Buying a Coal-Powered Car

I’d read all the news stories about NHTSA-induced fires, laughed at all the jokes, and watched Newt Gingrich claim that “You can’t put a gun rack in a Chevy Volt.” (Wrong.)

But I also read “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” by Bob Lutz, who knows more about the automobile business than anyone alive… and who proudly declares himself to be the father of the Chevy Volt. And I read his defenses of the Volt against right-wing smears here and here and here.

And I saw that the NHTSA ended its Volt safety investigation by stating that “no discernible defect trend exists.”

And I saw that the Volt (under its European badging as the Opel Ampera) just won European Car of the Year… the first American car ever to do so.

And, as an engineer, I like the idea of plug-in hybrids. As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, I don’t think pure electric vehicles make sense for most people. Not now. Maybe not ever. But plug-in hybrids eliminate “range anxiety” while letting you run 100% electric for short trips around town.

So I was rooting for this awkward underdog of a car, but wasn’t really involved. But, through an odd series of circumstances, we found ourselves with a Chevy Volt as a loaner car last week while Cissa’s car was being repaired.

It’s a great car.

Not “It’s a great car, considering it’s electric.”

Or “It’s a great car, if you’re an environmentalist.”

Or “It’s a great car, if you want something to put your Obama bumper sticker on.”

Just… “It’s a great car.”

First Impressions

First, it’s a real car. Not a golf cart, not a wannabe like the egg-shaped fiberglass GEMs that are best used for parking enforcement, not a barely-satisfactory vehicle like the General Motors EV1 of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” fame. (I rode in an EV1. Trust me, you didn’t want one.)

From the outside, the Volt looks a lot like the Chevrolet Cruze. There’s less of a family resemblance in the interior, but the American-designed Volt inherits the Cruze’s headroom and legroom. I’m 6’4″, and I’m completely comfortable sitting in it; I can even cross my legs in the passenger seat. By comparison, I cannot sit in a Prius, even a Prius V, for any length of time… my head pushes against the roof, and my knees are up against the dashboard.

The Volt dashboard is a bit overwhelming at first. There are two iPad-sized screens; one in front of the driver, and one in the middle stack. Even though the middle one is touch-sensitive, it perches atop 38 hardware buttons (maybe to avoid comparison with BMW’s much-reviled iDrive). It all takes a little getting used to. Knowing that normal humans are not going to read a 424-page owner’s manual (plus a 108-page navigation supplement), Chevy thoughtfully tucks a 16-page summary into the glove box. You should read that; you’ll learn some things.

(I read the big books. But I don’t claim to be a normal human.)

Driving the Volt

The Volt comes with wireless keys and pushbutton start, which I personally think is a solution in search of a problem, but all the cool kids are doing it, so….

But when you punch the big blue button, the dashboard breaks out into a kaleidoscope of images, the stereo makes a Star Trek “powering up” sound… and then SILENCE. The car is ready to drive, but the engine hasn’t started. And, unlike the Prius, where the engine starts by the time you’ve merged into traffic, the Volt’s engine won’t start for 30 or 40 miles.

Originally, the Volt was positioned as a series hybrid (as opposed to the Prius, which is a parallel hybrid). Series hybrids are a logically-simpler architecture, where the drive wheels are driven by an electric motor, and an internal combustion engine is used only as a generator to charge the batteries. (And the electric motor can “run backwards” to charge the batteries when braking or coasting.)

Series hybrids aren’t new… every diesel locomotive is designed this way. Ferdinand Porsche built series-hybrid automobiles over 100 years ago. But it’s hard to get all the pieces working right in a package smaller than a locomotive… so hard that even GM relented and settled for a mixed design where the gasoline engine helps drive the wheels at highway speeds. (But, from personal experience, I can testify that the Volt will happily cruise above 80 mph with the gasoline engine off. Um, I think I just used a public forum to confess to breaking the law. Oops.) But, even so, the architecture of a series hybrid is so much simpler that I have to believe they’ll dominate hybrid cars in the future. (Here are some other plug-in hybrids: a gaggle of Fisker Karmas. They cost more.)

Separately, the Volt is the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid. That means exactly what it sounds like: you can plug it into the wall socket to charge the batteries. A Prius gets all its power from burning gasoline in its own engine; it just does so more efficiently than many other vehicles of similar size and weight. The Chevy Volt can do that too, but it can also get power from your local utility… meaning you don’t spend money on gasoline.

In our first week of driving the Volt, we travelled 221 miles and burned half a gallon of gasoline.

Of course, we had to pay for electricity. But Georgia Power can generate electricity a lot cheaper than your Prius can. In fact, you can sign up for a time-of-day pricing plan where you pay 1.25¢ per kilowatt-hour. “Your mileage will vary” but the Volt gets about 5 miles per kWh, meaning you’re paying Georgia Power 0.25¢/mile. (Read that carefully. Not 25 cents per mile. A quarter of a cent per mile.) Looked at another way, ten cents of electricity at cheap overnight rates will run your Volt for 40 miles.

At today’s prices, ten cents of gasoline will run your comparably-sized 36-mpg Chevrolet Cruze about one mile.

40:1 ratios get my attention.

So why aren’t we all driving electric cars? Because we still don’t have decent batteries, even after billions (and billions and billions) of dollars of R&D. The very best pure-electric cars have only 100-mile range, even under optimum conditions. And when your battery is dead, your car is dead. And it’s dead for a long time. You can’t just hitch a ride to the corner gas station and trot back with a five-gallon jug. You’re in for a close encounter with a tow truck, then a long charging period at the nearest charging station, wherever that may be. Which is why pure-electrics like the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Roadster, and others are just oddities. Range anxiety.

Plug-in hybrids eliminate range anxiety. If we want to drive to Savannah, we’ll drive to Savannah, and buy some gasoline along the way. When we get home, we’ll plug it back into the wall, and go back to electric-only commutes around town. Right now, we’re using the regular 110v charger that comes with the vehicle. That takes 10 hours to charge the battery, so it’s basically an overnight operation, which works fine for us. For additional geek points, I’m thinking of installing the optional 240v charger. That runs off the same sized circuit as your electric clothes dryer, and that charges the vehicle in 4 hours. I can’t actually think of many circumstances in which that would make a meaningful difference in my life, but…. “MORE POWER!

And, yes, I’m perfectly aware that, in Georgia Power’s service territory, I’m driving a coal-powered car. Two-thirds of the electrons pumping through that cable came from burning the fuel of Satan. But 21% of that power came from nice clean nuclear plants, and that percentage will rise when the Plant Vogtle expansion comes online. In sane countries like France (and I can’t believe I just typed that phrase), 80% of electric generation comes from nuclear power, which means things like cleaner air and prettier countrysides. In the meantime, don’t fool yourself into believing that any electric vehicle will do a lot about CO2 emissions. (Electric cars will reduce particulate emissions, since Georgia Power can afford expensive stack scrubbers that won’t fit on your car.)

Back to the Volt: in one of those unsung-but-painful behind-the-scenes advances, most major electric vehicle manufacturers (including BMW, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault, Tesla, and Toyota) have signed onto the SAE J1772-2009 standard, meaning you can have a single cable that fits into every one of those cars. Imagine if public charging stations had to have GM plugs and Toyota plugs and Tesla plugs, and… ouch. The Volt even puts a nice LED flashlight into their plug so you can easily connect the cable in the dark. One of those nice touches which convinced me that a bunch of smart engineers in Detroit finally got the chance to build a car the right way, not just the cheap way.

Other Impressions

What all the specs don’t convey is the spooky silence of driving the Volt. Since the engine doesn’t kick in until you’ve driven forty miles (which, for Midtown denizens like us, can mean days and days of electric-only operation), you get used to wafting down the road in complete silence. There’s even a funky “Pedestrian Friendly Alert” on the turn signal, just to let people know you’re there. (I’ve always thought cars should have two horns: one to say “Hi, here I am!” and another to say “YOU IDIOT!” The Volt, finally, does.)

Unfortunately, you can’t enjoy this silence with the windows down. Anywhere above neighborhood speeds, lowering a window creates a weird fluttering pressure variation that makes you feel like a helicopter is hovering overhead. I guess that, after all those wind tunnel studies, it was a tradeoff that GM decided was worth making. Disappoints me, but I’m a fresh-air fiend in my car.

And you certainly can’t enjoy the silence with the sunroof open… because there is no sunroof. This is my biggest complaint about the car, actually. I guess the mileage zealots decided that having a sunroof open would play hell with fuel efficiency… but couldn’t they have put in an immobile glass panel? (With a sunshade, of course.) Wouldn’t have weighed more, wouldn’t have affected aerodynamic drag at all, and would have made the interior seem much airier. Two model years after introduction, Chevy shows no interest in a sunroof. Maybe they’re still planning to pave the roof with solar cells, but I haven’t seen that, either. Sigh.

The center stack system demonstrates a lot of development effort. The touchscreen navigation and climate control are far superior to the Toyota interface (we cross-shopped multiple Toyota and Lexus models). It comes with a trial subscription to a traffic information service that worked well in Atlanta; no guarantees about rural Saskatchewan.

Ditto for the well-thought-out iPod/iPhone interface… which lets you play your tunes, charge your phone, and access other apps, all at the same time. (By comparison, the Toyota iPod interface just freezes the iPhone screen… and scrolling through your playlists requires dozens of pokes at the dashboard touchscreen instead of the Volt’s fluid scrolling with a physical dial.) You can record 30 gigabytes of CD music to the built-in hard disk, which is nice. It even lets you pause live radio (just like TiVo) with a 20-minute buffer. That’s cool.

Bluetooth integration with your iPhone is flawless.

The only weirdness is that GM’s engineers apparently decided that, if you ever want to have any center-screen function on, you also want to have the stereo on. So if you just want to silently watch power flow from your battery to your wheels and back again through regenerative braking, you have to twist the volume knob to zero. That’s silly. (Maybe I should put an MP3 of John Cage on repeat.)

And, bizarrely, the thing plays DVDs. Only while you’re parked. Apparently, this is a big feature in Japan and Europe (where you can play them while driving). Here in the U.S., I can’t imagine a circumstance where I’d say “Hey! We’re home! Let’s pop in a DVD and watch a movie here in the garage rather than walking fourteen steps to our big-screen TV!” Ah, well, it doesn’t hurt anything.

The backseat is… habitable. It’s definitely a four-seater car, because the ginormous battery tunnel runs down the center of the car. No way to put a fifth person in back, even in a child seat. Great cupholders, though.

The hatchback is big enough for a trip to Costco, not big enough to move all your worldly possessions. (Unless you’re Andrew Hyde, but he’s nuts.)

Other nits: No rear-window wiper. Definitely noticeable during pollen season. I assume it was nixed for aerodynamic reasons. There’s a very low air dam in the front bumper which scrapes our driveway. Aerodynamics again. No spare tire (although there’s a sealer/inflation pump). Weight savings. All engineering tradeoffs that I’m sure were vociferously debated in the GM Design Center. I might have made different decisions, but I’m sure these weren’t made casually. The car is too well thought out.

Finally, the Volt lease comes with free OnStar… and a nifty iPhone app that lets you remotely monitor the battery, gas tank, tire pressure, and even lock/unlock the doors and honk the horn. Major geek points. Why can’t all cars do this?

Financial Terms

In general, I don’t like leasing unless you can write it off on your taxes. I don’t even like making car payments. I buy cars for cash. But, with the Volt, things are just too fuzzy. First, the car costs too damned much. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but $45,000 for a four-door sedan that doesn’t have a Maserati or Bentley badge just bugs me.

From a PR standpoint, the misreporting of the NHTSA tests has been a nightmare. And, politically, the GOP attacks aren’t helping. GM just stopped the production lines for five weeks due to weak demand. (Way to kill off American jobs, guys! Proud of yourselves?) If the worst happens and GM pulls the plug on the Volt, what’s a used one worth in five years? