PHEV or not PHEV – That Is the Question

Why I’m resuming testing cars that are not pure EVs.

By Steve Schaefer

2020 Niro PHEV

On April 25th of this year, with COVID-19 causing massive lockdowns and cars sitting parked, the skies around the world cleared up! This happy and unexpected news inspired me to declare to the world, in this blog, the following:

I have decided, after 28 years of automotive testing and writing, that I will now test and review only pure, all-electric vehicles. It completes the move away from testing gasoline-only cars that I made after my Climate Reality Leadership Training in August of 2018.

This bold, emotionally fueled statement meant I was giving up on hybrids, including the plug-in ones with chargeable batteries.

Well, since then, I have tested a single car—the delightful if range-impaired Mini Cooper SE. I’ve also had time to think about what is likely to happen in the 2020s. The fact is, regardless of how much I love EVs, barring some miracle yet to happen, they are not going to constitute 100 percent of new car sales anytime soon, except perhaps in Norway. In my home country, the United States of America, there will still be some people who choose not to drive electric, and there presumably will be some manufacturers willing to indulge them if profits can be made.

We don’t need a 100% electric fleet by 2030, as wonderful (and clean and quiet) as that sounds. We need a 50% electric fleet, with an eventual movement to 100% electric new vehicles, with the older ones eventually dwindling away as they are retired or massively disappearing if a program can be devised to do that.

Based on this line of reasoning, there is no reason why some people can’t opt for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) now instead of BEVs if they need them. And why would they need them? Perhaps they don’t have their own roof for solar and worry about access to public charging. Perhaps they need to drive long distances periodically, which in 2020 only a gas vehicle can do without stops that last under 10 minutes.

Although PHEVs are still saddled with not only a motor but a gasoline engine, fuel tank, radiator, and all that, because they have a chargeable battery, if driven locally within their much shorter range, they can serve nicely as EVs most of the time, only sipping fuel when needed. And that is MUCH better than a gasoline burner, or even a regular hybrid, which switches from gas to battery and back again and can’t be charged. Even a regular hybrid delivers twice the fuel economy of an internal combustion engine (ICE) car, which essentially takes half a car off the road. A PHEV can remove 90%, once again, depending on use.

Do I want to promote PHEVs, then? I’d rather entice someone to buy a BEV, because they are so silent and clean and wonderful, but realistically, we can still have some PHEVs in the fleet in the ‘20s until electric/gas price parity is achieved, the charging network is built out, and the 400-mile battery is invented. Instead of “all-or-nothing” thinking, this means looking at the overall goal of cutting our CO2 emissions in half by 2030 and finding a workable strategy for eventually making the fossil fuel industry history.

Yes, I would like to have a few more test cars, too, although I don’t need one every week. Many exciting electrified vehicles are arriving in the next couple of years that are plug-in hybrids, and it would be a shame for me to miss out on testing those cars.  I need to be able to guide readers to the best transportation solution for them now, and in the future.

For a great example of the wonders of plug-in hybrids, see this story on the Kia Niro PHEV by freelance auto writer Mike Hagerty. I’ll plan to serve up a few PHEV stories myself once I let my test fleets know my change of heart. Stay tuned.

Ford Mustang Mach-E: Selling Car Buyers on Going Electric

By Steve Schaefer

A new Mustang for a new world.

If we believe the growing scientific consensus, we must reduce our CO2 emissions by at least half in the next decade to hold global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Warming above that is considered to be catastrophic. Since the largest (but by no means only) source of these emissions is transportation, moving to an all-electric vehicle fleet, powered by sustainably generated electricity, is urgent and necessary.

That message is about as welcome as the cancer warning on a pack of smokes. And similarly, not often heeded, either.

Susan B. Anthony is not sexy

But how do we get people to buy EVs? As long as customers have a wide choice of gasoline-powered vehicles, only early adopters and climate activists are snapping up what companies have provided. It’s like the dollar coin—regardless of whether you put an abolitionist, an historic Native-American, or a president on it, it has been a nonstarter as long as folks could use the good old paper bill (or today, their debit card).

It’s also like selling cereal—the “good for you” Bran Flakes may attract a certain health-conscious (or constipated) clientele, but it’s not where the action is. Captain Crunch with Crunchberries, filled with sugar and marketed breathlessly to children, is the volume seller.

For a century, car marketing has evoked emotion to sell cars, and has built its products to reflect customer demand, which in turn, is fueled by massive marketing and advertising campaigns. Although there have always been compact, fuel-sipping vehicles that practical people bought because they couldn’t afford more, the action has been on style and performance, from fins to V8 engines and today, to loads of high tech features.

So far, only Tesla has been the brand to offer an exciting EV experience in all of its cars. It works because first of all, they sell ONLY EVs and secondly, they have made them attractive and powerful. In contrast, Nissan’s LEAF, while certainly practical and environmentally conscious, is too close to automotive bran flakes. GM’s excellent Bolt EV is another fine car, without the range limitations of the LEAF, but for $40,000, one could also bring home a 3-Series BMW. Not sexy.

The automotive equivalent to Bran Flakes.

Using the climate crisis as a marketing tool, then, clearly isn’t working. And in a consumer-driven economy we can’t force people to buy EVs if they don’t want them. Which brings us to Ford’s upcoming Mustang Mach-E crossover.

Ford’s EV history has up to now featured the lackluster battery-powered Focus and a few hybrid and plug-in hybrids, including the attractive midsize Fusion sedans and European-design C-Max. Now, with Tesla as an inspiration, Ford has decided to blend their most iconic model with the most up-to-date tech in today’s most popular body configuration to create a real Tesla competitor.

I attended a compelling online presentation by Mark Kaufman, Global Director, Electrification at Ford, yesterday, in which he outlined the plans the company has for its EVs going forward, with an emphasis on the exciting new Mustang, which will be sold alongside its gas-powered coupe stable mates.

The Mustang was an instant hit when it debuted in April 1964. Based on the tried-and-true platform from the popular but dowdy compact Falcon, it hit a sweet spot and sold half a million copies in its first year. Surely Ford’s leaders are savoring another blockbuster like that with the Mach-E. As Kaufman said, it is the only EV with the soul of a Mustang (sounds like a great advertising pitch, doesn’t it?).

The Mustang has always been a coupe, fastback, or convertible, so making it a five-passenger crossover is a nod to what’s hot today. Also, Kaufman stated that while many people love their Mustangs, when the kids come along their beloved cars are simply too small. So, it all makes sense.

Admitting that global catastrophe is not a compelling sales tool for most people, the planners at Ford will offer a GT version of the Mach-E that puts out 600 horsepower and can run from 0-60 in the mid three-second range. No climate leader has ever said that was important to them, but for the mass of car enthusiasts, especially of American iron, that’s extremely attractive (and very much a page out of Tesla’s gameplan). Kaufman mentioned an “Unbridled” setting that sounds a lot like Tesla’s “ludicrous” mode.

The arguments against buying an EV often center around the whole charging/range anxiety problem, so Ford is giving the regular, rear-wheel-drive model a 300-mile range (230 for the muscular all-wheel-drive GT). The company will promote installation of home chargers that can put in 30 miles of range in an hour. DC fast charging allows 61 miles of range in 10 minutes or 40-45 minutes to 80 percent. They have also built out the FordPass Charging Network, which isn’t new charging stations but combines four existing networks with one payment setup, for ease and efficiency. They’ve designed a slick phone app to track the process as well. Once again, Tesla is the model for a unified network, although they built their own equipment.

What else? Ford flaunts its more than a century of car sales and service, with virtually all service done by more than 3,000 dealers nationwide, of which 2,100 or more are certified to work on EVs. Tesla can’t match that. Also, the new shopping experience targets millennials with online reservations for shopping and service.

I am eager to test this exciting new product. However, I wonder how we can get the fleet electrified in 10 years. Nobody expects it to be 100 percent electric by 2030, but I’d like to see half of the cars be EVs by then. Kaufman said, reasonably, that most predictions are based on past performance and that this won’t work here, but he also said he expected a third of cars to be EVs by 2030. That’s why Ford has plans for an electric F-150 pickup (America’s best-seller for decades) and an electric Transit van, as well.

To speed the conversion of the vehicle fleet to electric, Ford and other companies must not only provide thrilling EVs, but solid mass market EVs soon. That means we need all-electric Honda Accords and Toyota RAV4s. Buyers need to start viewing gas cars as old and out of style. Certainly the auto industry, which created the whole idea of planned obsolescence, can make fuel-burning vehicles obsolete, can’t they?

The 2021 Mustang Mach-E is due out at the end of the year. 

Farewell to My Chevrolet Bolt EV

By Steve Schaefer

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Today, I said goodbye to my Chevrolet Bolt EV, affectionately named, in the style of Pee Wee Herman, “Bolty.” My Kinetic Blue 2017 all-electric hatchback served me well for three years and 26,490 miles, but a lease is a lease and I had to return it by January 8th.

