can’t blame them. Like the climate crisis in general, if you can’t see it, it’s hard to muster up the energy to do anything about it.

To my left, a giant, black Cadillac Escalade momentarily blocks out the sun. It’s going to be a long haul (but worth it).

 

 

Mitsubishi i-MiEV – Entry-level Electric Motoring

In any shopping experience, there’s the fancy way, the regular way and the basic way to buy. You can grab the $3,000 bracelet at Tiffany’s, the $500 one at Macy’s, or the $29.95 one at Ross.

Same thing with electric cars. A super-duper Tesla can set you back $90,000, a Leaf is $35,000, and the little Mitsubishi i-MiEV? Just $22,995.

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You do get more for your money, but if you truly want gas-free travel, the i-MiEV will do it. And there’s a certain charm to it, too, with its quirky bubble styling and basic (but quite functional) controls inside.

The downside is the range–about 62 miles–but that’s actually enough for most of your driving. I commuted 18 miles each way to work in the bright blue one I tested recently, and it was just fine. It helped that there are half a dozen ChargePoint charging stations in front of my office building, too, because charging at 240 volts is much faster than household 120.

You won’t have problems finding your i-MiEV in the parking lot–few are sold in the U.S., but they’re more popular in Europe.

See my recent story in the Tri-City Voice (Fremont, California) for more details.