A recent slew of articles criticizing electric cars prompted me to think about vehicles from a different perspective. “What if” electric vehicles (EVs) were already common and fossil fuel vehicles were just being released on the market?
Here’s a “thought experiment” for EV critics.
Suppose the current generation of electric vehicles were in the majority of cars on the road. They’re convenient – “refueling” at home overnight for maybe a buck or two a day of electricity. They require almost no maintenance. They can drive 200-300 miles before requiring a recharge. They are fast and nimble and run silently without emissions.
Now an upstart technology comes along. It uses a fossil fuel engine that has to be refueled at smelly service stations. They require tremendous infrastructure – oil has to be pumped from the ground, refined in giant factories then trucked to “gas stations” in giant, polluting trucks that damage the roads. The oil is often located in hostile countries, requiring major military operations to “secure the oil.” The government subsidizes this new fossil fuel infrastructure proposing trillions of dollars of military protection and build-out. To pay for this, they must charge large taxes, diverting money from public services like health insurance and education.
Some of the new fossil fuel cars cost less than EVs up front. For about half the cost, you can get an “economy car”. These cars can go 250-350 miles before requiring refueling – not much different from EVs. But the inconvenience and cost! On a per-mile basis, they cost 2-3x times as much as the EVs ($0.10/mile vs. $0.04/mile according to this article). After refueling, your hands stink. Sometimes the gas splashes your clothes, soaking them with noxious chemicals. And gas is highly flammable!
These “new” fossil fuel cars require lots of maintenance. You have to pay for oil changes, and maintenance. On Average, they cost $1,186 to maintain (ref: article). The average EV costs $982 to maintain according to the same article. Brakes wear out and have to be replaced more frequently on gas cars. They require special emissions tests to ensure that the engines aren’t spewing too much pollution. And the engines are very complicated.
From a safety perspective, gas cars a horrible. In an accident, the car can explode in an inferno. Gas stations catch on fire and kill people. People die of carbon monoxide poisoning when they forget to open their garage doors while warming up their car.
Driveability? The EVs handle great. They accelerate like rockets and, with their low center of gravity, there’s little body roll. They’re safe. Step on the gas and the instant surge of power accelerates the car out of trouble.
The new gas cars? The typical one accelerates slowly, shifting through several gears before getting up to speed. If you’re in trouble and need to accelerate, good luck! You can buy a sporty model with better acceleration, but that will cost you. EVs in general are much peppier.
Fossil fuel cars are dangerous, polluting, perform poorly and cost more to run and maintain. And don’t forget about the government support and additional military spending required to protect the oil. Lives are lost and money is diverted from social programs at home. Fossil fuel vehicles are a complete boondoggle, with numerous strikes against them and just a few benefits.
If fossil fuel cars were released today, people would laugh. They’d be an utter failure.
Let’s look at car charging. Consider a Level 2 home car charger. (Wikipedia article on car chargers.) These are the type that wire into your home’s breaker box using a 240V line (in the USA). These charge your car at up to ~7.2 kilo-Watts (7,200 Watts), drawing ~32-40 Amperes of current. (note: for the rest of the article, I’ll use the shorthand notation – ‘V’ for Volts; ‘W’ for Watts; ‘kW’ for kilo-Watts, and ‘A’ for Amperes.)
This sounds like a lot, but how does it compare to other things in your house?
For the last few years, I’ve been closely (Evy would say “obsessively”) following the electric vehicle (EV) market, waiting for the “perfect” car. I wanted something compact yet spacious enough to haul my bike or golf clubs. It had to have good range, preferably enough so I could use it with only a single recharge when visiting my folks on Cape Cod. It should be comfortable. It couldn’t cost a fortune. Easy, right?
I had been driving a Volkswagen e-Golf for the last couple years. A friend wasn’t using hers, so I took over her lease. I liked the e-Golf a lot, and would have bought it IF it had more range. But this was one of the early models with under 100 miles of range under the best of conditions, so it was unsuitable for road trips. That was fine, as 99% of the time, I’m only driving locally and could use Evy’s car for road trips.
But the time had come for me to get my own car. The Kia Niro EV looks like the perfect car for me. It is exactly the right size, has a range of about 250 miles. Supports fast charging for road trips. It looks sharp. Has a ton of cargo space and is priced competitively. BUT, it wasn’t yet on the market, and I wasn’t willing to wait for it to come to Pennsylvania. Scratch that off my list, darn it!
The Hyundai Kona Electric, the sibling of the Kia Niro was my second choice. It’s smaller than the Niro but still has ample cargo capacity. Since it shares the drive-train with the Niro, it’s peppy and has even more range (since it’s smaller). It’s similarly priced (mid $30’s before $7500 tax incentive). But again, it isn’t available widely yet. Plus, dealers have been marking it up well above MSRP, and I refuse to support price gouging. So back to the drawing board.
