Sunday, March 4, 2012

Responsibility in Journalism

I will admit that I follow the For those of you that don't know the (I suspect that isnt many of you), Matt Drudge collects various media stories around the country, provides links for them, and more importantly, often retitles to the stories for his particular viewpoint. Often his titles cut to the core, but in the case of the Volt, his retitles have been at best partial truths, and at worst, flat out lies. I went to the archives of the, and started a search on the term Volt. It is fairly obvious, from the very beginning, that he has had it out for this car. But let's look at just a few of them...

This little tidbit comes from April 15, 2011 edition. Basically, a garage in Connecticut, home to two electric vehicles, caught fire. The article that Matt links to is titled "Hybrid Car May Have Sparked Garage Blaze 4-14-2011". Matt must also wear two hats, one as a journalist, one the other as a fire marshal, because apparently he knew something the scene investigators didn’t know. The fire would eventually be ruled out by both GM and the fire marshal who stated:

“It wasn’t the cars,” Barkhamsted Fire Marshal William Baldwin told regarding the cause of a fire at the Barkhamsted residence of Dee and Storm Connors.

Did we see a correction, or a follow-up? Nope! Not that I could find, anyway. This would be the start of the faux Volt fire episodes Matt would start lobbing towards GM and at people who would read the title, assume the worst, and move on.
The most damning 'reporting' was of the Volt fire investigation and Congressional hearings, which amounted to a lot of grand standing by the Republicans on the committee to make an issue out of a non issue. The end result of a government investigation is that the Volt no more at risk of fire than any other car on the road, and is deemed safe. To date, there has been NO FIRES FROM VOLT BATTERIES as a result of CONSUMER ACCIDENTS (to my knowledge). The only fires that sparked where the result of government lab tests.  Those lab tests were apparently incredibly hard to recreate. As a result of these tests, GM is making a modification of its own initiation (not government mandated) to improve an area more sensitive to a side impact to minimize risk of fire. That way, when your wrecked Volt is in the junk yard, it won't catch some other junker on fire. There are so many referenced articles to this on, I don't have the space to show them all:

From the November 11, 2011 19:29:13 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.
2nd electric car battery fire involving CHEVY VOLT... ^
From the November 25, 2011 23:17:37 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.
Lawmakers press Volt's safety... ^
From the December 09, 2011 00:36:27 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.
From the January 13, 2012 18:25:35 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.
House panel challenges gov't response on Volt... ^
From the January 25, 2012 13:08:23 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.

GM CEO to Congress: Volt is safe... ^
From the January 24, 2012 19:35:12 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.

GOV'T MOTORS Volt Battery-Fire Investigation Closed by Gov't Regulators... ^
From the January 20, 2012 23:26:28 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.

From the January 18, 2012 19:58:43 GMT edition of the Drudge Report.

You just might think that Matt Drudge has it out for this car. Notice that GM is 'Government Motors'. I don't think the Top Gear team has a bigger crush on the Bugatti Veyron as Matt Drudge has a hate fest for the Volt, and that is saying a lot.

This little gem is from October 14, 2011, is intended to be a fun piece to pay homage to the roots of electric vehicles. Unless you really want to ride around in an electric carriage, this car probably isn't for you. But he used this article as another example to make fun of the Volt, despite being a ridiculous comparison. I suspect the author of this piece didn't expect his journalism to be referenced in such a manner.

If you were a casual passerby, and read this title, you might think the Volt broke down in the Lincoln Tunnel during an evaluation of the car by Fox news. It didn't. The electric range was exhausted while the driver happened to be in the Lincoln tunnel. Of course, the Volt being an electric car with a range extender, this really doesn't matter as the gas engine takes over when the electric 'juice' runs out, and the car will continue to move unimpeded unless you’re an idiot, and decide to pull over. The 'reporter' was Eric Bolling. The entire piece was more a diatribe on how GM got bailed out by the Obama administration rather than a fair examination of the Volt, and even though the Volt MET the bottom end of its target electric range (25 miles), Fox news felt the need to take them to task. Mind you that the advertised range of the Volt is 25-40 miles per charge. Any Volt owner with more than a couple days experience in the car would probably make the same journey and get 30-35 miles of range with no problem. The Volt, like any hybrid car, requires some driver techniques in to get the most out of it, and this is especially the case in very cold weather.