Origins

I’ve driven and tested cars for nearly 28 years, mostly with weekly test vehicles. As I learned about and drove electric cars, I became very interested in them. I sampled a Nissan LEAF when it arrived in 2011 and a few other EVs, but the real turning point was when I convinced the generous folks at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to lend me a baby blue Fiat 500e for three months in early 2016. My happy time with that little car, whom I named Fidelio, convinced me that I wanted an EV of my own.

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Fidelio I.

I began to focus on only electrified vehicles in my auto review column and blogs. I started www.stevegoesgreen.com to write about my adventures with Fidelio, and it’s since expanded to cover other climate-related topics.

The Bolt EV was a revelation—with its 238 miles of range it would be able to handle almost anything, including the 165-mile round trip to visit my granddaughters. I ordered my car in October of 2016 without ever driving or even seeing a real car. I was hoping I’d like it.

I impatiently waited for delivery, and finally, the very first week of 2017, I got the phone call that my Bolt was on the truck and being delivered. In a day or two, I was down at Boardwalk Chevrolet in Redwood City, CA to pick it up.

Taking delivery 1-8-17

Exactly What I Needed

I took to my new car immediately, and it proved to be exactly what I needed and wanted. It may look compact, because it has almost no front or rear overhangs, but the Bolt is spacious for 4 or 5 passengers and the hatchback folds down easily to carry lots of gear, including an upright bass or two electric basses, amps, and the works. The high roof means abundant headroom, even for tall folks (I’m only 5-8).

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One of the wonders of EVs is how quickly they accelerate, and the Bolt, while not Tesla fast, is as quick as a Volkswagen Golf GTI – about 6.3 seconds zero-to-sixty. The weight of the 960-pound battery means a low center of gravity, for taut responses and level handling.

And it does it all virtually silently. If you turn off the audio system, you’ll hear a very low hum from the motor, and wind and tire noise are muted. And, since there’s nothing reciprocating, like pistons in a gas engine, there’s no vibration. You get used to it, and gas cars then feel rough.

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Visiting my old house where I lived as a teenager.

Electric cars don’t need transmissions, since maximum torque is delivered from the first moment the motor spins, but the Bolt has an “L” (Low) setting on the one-speed transmission’s lever. If you use D (Drive) it feels like a normal automatic transmission, but in L, when you lift off the accelerator pedal (not the “gas”) the car slows down quickly—even to a complete stop. When you get used to this “one-pedal driving,” it feels natural, and you can barely tap the brakes as you slide into a red light and stop on a dime. It feels like downshifting a manual transmission. The regenerative braking helps charge up the battery, too.

I ordered the light interior—white and light gray–which felt airy, but by the end of three years, the white leather on the driver’s seat was looking grayer. But other than that, and one little hook for the rear cargo cover that occasionally popped out, everything in the interior was solid and worked as it should.

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Of course, the best thing of all is that my Bolty didn’t use one drop of gasoline for three years! At first, I plugged it in at work, but last April I finally installed a Level 2 (240-volt) charger in my garage when my solar panels went up (on Earth Day). So, for more than half of 2019, Bolty ran on sunshine.

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Solar array went up on Earth Day 2019.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The Bolt embodies all the strengths and weaknesses of EVs. The obvious strengths are the low environmental impact, quick acceleration, and quiet operation. There’s essentially no service, either, except tire rotations—no oil changes, no radiator flush. There are a lot fewer moving parts to have problems. And when you use regenerative braking, the brake pads last practically forever.

So, what about weaknesses? The most significant is the range issue. Although today’s EVs easily top 200 miles between charges, and some can go more than 300 miles, it still takes time to charge, and you may not be able to find a public charger when you need it. Even fast chargers take longer than a stop at the gas station. It may not matter in most situations, but on a long trip it requires some careful planning and willingness to be flexible. I avoided it, because the couple of times when I knew it would be an issue, I took a gas-burning vehicle. Yes, I feel a little guilty, but that’s a good way to drive an EV 51 weeks a year.

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Charging at work.

I expect the charging problem to be solved as charging stations proliferate and fast charging gets really quick.  And actually, most charging can and should be done slowly at home or at work while the car sits parked. I know this won’t work for everyone, which is why I test and recommend hybrids and plug-in hybrids for those situations. Someday, the subscription model may become popular, where you no longer own a car, but simply reserve the kind you want as you need it, from a fleet. Then, you could select a long-distance vehicle for a trip and use a less expensive, smaller low-range vehicle when you stayed local.

Another issue with EVs is that initial costs of purchase or lease are higher, mainly because batteries are still expensive, even though prices have come down. My upper-level Bolt Premier with options had a sticker price of nearly $44,000. With $5,500 in rebates and financing assistance, I put down $10K and paid $332/month for three years. This price disparity will go down over time, but it can be intimidating. However, if you look at the total cost of ownership over several years, EVs come out ahead, with much cheaper fuel (electrons) and virtually no service required.

A third concern is choice. The Bolt has company now, as more and more EVs and plug-in hybrids are appearing in showrooms. But there still is no all-electric pickup truck, for example (but there will be soon). In the next few years, manufacturers will fill in their lineup with many more EV and hybrid models, from hatchbacks to sedans to SUVs.

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Enough range to travel–we drove to Bodega Bay and back.

Only One Significant Issue

The only notable problem with my Bolt happened last year, when, after what the dealer told me was a routine software update, my car’s battery suddenly charged only to about 100 miles and not the 200+ it should. I tried running it way down and charging, but it wouldn’t move past 100. That made my car like one of the older EVs, such as a LEAF, Kia Soul EV or VW e-Golf. I complained to my dealer, but they were unresponsive. I tried another Chevy dealer closer to my house and they checked with GM headquarters and got the OK to do a battery swap for me, at no charge. It restored my range and happiness.

Sharing the EV Love and Information

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National Drive Electric Week at Marketo.

As an EV driver and auto writer, I valued the Bolt for giving me a way to experience the EV life firsthand, so I could share my car and my knowledge in my columns and blogs. I could participate in events, such as National Drive Electric Week (each September) and Earth Day events in April. I hosted National Drive Electric Week events for two years at my workplace, where EV driving employees parked their cars in rows in the parking lot and talked with other employees. I am an EV Ambassador for Acterra, a Palo Alto-based environmental organization. And I now work at Ridecell, where we develop and sell software for carsharing and ridesharing fleets, including the 260-Bolt Gig Car Share fleet in Sacramento.

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You can rent a Bolt by the minute or the hour in Sacramento.

As an EV person, I began phasing out gasoline-only test cars in 2018, and in 2019, I tested only one—the short-term Chevy Cruze rental I had when my Bolt got its battery swapped.

What Next?

I considered buying Bolty at the end of the lease, but even though the bring back value was barely more than half the initial price, it would still cost more per month to finance than my lease. I looked at other EVs, including the worthy Hyundai Kona Electric (258-miles of range), but I was hoping to lower my monthly costs.

I researched used EVs, and It turns out there are some screaming deals. Second-hand early Nissan LEAFs can run as little as $6,000. I ended up buying a little Fiat 500e, just like Fidelio, my 2016 test car. I got it at Rose Motorcars, in Castro Valley, CA. They specialize in the secondhand EV market, and I like the way they do business.

My new Fiat is the same color as the first one, too, so I’ve named it Fidelio II. A 2017 with 23,000 miles on it, it feels like new, and cost just $10,000 (under $200 a month). It’s smaller, and most significantly, has a third of the Bolt’s electric range, but I plan to use it for my local errands. There will likely be another EV in my future, but for now, Fidelio II should work fine.

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Fidelio II is taking over for Bolty.

What I’ll Miss

I’ll miss some of Bolty’s features. Fidelio II doesn’t have the high regenerative braking (L) transmission setting, so no one-pedal driving. My Bolt’s inside rearview mirror was a video camera—much better than a regular mirror.

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And, the backup system, with multiple cameras, provided a birds-eye view of my car in the big 10.2-inch center screen—so parking squarely in a spot and avoiding curbs was a snap.

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My Bolt had the upgraded Bose stereo, for premium sound, with Apple CarPlay, so I could hook up my phone and play my music. It also used the phone for navigation, which meant I could set up a destination before I got in the car and it was projected onto the dash screen. I’ll miss the ability to send verbal texts (through Siri) as I drive.

For safety, I had blind spot monitoring, a very worthwhile feature, and cross traffic alert told me if there were cars on the road behind me when I was backing out of my driveway.

Last Thoughts

I like the styling of the Bolt—inside and out—but I’m an old hatchback guy. I had a 1986 Honda Civic Si back in the day. Apparently the gently sweeping interior was designed by a woman—unusual in the industry. The use of white accents gives it a certain sparkle.

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I loved the rich blue exterior paint—and enjoyed seeing my car across the parking lot. I took photos of it in various scenic locations, just for fun.

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The Bolt is a product of GM Korea, the former Daewoo, but it’s built in Michigan. That’s the way the auto industry works these days. The LG battery is Korean, as well. In any case, quality is high.

My personal goal, as a Climate Reality Leader and car enthusiast, is to spread the word on the joys and benefits of electric motoring. We need clean cars and clean energy! I will continue testing and reviewing every new EV I can get, but I’m going to miss my Bolty.

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Turning in Bolty after a great three-year run.

Clay Collier Talks Smart Charging at VERGE 19

By Steve Schaefer

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Electricity charging industry veteran Clay Collier spoke in a panel at VERGE 2019 about electric vehicles and connecting them to the grid. Afterwards, I caught him for some insights on what’s going on and where we’re headed.

Collier has a BA in Physics from U.C. Berkeley, co-founded Akuacom – where as CEO he worked with Lawrence Berkeley Lab and electrical utilities to connect cars to buildings and the grid using Automated Demand Response (ADR).

He sold the company and started Kisensum, a company that developed a suite of software for bidirectional V2G (vehicle-to-grid) applications. Again working with Lawrence Berkeley Lab and also the Department of Defense and California Energy Commission, Kisensum found a way to use “load shaping” to optimize vehicle charging assignments and also to limit and equalize the vehicles’ state of charge.

Kisensum participated in the four-second utility market. To meet the market requirements a resource must adjust the amount of energy supplementing the grid on a four-second basis, up and down, based on a signal from the utility.

“That just doesn’t pencil out,” Collier found. The costs of the vehicles, equipment, schedule coordination, and the rest make it too expensive. “Someday, with scale, it may become profitable,” he said.

For a project at the Alameda County Parking Facility, Kisensum enabled vehicle smart charging using an optimizer engine to flatten out power peaks, which achieves demand charge savings on the utility bill. They monitored the cycle changes and moderated the level – what’s known as “smart charging.”

When ChargePoint bought Kisensum, Collier became their VP of Energy Solutions.

Smart charging uses sophisticated software to coordinate charging. It works especially well with fleets of buses and trucks.

“It turns out that 80 percent of delivery truck routes are less than 100 miles—perfect for electrification,” said Collier.

The yard trucks that never leave the site are even easier, since they can be charged while the other trucks are out working.

Smart charging provides two main benefits to balance loads on the electrical grid—Adding capacity and grid balancing.

  • Capacity – The goal is to get as much power on the grid as possible at the times it’s needed most
  • Grid Balancing – Software monitors the grid to charge vehicles during lower usage periods and stop charging during peak usage periods.

Microgrids have an application for smart charging, too. For example, in a vehicle charging system you can balance the grid load by using battery power during peak usage periods, such as 6-9 p.m., and allowing charging directly from the grid when electricity is abundant.

Flattening the Duck Curve

In utility-scale electricity generation, the peaks and valleys of electricity usage are commonly depicted on the Duck Curve.

The Duck Curve is a graph of power production over the course of a day that shows the timing imbalance between peak demand and renewable energy production. The belly of the duck is overgeneration and the neck is the peak load. The term was coined in 2012 by the California Independent System Operator (Wikipedia).

The problem is that there is a mismatch as the highest demand for electricity is in the early evening, but solar generation is highest in the afternoon. Electricity storage is one solution to that discrepancy, and a major goal of setting up a two-way EV-to-grid connection is to use electricity stored in EV batteries to help “flatten the curve” as needed.

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What’s Coming

Collier sees mass electrification coming in two waves. The first is in commercial fleets. Electrification of fleets can save a lot on operation expenses. This will be especially relevant as cities start charging fees similar to existing “congestion charges” specifically to internal combustion engine vehicles ($50/day). Regulations are driving this change, and with competition, EVs are cheaper to operate.

The next electrification wave will be when passenger EVs take off. This will happen as people understand that with larger batteries and a built-out charging infrastructure, range anxiety isn’t really an issue. Autonomous fleets will help move people away from individual vehicles, too. The more these vehicles can be linked to the grid, the more they’ll help to balance electrical generation and flatten the Duck Curve.

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.

America, at 243, is Slow to Adopt EVs

By Steve Schaefer

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Red Generation 1 LEAF

Two days ago, I received an email from Plug In America, inviting me to join in the First Annual Independence Day EV Count. Modeled after the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, it’s meant to be a non-scientific study of what’s going on around you.

I’ve hosted and attended the group’s Drive Electric Week events and they’re a great organization, so why not?

Today, July 4th, after lunch, I decided to join the EV count. I needed the exercise anyway, so  I grabbed my trusty pad and a ballpoint pen and headed out into my Castro Valley, California neighborhood. It was clear and in the low 70’s–perfect.

The rules of the EV Count are simple:

  1. Walk or drive in your neighborhood and count all the cars you see
  2. Note the all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids
  3. Tally it up, fill out the online form, and send it in

The group doesn’t include regular plugless hybrids (their name is Plug In America, after all), but I noted them anyway, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

I walked a loop that I often take to add a couple thousand steps to my Fitbit. I started out well, as I could count my personal Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid I’m currently testing right away. However, as I walked and wrote, the bad news piled up.

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White Generation 2 LEAF

When I returned home and tallied up the numbers, I had:

  • 118 cars total
  • 3 EVs (my Bolt and two Nissan LEAFs)
  • 2 plug-in hybrids
  • 7 regular hybrids

That’s pretty disappointing.

Perhaps Castro Valley is a little behind–I know I see more EVs in San Francisco, where I work. And it wasn’t a scientific study–just a small sample. But it means that I need to work harder to get the word out on the many benefits of EVs–and the necessity of stopping using fossil fuels now to help control the effects of the climate crisis.

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My Blue Bolt EV

In 2019, as the U.S. turns 243, we have a long way to go to significant EV adoption. At least in my neighborhood.

 

 

2018 in Review – Going Greener!

By Steve Schaefer

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My Bolt EV hit 20,000 miles of trouble-free driving.

For me, 2018 was a busy year for auto writing, and also for climate action.

In a normal year, I’d have 52 week-long test drives, a bunch of short tests at the annual Western Automotive Journalists event, and maybe catch a few more at some manufacturer’s event, too.

This year, I tested only 28 cars for a week each instead of 52. I did have some quick sample drives at the WAJ event–mostly EVs. The biggest change has been my moving away from gasoline-only cars over the last couple of years, and stopping my testing of them entirely in September.

When I wasn’t testing a car, I was driving my own all-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV. My Bolt EV just turned over 20,000 miles, and with 10K/year on my lease, that’s perfect. Its two-year anniversary is January 8th. Maybe I’ll take it to the dealership for a check-up, since it’s never been back!

Why the the complete end of ICE cars? That’s because on August 28-30, I attended Al Gore’s three-day Climate Reality Leadership Training in Los Angeles, where I became a Climate Reality Leader. As an electric car advocate and now, a climate activist, I have to put my efforts towards guiding people to what’s most important for the long-term health of the planet. And, I want to explore and provide guidance about all the great new EVs that are coming in the next few years. We know that petroleum-fueled cars will not disappear overnight, but there are lots of other fine journalists who can take care of reviewing them.

Most of my auto writing, since it’s green cars only, is happily housed these days on www.cleanfleetreport.com, but I also run stories regularly in my original venue, the San Leandro Times (my first story appeared on February 8, 1992), as well as monthly in the Tri-City Voice out of Fremont, California.

Steve Goes Green may have been home to fewer car reviews in 2018, but it has featured some new material on “going green” in other ways. Some stories came from attending talks at Acterra, a Palo Alto based organization that’s educating people and acting to fight climate change. See recent stories, such as Teaching Kids about Climate Change with Green Ninja and Ertharin Cousin – We Need a Food System for Human and Planetary Health.

Of the 28 cars I tested this year, only seven had no electric motor, and they were all in the first 2/3 of the year. Naturally, with the limitation I’ve set, I can’t and won’t review everything, but that’s OK. Many of the best, most efficient gas-burners are featured on Clean Fleet Report, so it’s worth checking them out there.

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The most unusual EV this year was a 1967 MGB GT that a work colleague spent a year convering into a pure EV. The most exciting EV was the Jaguar i-Pace, which was an all-new crossover from a brand that’s looking toward the future. I expect lots of new models and electrified versions of current cars to appear in the next couple of years.

In September, I planned and hosted the second National Drive Electric Week (NDEW) event at my company. I also attended the Acterra NDEW event and it was very busy! I let people drive my Bolt EV there, and I hope that experience led some of them to go out and get their own EVs.

The NDEW event is an important way for people to learn about EVs directly from owners, not salespeople, and it’s fun for us EV owners to collaborate and share stories. In 2019, the first ever DEED (Drive Electric Earth Day) will take place, presented by the same folks who do the NDEW, and I plan to participate at work and elsewhere.

In October, I attended one day of the three-day VERGE conference in Oakland, which is put on annually by GreenBiz as a coming together of green businesses. There are lots of them, and my busy day generated three stories (two published, one on deck). Here’s a general article on the day itself, and another on what GM is doing to purchase clean power for its plants. I look forward to attending events in 2019 and writing more of those kinds of articles.

Clean Fleet Report gave me lots of quick news assignments over the year–26 were published–which brought my annual story total to around what I’m used to. These are quick takes based on press releases and other information. See my story on a new VW-based electric Meyers Manx. I also contributed stories on different subjects from personal journalist experiences, such as my visit to the Manheim Auto Auction.

In November and December, I spoke with four solar companies, and a few weeks ago, signed up for solar panels on my roof! They’ll go on in April, and when they do, I’ll start charging my car at home. I’ll report more about my solar adventure right here.

2019 will have more EVs and more ways to go green! I plan to learn more about the way our food system affects the climate–from reading, studying, and interviewing folks, and also by slowly changing how I eat.

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!

National Drive Electric Week 2018

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Since 2011, a national electric car event has been held every year. Originally called National Plug In Day, it later expanded to become National Drive Electric Week. It’s actually nine days long, as it includes weekends on both ends.

This year, I participated in two events. First, I hosted one at work for fellow employees, and later, I attended another, larger event, where I let people drive my 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV to experience electric motoring firsthand.

Marketo Event, San Mateo, CA

Marketo hosted its second annual National Drive Electric Week event on Thursday, September 13th. The weather cooperated, and the event went off without a hitch, although attendance was lower than anticipated. It’s understandable, though—people are working!

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Me with my Chevrolet Bolt EV–now an NDEW show veteran.

Display cars included three Tesla Model 3s, a Tesla Model X, my freshly washed Chevrolet Bolt EV, a Nissan LEAF, a Volkswagen e-Golf, a BMW i3, and a Chevrolet Volt. One of the Model 3s was available for rides.

Allyson Gaarder from the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project showed attendees how they could receive California rebates for buying a variety of electric cars.

Vehicle owners gave attendees a tour of their cars and enjoyed talking with each other about the pleasures of electric motoring.

Nissan supplied some swag, including water bottles, mini backbacks, pens, and tiny fans that attach to your phone. Attendees received a red token good for a $5 discount at the adjacent food trucks.

Acterra Event, Palo Alto, CA

On the last Sunday of Summer, Acterra, the Palo Alto environmental nonprofit, hosted its third annual National Drive Electric Week event. Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet, and they always put on a great show.

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Nissan brought a fleet of LEAFs for show and driving.

EV enthusiasts shared their favorite electric rides with eager attendees. Booths provided information about rebates, vehicle charging, and a solar energy vendor presented solar options. Allyson was there with her booth and California rebate information. Event sponsor Nissan brought a small fleet of new LEAFs for show and drives.

I watched the parking lot fill with Chevrolet Bolt EVs, BMW i3s, Nissan LEAFs, Tesla Model 3s, and even a low, sleek Fisker Karma. One guy brought his now rare Honda Fit Electric, and there was at least one tiny Chevy Spark EV and a cute little Fiat 500e.

This was a popular event. Altogether there were 70 vehicles, representing 15 makes and models. More than 260 people registered and vehicle owners and fleets conducted more than 520 rides or drives!

The beauty of these events, which Acterra hosts year-round, is the chance to learn about and sample multiple EVs in the same location, away from aggressive salespeople. With EVs, the owners are often more knowledgeable about the cars than a typical dealership employee, and they can certainly talk about day-to-day life with a plug-in vehicle.

This event is both a car show and a ride-and-drive. Although it’s a little annoying to have to to readjust my seat and mirror settings when the day’s over, and having strangers drive your car can be a little nerve wracking, I like to let attendees get a personal feel for what driving an electric car is like.

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Luckily, all the people who took the wheel of my car were competent, responsible motorists, so I didn’t have any worry the entire afternoon. With high demand, I was busy non-stop.

In most cases, I took the people for a ride around the short test loop, and then had them drive it. I felt it would make them more comfortable, and it let me explain the features first. Luckily, the Bolt itself is pretty straightforward and controls are where you expect them.