Then Tesla announced the Model Y, their compact SUV. The Model Y checks all the boxes for me except it’s a little larger than I wanted. It’s also more expensive. But it looks like a great vehicle. It has a range of up to 300 miles. Since it will use the Tesla supercharger network, there are plenty of charging stations along the i95 corridor, so I could drive anywhere around here conveniently. A big plus is it’s available in an AWD version, which is a big plus for Evy, who is a Subaru AWD die-hard. Even better, Tesla’s (poorly named) auto-pilot feature and top safety ratings make it desirable for longer trips. Finally, Tesla has a big head start on all the other car manufacturers so their cars are several generations ahead. Unfortunately, the Model Y won’t be on the market for a couple of years (at least!) Darn you Tesla for teasing me so!
Because I really wanted to get a car ASAP, I starting looking at used vehicles. I knew I didn’t want another first generation EV because their ranges were too short. A used Tesla was too expensive. What to do? What to do?
After doing a lot of research, and checking used car prices, I decided that the Chevy Volt was the vehicle for me. Here’s why:
It runs ~50 miles on batteries alone, making it perfect for local travel.- As a hybrid, it has unlimited range (just like a regular hybrid) and gets good gas mileage (42 mpg) making it suitable for road trips.
It’s compact without being tiny.
You can buy used 2nd generation (2016-) with low mileage for around $20,000
It has decent cargo space with the rear seats folded down.
It’s comfortable as long as you don’t sit in the rear seats!
As luck would have it, a local Chevy dealer had a spotless Volt with modest miles on the odometer. They were selling it for a good price so I grabbed it.
I should note that Chevy recently announced that they were discontinuing the Volt, so I think dealers are moving them off their lots. Who wants a discontinued car? Me!
Why is the Chevy Volt Much Better than a Conventional Hybrid?
The first thing people ask is: “why not get a plug-in Prius or other plug-in hybrid? The answer is, basically, they suck as electric cars. Every other plug-in hybrid uses it’s gasoline engine at the same time as the electric motors in order to generate a useful amount of power. They were designed as conventional hybrids where the gas engine always runs. When they converted them to plug-in hybrids, which are just hybrids with larger batteries and a mode that turns off the gas engine, they neglected to give them powerful enough electric motors. These things are downright pokey in electric only range!
The Chevy Volt is what’s called a “serial hybrid.” Instead of using the gas engine to power the wheels directly, it’s used only to generate electricity to charge the batteries. The batteries, in turn, power the electric motors. The generator (gas engine) can also feed electricity directly to the motors. The electric motor is the primary drive and has to be powerful enough to do the job of accelerating up to highway speeds and pass safely. The Volt does this admirably. And, while it’s no Tesla, it leaves all the plug-in hybrids in the dust.
The downside is that it still has a gas engine, so the system lacks the utter simplicity of a completely electric car. But for $20,000, it’s a great vehicle. It’s been on the market for a number of years, so Chevy dealers know how to service it. And, as the battery capacity diminishes over time (they all do), it will still be useful because the battery is much larger than a conventional hybrid.
Is the Chevy Volt perfect? No, but no car is. The rear seats are definitely “child sized.” They have decent legroom but the headroom is pathetic. Evy whacked her head on the roof as she entered the rear seat. Ouch! The cargo space with the rear seats up is enough for groceries, but not big enough for my golf clubs, so mostly I drive with the seats folded down, figuring no passenger would want to sit back there anyway! Acceleration, while good (~8 seconds), is not blistering. But I’m not a motor-head, so that doesn’t bother me. It’s at least as good as other cars I’ve driven. But acceleration fanatics will find it lacking. Hybrid gas mileage could be better. Modern hybrids are getting more than 50mph, so the Volt’s 41mpg seems low. I won’t know the “real” mileage until I take a road trip since I drive it 100% on electricity now (infinite MPG!!!) I’ll report back after my first trip.
Overall, the Chevy Volt is a great “gateway” vehicle. It runs very nicely in electric mode, but you have none of the “range anxiety” you have with other electric cars. You just drive it normally and burn no fuel. Until you drain the batteries and the gas engine kicks in. This type of every-day normalcy makes it ideal for those who are looking at having a very eco-friendly vehicle without worrying about “will I get there?” And at their current used-car prices, they’re a “best buy” that I’d recommend for anybody looking to test the electric car waters.
There’s been a lot of talk and press coverage about electric vehicles the last few years. Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric car company, has generated huge excitement with it’s sexy, high performance cars, but their price has put them out of reach of most consumers. The Tesla Model 3, to be released in mid-late 2017, hopes to change that however, giving you a 200+ mile range electric car for under $40,000.
Tesla isn’t the only game in town. Chevrolet released their sub-$40k Chevy Bolt at the beginning of 2017, and this compact SUV shaped electric vehicle has won accolades from all the automotive press, setting the standard for high range (200+ miles on a charge) vehicles.
These two are just the start of a flood of EV’s hitting the market. Virtually every auto manufacturer has promised a variety of electric vehicles – great news for consumers, but also potentially confusing.
In this article, I hope to arm you with some useful information so you can decide if an electric vehicle is right for you. Continue reading →