National Drive Electric Week – Cupertino 2019

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My Chevrolet Bolt EV

National Drive Electric Week is a nine-day celebration of the electric car. Now in its second decade, it grows annually, and spanning two weekends and the days between in the middle of September, offers EV enthusiasts a chance to meet and compare notes as well non-EV drivers a chance to look at, and sometimes even drive, the current crop of plug-ins outside of a dealership environment.

I attended the Cupertino, California event on Saturday, September 14–the first day of NDEW 2019. I brought my Chevrolet Bolt EV, which I’ve enjoyed–and showed–since I got it in January of 2017. With its three-year lease running out on 1/8/2020, it’s likely the last chance I’ll have to share it before switching to another EV next year.

The Cupertino event has a long history, and there is where you can still see some of what EVs used to be–labor-of-love science projects. I’ll talk about a few shortly.

EVs You Can Buy or Lease Now

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Hyundai Kona  Electric

With a bit smaller number of display cars than it was last time I attended, and a thin crowd, it was a little disappointing, but many of today’s pure EV options were there. I saw three Chevrolet Bolt EVs, including my own. A compelling new entry, the Hyundai Kona Electric (shown above), was there, sporting a white top over its jaunty blue-green.

The Kona, with a 258-mile range, is the next-best thing to a Tesla for range, and probably today’s best deal for range. This base model, at about $36,000, sat mere steps away from a 2019 Jaguar i-Pace, which starts about about twice that price. The Jaguar offers great style and luxury, and with 220 miles in the big battery and all-wheel-drive, has its own, different, buyer.

Nissan brought a new LEAF to show, and from its booth awarded prizes throughout the six-hour event. It was the one chance you had to ride in a car. Some NDEW events are more experience-oriented, but this one was more of a show and meet-up.

I saw a BMW i3 down at the far end, and a couple of Tesla Model 3s. Also nearby was a plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion, flanked by two Ford Focus electrics. These EVs, with just 76 miles of range, would make cheap used cars if you wanted a stealth EV.

At the other end was a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid. It’s actually a significant vehicle, since it’s the only PHEV minivan available in the U.S. Its 33 miles of electric range is plenty for local soccer practice shuttles and commuting. This one sported a little extra flair.

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EVs are not just cars, of course. I saw some electric motorcycles and bicycles there, too, but as I stayed near my car much of the time, I didn’t spend time with them. I have ridden a few, and they are a fine option for some people under particular circumstances (good weather, short trip, no baggage, etc.). I did hear one motorcycle zoom past a few times with its electric whine. I’ve considered getting my motorcycle driver license just so I can test these in the future.

Here’s Roberta Lynn Power with her folding Blix electric bike from Sweden.

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Historic EVs

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EVs have been available in major manufacturers’ showrooms since 2010, when the 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt came out. But before that, besides the conversion projects, there were few. One model that had two representatives there at the show was the Toyota RAV4. Built just around the turn of the century, it put Toyota ahead of the crowd. Too bad they didn’t keep building them, because the RAV4 is a very popular body style now. You can get a new one as a hybrid today.

A pair of cute little Corbin Sparrows sat together. Not much more than shrouded motorcycles, these little pods would make perfect little errand-runners or last-mile transit connection vehicles.

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The tiny German 1993 City-EL weighs a mere 575 pounds and can shuttle one person for about 40 miles at up to 45 miles per hour. This one is nicknamed “Lemon Wedge.”

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Pioneers, Projects and Conversions

As long as there have been cars there have been tinkerers–people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) who enjoy a tough project. While some folks like to make a classic Mustang faster and louder, others enjoy electrifying an old gasoline car. The man displaying the Jaguar i-Pace had converted a Mazda Miata before.

I spent some quality time with George Stuckert, a retired engineer who also serves as secretary of the San Jose chapter of the Electric Auto Association. This group, a major sponsor of NDEW, was founded way back in 1967. They used to host a Cupertino event that was all project cars. George is glad that you can buy a new EV at a dealership today, but his pride and joy at this event was his 1996 Volkswagen Golf, which he converted ten years ago. It looks like an old Golf, but has a clever pinstriped design with a plug along the side (that I somehow managed to forget to photograph). It’s filled with electronic tech.

George proudly displayed a large card with photos of the project, and showed me his notebooks of carefully documented steps and the book that got him started.

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It was not a smooth process, and included a few spectacular explosions, but he showed the grit and determination that’s what I admire about people willing to get their hands dirty and triumph over failure to ultimate success. The fact that you can buy a used 2015 VW e-Golf that is superior in every way to George’s car is completely missing the point.

In the front corner of the exhibit were two fascinating displays that, along with George’s Golf, gave a look at what a Cupertino Electric Auto Association event was like before the NDEW and mass market EVs. Bob Schneeveis, a local legend, showed off his two-wheeled inventions, including a prototype steam-powered bike.

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Yes–you read that right. Although it’s not quite in the “drive it around the lot” stage, it is a beautiful piece. His electric motorcycle featured a fascinating front fork that made the ride soft and smooth. As a novelty, he had a “chariot” with a horse up front with “legs” made from brushes that capably gave rides to lucky attendees.

I enjoyed an extended conversation with Jerrold Kormin, who brought two displays: his converted Honda Insight and his prototype solar panel trailer. The former, besides swapping its engine for a motor and batteries, had new fiberglass nose and radically changed tail (and just one rear wheel). These design changes, per Kormin, gave the car a 15 percent improvement in its coefficient of drag.

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The car was being charged by Kormin’s fascinating portable solar generator. The inventor’s goal is to replace dirty, noisy Diesel generators. He is renting his prototypes out now. One appeal of replacing Diesel, Kormin told me, was that companies can avoid the major inconvenience of refueling Diesel generators, which adds complexity and expense. He claims customers can save $500 a month in fuel costs with a solar generator working just a 40-hour week. The trailer folds up for easy towing and takes about 5-6 minutes to open up. Learn more at his website.

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I met Joseph, an entrepreneur who was showing his Cirkit electric bike prototype. Looking clean and simple, it reminded me a bit of early minibikes, that you would assemble from a kit and the engine from your lawnmower! Click the link above to go to his website for more information.

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Vendors and Services

EVs need to be charged, which is why you’ll always find a friendly ChargePoint booth at EV shows. ChargePoint is a leader in chargers (I have one in my garage).

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I also met Shane Sansen, the owner of DRIVEN EV. His company works directly with manufacturers to acquire their lease returns and sell or lease them directly to customers. A great idea, and one I’m considering for my next EV. You can learn more at their website.

Besides seeing the vehicles and booths, I had a chance to network with some other folks who are working on EVs and climate action. I met up with my friend Greg Bell, who told me about his exciting new job working with Home Energy Analytics. Offering the Home Intel program, Greg meets with homeowners and shows them how they can reduce their energy consumption and save money. It can be as simple as replacing incandescent bulbs with LED ones, or more. Find out more at their website.

So, having consumed 3-1/2 pints of water and all my snacks, I packed up and drove home. It was a good day.

You can attend an NDEW event in your area through Sunday, September 22. Check their website for details.

The Last Gasoline Car

Someday, somewhere, the last car powered by gasoline will roll off the assembly line. It should be taken directly to a museum to mark the end of the an era.

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Ford Model T

Cars have been part of our lives for more than a century, and most of them have been powered by gasoline. Now that we know that their emissions are a major source of the carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution that causes global warming, we must switch to electricity–or other options, such as hydrogen fuel cells, bicycles, car sharing, or even not driving at all.

Although the U.S. is not setting a timetable to cease producing gasoline cars, after the Paris Agreement, some other countries stepped up, particularly in Europe. In 2016, Germany said they’d ban new gas cars after 2030. In 2017, Norway, already a major EV-adopting country, said 2025 for them. India says it’s going for 2030, too. France and the UK are talking about 2040. China has a big incentive to clean up their smog, and is moving quickly to EVs, but has not stated a year yet. Naturally, there are some caveats, as items like heavy-duty trucks and buses will not hit 100% as early as passenger cars.

In the U.S., it’s going to take something else. People will have to want electric cars. We will need to provide long-range batteries, convenient charging, plenty of model options, and most of all, a friendly price. From what I hear and read, the day the electric car becomes a better deal than a gas car is coming soon, as battery prices drop and production volume makes manufacturing cheaper per unit.

Of course, we need to have political support for these kinds of limits, but that is neither the policy of the current administration nor the general sentiment of Americans who value freedom of choice. I believe that when electric cars are more appealing and cost no more, a massive shift in the market will take place.

I am doing everything I can to encourage people to check out EVs and see the benefits. I’ll be hosting an event at my office on September 13th and participating in another one on September 16th as part of National Drive Electric Week. These low-pressure parking-lot meetings let people check out the cars with no salesmen and learn more about the smooth, quiet, quick-accelerating EVs from the owners themselves. I enjoy sharing my Kinetic Blue 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, and people are often amazed at what they see and experience.

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My Chevrolet Bolt EV at the 2017 National Drive Electric event in San Mateo, CA

For me, the last gas car just happened. After 26 and a half years of automotive writing, I have finally said “The End” to testing cars that run only on gasoline. The final car is the new Hyundai Kona small crossover. An electric version with an amazing 258-mile range is on its way, but I wanted to sample the car now, so I drove the gasoline version for a week. The car’s shape, size, styling, and driving feel are what buyers want, so an electric one will be a great choice. It could even be my next car when my Bolt EV lease ends on January 8, 2020. And look at that Lime Twist paint!

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2018 Hyundai Kona

Although I would really prefer to limit myself to testing only pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs), there simply are not that many out there yet, and there are reasons to encourage some folks to opt for hybrids. So, my compromise is–if it has an electric motor, I’ll give it a test, even if there’s an engine in there, too. If it’s a plug-in hybrid, I’ll try to minimize gasoline consumption.

Hybrids and plug-in hybrids still offer significant environmental benefits over traditional cars, and may be the only viable option for some people with limited access to charging. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still a bit of a science experiment, but, if you live near a hydrogen station, they can do the job.

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The latest Prius

The hybrid car has had a good run, thanks particularly to Toyota, who introduced the first Prius at the end of the 20th century. They’ve sold millions of them around the world since. Hybrids can as much as double your fuel economy and half your carbon emissions by pairing a gasoline engine with an electric motor. Sometimes, they enable driving without the engine–while requiring zero effort from the driver.

A plug-in hybrid, with a chargeable battery on board, allows some pure EV miles, often in the 20-30 mile range. This means you can plug it in–even at home in your 110-volt socket in the garage–and get to work–and maybe even back–with no gas.  But with the engine and gas tank still in the car, you can hit the road and go anywhere you want anytime. Downside? When you’re driving it as an EV, there’s still a lot of extra weight with that idle engine in there.

A pure electric car is great, but you need to consider how and where you’ll charge it. Sale and lease prices are a bit higher than gas cars today, mostly because of the high price of batteries, and there aren’t that many model choices yet. But that’s changing as batteries get cheaper and more models are introduced. The lower price of electricity versus gasoline and the lack of significant maintenance both help reduce the costs of driving an EV.

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Of course, hanging over this entire discussion is the issue of where the electricity is coming from. If it’s from the solar panels on your roof, that’s about as clean as it gets. Some communities have plans where you can sign up with your energy provider for sustainable energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal, which is a step forward.  If your power comes from coal, your EV is not going to be as clean, but it will get better over time as the electric grid moves to renewable sources.

It’s taken a century to set up our electrical grid and it’s not going to change overnight. But we need to do what we can, as fast as we can, to move to renewable energy.

For a quick explanation of the climate crisis, please read A Dose of Climate Reality

Triple Play for National Drive Electric Week

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National Drive Electric Week (NDEW) is an annual celebration of electric cars, which has grown larger and more popular each year since its inception in 2011.

This year, NDEW ran from September 9 to 17. I attended three events—one of them hosted by me. The photo above is from that event, at my workplace (photo: Candice Tandiono).

I’d always wanted to be part of this, but it wasn’t until I actually had my own car–a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt–that I felt I belonged.

Please read my report, published in Clean Fleet Report.