People were surprised at the Bolt’s spacious interior, especially the generous headroom. One 6-4 gentleman pulled the seat all the way back and then forward a little! My drivers were also impressed with the video camera rear-view mirror, which gives a wider, clearer view than a regular mirror.

When driving, my guests were fascinated by the low or high brake regeneration. If the transmission lever is in “D,” when you lift your foot off the accelerator, you keep rolling along, like with a normal automatic. In “L” mode, as you lift up your foot, the electricity flow is reduced, slowing the car. This lets you do “one-pedal driving.” It’s a wonderful way to maintain extra control of your car while generating extra battery power and saving your brake pads.

At 4 p.m., we assembled inside the Acterra offices for the official launch of the newly renamed Karl Knapp Go EV program. Knapp, a beloved Stanford science professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, promoted electrified cars and motorcycles for many years, and has been an inspiration to many. We had some food and drinks and watched a short video about Karl. Sadly, Professor Knapp is ill and was unable to attend.

After the reception, I gave three more people rides, so I was one of the last to leave. It’s fun to share your EV, and I hope all of my drivers will go out and get their own! Electric cars are the future, and soon there will be many more choices.

National Drive Electric Week is presented by Plug In America, the Sierra Club, and the Electric Auto Association. Sponsors include the Nissan LEAF (Platinum), Clipper Creek (Silver), and eMotorWerks (California Regional).

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

Rose Motorcars – Affordable EV Destination

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Driving an electric vehicle (EV) is one thing you can do to lower your carbon footprint and help fight global warming and climate change. But electric cars start at a higher price than gasoline-powered ones, so what if you’re on a tight budget?

The answer is to find a used EV. And in my community of Castro Valley, California, there’s a dealer that specializes in them—Rose Motorcars. I had a chat with Derek Dorotheo, 35, who calls himself a “car matchmaker,” and is nothing like a stereotypical pushy car salesman.

Rose Motorcars was founded by Lyle Dizon and his two high-school friends, David Florence and Leo Beas. The company started eight years ago over the hill in San Ramon, and wasn’t focused on electric cars. However, they found a niche, and they now stock quantities of affordable EVs in their Castro Valley location, a former beauty school. Rose is the name of Dizon’s mother.

The cars I saw in their lot included a line of brightly-colored Fiat 500e’s (their most popular item) and Chevrolet Sparks, sporty Volkswagen e-Golfs, a few tiny Smart EVs, a pristine white Mitsubishi i-MiEV, a boxy Kia Soul EV, a bright blue Mercedes-Benz B-Class, and in the small showroom, a couple of shiny Teslas.

Rose acquires its cars mostly from auto auctions, but they also work with finance companies and wholesale partners on off-lease vehicles. They can buy directly at auction for a customer. They sell to individuals and also can ship a truckload of cars to a dealer elsewhere in the country who is seeking the little EVs.

Taking an online stroll through the current inventory, sorted by price, you’ll see four Teslas, followed by a 2017 Chevrolet Volt at $25,888. Then come the VW e-Golfs at $15,000, and a Nissan Leaf at $11,950.  After that, the Sparks and Fiats come in under $10,000. There are lots of choices between $7,000 and $9,000. And these are inspected, 2015 models in clean condition with 20-25,000 miles or less, with a few outliers. With the price of a new Fiat 500e starting at $32,995 before federal and state rebates and tax breaks, this is a huge difference. And since electric cars are simpler and require little maintenance, the cost of running them is lower, too.

Granted, a Fiat 500e with its 84 miles of range is not going to cut it for a family of 5 or road trips out of town, but for the daily commute, it’s ideal. I know, because I drove a 2016 Fiat 500e for three months and it was perfect.

Rose Motorcars is a no hassle, no haggle dealership, and wants you to be happy. For Castro Valley residents, they offer a 48-hour test drive, so you can see what the car is like to live with. You could grab it one day and try a run to work and back or do your weekend errands. While it’s not large, a little 500e or Spark hatchback would do fine for a run to Costco.

You can also set up a FaceTime or Skype call to look at your car and buy it from home and Rose will ship it to you. They offer financing and take trade-ins, electric or not. In fact, they had a rare Pontiac Aztek in the back lot!

So, you don’t need to spend a lot to help reduce CO2 and enjoy the pleasures of electric motoring. Just visit Rose Motorcars—in person or online. They’re located at 2806 Castro Valley Blvd. and are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Find them at www.driverose.com.

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