Volt owners are getting over 50 miles of charge out of a battery, 15 more than the average range that is advertised.
Really, Matt? This is worthy of being on your front page? A politician making an ass out of himself, and you decide to publicize the cheap shot? As it turns out, you can put a gun rack in a Volt. It has been demonstrated on youtube. But why would you want to?

This is what Matt is the ‘best’ is at; Partial truths. If you read the title, you would conclude that GM is giving up on the Volt and laying off all their people for good. Of course, the truth is that GM is halting production for 5 weeks, as they built a lot of these cars in February, and for the good of the car, they do not want to over saturate the market. A consequence of shutting down the plant for 5 weeks is the temporary layoff of the workers on the line. Since the line makes only Volts and Opel Amperas (the Euro model of the Volt), these workers can't make other cars. Obviously, this isn't the best situation. Volt owners would love for them to make as many as they can. But the cars are selling in what I think are respectable numbers, considering just how different this car is, and how asking people to buy electric after 100 years of pure gasoline cars is a huge leap.

The good news, which won’t be reported by Matt Drudge, is that there are already reports online from dealers that sales and interest are really picking up.  It seems that the Volt being certified for HOV lanes as a single occupancy car in California and an enticing 0% financing (thanks, guys, I could have used that 2 months ago), dealerships are starting to sell out their inventory and allocations.  The $4+ a gallon gas is also helping.  

I don't recall seeing any mention of the 4 or 5 month sales growth at the end of 2011 for the Volt.  Of course, he did cover when the sales dropped to around 600 in January, a month that is traditionally bad for a lot of cars, especially cars as heavy with tax credits such as the Volt.  Buyers are less likely to buy a car like the Volt in January because they will have to wait over a full year to get the $7500 from the federal government.  That is naturally going to push sales up as the year goes on.

Earlier there was a title on the page stating 'GM blames media'. After seeing Matt Drudge's coverage of the Volt, I think they are spot on.

See all the entries I left out, because I didnt want to have to photoshop another 10 links...

Operating Costs compared to other cars

I hang this outside of my office, and try to update it once a week.  Since everyone likes to compare this car to the Chevy Cruze, with gas averaging something around $3.75 a gallon, here are some comparisons to other cars.    I believe the nationwide average MPG is 22, which is included as the last comparison.  You can see how significant the gas savings can be.

Minor correction.  The chart below is 'as of 3/3/2012'

Since this is two months use, if I take these numbers and extrapolate them to a year, this is how much gas the various cars would burn:

Toyota Prius ~ 400 gallons

Chevy Cruze ~700 gallons

(displayed 750 gallon tank because I couldnt find a good 700)

ANY car that gets 22 MPG ~900 gallons (pictured is a 1000 gallon tank- couldnt find a good 900)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Volt MPG and Statistics: 350 MPG and climbing

Today marked my 2 month anniversary of my Volt purchase. I now have 3500 miles on a car that I took deliver on January 7, 2012 with 8 miles on the odometer.  As for gas usage, the dealership filled the car, so I started with 9.5 gallons in the tank.  I have burned a little over 9 gallons to date, but those gallons were burned on the way home from the dealership and during the first couple of days when I hadn't made arragements to charge at work. 

My wife complained every day when she saw the low fuel light when I drove for 2 weeks with a single gallon left in the tank.  She said she would call the news reporters if I ran out of electricity and gas and ended up stuck on the side of the road, so I decided to purchase 3 gallons of fuel to shut her up ;)  As it turns out, with the Volt, to end up on the side of the road, you have to run out of your initial electric range, run your gas tank dry, and then it gives you one final chance with about 10 miles of range in reserve electricity.  It truly takes an idiot to end up on the side of the road with this car, or someone in a really bad situation. I have burned maybe a half a gallon of 3 gallons added that was pumped in exactly a month ago.
The next two pictures are data collected at  Voltstats uses an On-Star API to poll my car multiple times throughout the day to gather usage data.  This is actual data from my car and is precisely accurate.  I found out about voltstats a few weeks after I purchased the car.  As a result, you will notice the data collection starts after I had already traveled a few hundred miles.

The Green in this graph represents electric miles.  The Blue in this graph represent Gas Miles, or what is known as Charge Sustaining miles, since the gas motor is used to keep the battery charged at 30%.  If you notice, the blue hasn't increased much at all in this graph.   I have been traveling about 70 miles a day round trip to work.

This graph is my monthly MPG.  January is the lowest as the weather was cold, and I would generally run out of electric range about 2 miles from work (I would get about 33 miles of electric range).  I would burn about .10 gallons of gas to go 2 miles.  I'm not sweating the 300 MPG, however.  As you will notice, I achieved over 800 MPG in February, and in March, and I haven't burned any fuel whatsoever.  I am averaging about 45 miles of range in average temperatures of 63F. Voltstats seems to record no fuel burned as 999 MPG.

This picture is a snippet from my electricity bill.  There are a lot of variables that go into an electric bill, but I am posting this so you can see that the car hasnt spiked my usage.  I am comparing the first two months of having the car to the previous year without the Volt.

My lifetime MPG is currently exactly 350 MPG.  It is going up every day as I 'work off' the first week of a lot of gas driving.  I expect to be over 500 MPG by the end of March.

I am using 34 kwH per 100 miles traveled.  This number actually takes into account the total amount of energy required to replenish 10 kwH of of usable charge.  This number is normally around 13 kwH.

To calculate what your electricity would cost, take the electric only miles you plan on traveling in a year, and divide by 100.  Take that number and multiple it by 34.  Take that number and multiple it times your electric rate.  For me:

22,000 miles / 100 * 34 * .06 cents=$449.  That means I will spend about $449 to travel 22,000 miles.  If you were driving a regular car, $449 would get you about 119 gallons at $3.75 a gallon.  If your car got 30 MPG, you would go 3592 miles.  That means the Volt can go about 6 times the distance for the same money in fueling cost.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Practical considerations: Is a Volt right for me?

Buying a Volt is unlike buying any other car. Buying an electric car is very personal. Most people are making a statement for a multitude of reasons (mine detailed below). But with all the personal reasons aside, you might be an unhappy Volt owner if your living and work situation don't fit the criteria that allows the car to excel. Presumably, you will hope that buying a Volt will lower your fuel costs, and I am sure you hope those lower fuel costs will make the Total Cost of Ownership equivalent to a much cheaper car.

Consider HOW you'll be able to charge at your personal residence: Do you own a home? If you do, great! You presumably have private parking, hopefully a garage, and you can plug your car into a standard 120V outlet. No additional equipment necessary.  With a standard 120V connection, it will take about 10 hours to charge a depleted battery.  This was problematic for me. I found that I would make it home with only a couple of miles left. If I wanted to run to the grocery store an hour or so later after getting home and charging on a standard 120V outlet, I wouldn’t have the electrical range, and would burn gas. For me, personally, I want to only burn gas when necessary. Burning gas diminishes your average MPG, and will decrease the return on your electrical investment. For that reason, I opted to install a 240V charger. It gives me about 13 miles of range per hour. If you are in an apartment, or condo, or any place where you don't have dedicated parking, you had best speak to your HOA, or Apartment Complex management to come up with a plan to be able to charge your car from an outside outlet. You might have similar issues in this situation to charging at work. Obviously it’s no good to have an electric car when you can't charge where you live. WORK OUT THOSE DETAILS BEFORE YOU BUY.

Consider your commuting distance to work: I commute about 35 miles each way to and from work. So at 70 miles round trip, if I want to maintain all electric, I need to charge at work. Charging at work, depending on your work place, can go a few ways. It can be embraced with premium parking spots, shiny commercial charging stations, and a ticker tape parade. More often it is met with huge scrutiny, coworker jealousy, and lack of any outside 120V outlets to plug into. When you do plug into the outside outlet, don't be surprised if someone unplugs you. You'll also hear, "Why are you getting free electricity? I don't get free gas to come to work!!^&@." It happens. So you need to do the following...

1) Assess your needs to charge at work. For the car to pay for itself, higher electric miles are beneficial. In my situation, I nearly exhaust my range going to work, which means if I don’t charge, I'll burn gas on the way home. In my instance, it would bring my current MPG rating of 350 MPG down to about 80 MPG over the long term.

2) If you don't need to charge at work (your roundtrip commute is 40 miles or less), then you can skip the remaining steps.

3) If you desire to charge at work, you need to speak to your management. You need to get permission to use an outside plug. Preferably, a plug that won't create a trip hazard and get the company sued. At this point, your company may be thrilled that you have an electric car, or skeptical. If they are thrilled, you might consider asking them to support the movement and install a commercial charging station. If they are skeptical, you need to tell them that if your battery is fully depleted, the car only takes about 13 kWh to charge completely. That will take about 9-10 hours. Normal utility rates are about 12 cents per kWh, so it will cost a little more than $1 a day. Offer to pay for the energy. It will be FAR cheaper than paying for the gas. If they can't set something like that up, volunteer to donate to charity once a month the electricity you use on behalf of the company. Make sure your coworkers know you are not looking for a free ride.

Consider your electric rates: The national average is about 12 cents per kilowatt hour. At this rate, the car can have a very attractive operational cost. In some places, electrical rates are very high. In other places, they are much lower. My rate, for example, is about 6 cents per kilowatt hour. This is the equation you should use to give you an estimate of what it will cost you to drive the car. Take your anticipated electric miles you plan to travel in a year, divide by 100, multiple by 35*, and multiply by your utility rate. This is what it looks like:

15,000 miles / 100 = 150

150 * 35 = 5250

5250 * .12 = $630

*the 35 number is the average number of kilowatt hours you will use to go 100 miles. This number can go up slightly or down slightly with your efficiency.

So the average cost per month is $52 in electricity. Compare this to what you spend in gas.

Consider your driving style: If you want to maximize your range, you are going to have to learn good driving techniques.  This will mean maximizing your efficiency in accerlation, braking, and climate control.  If you are unwilling to adapt your style of driving, don't be surprised if your electric range is at the lower end of the estimate, and not the higher end.
Consider your climate:  Your range will be closer to the minimum expected range the colder it gets.  I was getting about 34 miles per change with average temps in the 30s.  Now that the temps are warming up, and in the 50s, I am getting well over 40.  If you live in Siberia, your range will suffer.  It is one of the downsides of electric cars, and why electric cars are not a perfect fit for everyone.  But there are plenty of people in very cold climates that love this car.  The battery pack in the volt is liquid cooled and heated to improve its longevity and performance.  If the temperature is below 27 degrees, the engine will turn on periodically to assist the heating loop in keeping the battery warm. 

Consider leasing: The actual monthly cost of the Volt lease is very low.  Considerably lower than outright owning over a period of 3 years.  Just be aware that the low lease comes at a price.  The residual value is so high, you will be unlikely to want to purchase the car at the end of the lease, and will probably trade it in for another.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A quick look at Total Cost of Ownership.

The argument is often cited that it takes years to recoup the additional cost of an electric vehicle.  While there is some truth to this, that truth is incomplete and misleading, as savings start immediately, and the monthly costs are very affordable when you look at the total cost of ownership.  Let me give you a few scenarios, of a very basic TCO (doesnt include depreciation, maintenance).  You could argue that this is a 'Not so Total Cost of Ownership,' but taking stabs at maintenance is really an unknown factor, as well is depreciation.  According to recent data, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leafs have the highest resale amongst all cars, and the very limited maintenance that resides outside of the 100k/10 year electronic component warranty is likely to be VERY small. 

Below I am only examining the electric only miles I am putting on the Volt.  You might say, "but you are unlikely to go 100% electric".   But here is why I don't include them...  The Volt gets close to 40 MPG when in extended range mode, so for the vast majority of cars you can compare it to, running on gas is still saving money.  So I don't have to complicate the information below, just assume that I am comparing the electric only range of the Volt to the same miles using gas on another car, and not even looking at the likely increased savings the Volt will get you in gas miles beyond that.  For the few cars that will do better on gas, since most Volt owners are using 75% electric miles (I am 95%), the amount of savings lost to the 25% gas won't be all that much.

Also important is that I am ignoring the lease option.  Leasing the volt is CHEAP compared to owning.  If I ran some of my numbers with leasing prices, you would be very surprised.  Take $320 as the monthly payment estimate for a 15k mile a year lease for 3 years below if you want to run your own numbers.

The Volt bottom price after subsidy is ~$32,500 (base price ~$40k). 

If you take a 5 year loan on a Volt at 32,500, your monthly payment is going to be ~ $600 a month.
If you drive 15,000 miles a year electric, using the nationwide average per kwH (12 cents), your cost of energy per month is going to be $53 in electricity.  In many locations that rate would be a lot lower (I spend about half that in my location).

But we are looking at averages.  So far:

$600 (loan) + $53 (electricity) = $653

Now, instead of looking at any particular car, let's look at an average car in the 25k price range.  If you financed a 25k car over 5 years, your monthly cost would be about $460 a month.  Assuming this car gets reasonable gas mileage, lets assume 30, your fuel costs are going to be $145 a month at $3.50 a gallon.

$460 (loan) + $145 (fuel) = $605

Lets see what it looks like with fuel being $4 a gallon

$460 (loan) + $167 (fuel) = $627

Now lets assume you are like me, and you drive a lot more.  I average about 22,000 miles a year.  I drive about 95% electric, but we'll assume it is 100% to make the example more simple (doesnt really affect the outcome).

$600 (loan) + $77 (electricity) = $677

Lets look at the same 25k car with various inputs

25k car, at 22k miles, @30 MPG with fuel at $3.50
$460 (loan) + $213 (fuel) = $673

25k car, at 22k miles, @30 MPG with fuel costs at $4.00
$460 (loan) + $244 (fuel) = $704

Let's look at my situation specifically.  I pay only 6 cents per kilowatt hour average with my meter in North Carolina (TOU-D rider).  I am also more efficient in driving my vehicle than published (I average about 34 kwH per 100 miles).  This is how the situation looks for me at 22k miles a year compared to an efficient 25k car:

My Situation:
$600 (loan) + $37 (electricity) = $637

Compared to the fuel price right now ($3.73) for the 25k car:
$460 (loan) + $227 (fuel) = $687

So, right now, the Volt is SAVING me $50 a month over the internal combustion.  I don't have to worry about the variability of my fuel source.  It stays relatively constant over time, and when it increases, it is very small.

Once the cars are paid off (after 5 years), the Volt will win in savings EVERY MONTH over any other car you drive.  So, if you keep it past the time when your loan is paid off, the car will be paying you back every month.

Conclusion:  Even when batteries are still very expensive component to the initial cost of an EV, a total cost analysis can make the Volt very attractive.  It is competitive even at current fuel levels, and as gas increases beyond $4 a gallon, the Volt will become a net saver of money compared to many other cars.  As battery technology and mass production bring down the price per kWh, it won't be long before electric will be far cheaper than internal combustion in total operating costs.

The great thing about an electric car, for the most part, is you know what your total cost of ownership is going to be pretty much through 5 years of life.  You don't have that luxury with an internal combustion vehicle.  Your TCO could be MUCH higher if oil prices spike.  From my experience, Americans do NOT like variability, especially with something severely affecting their bottom line like monthly fuel costs.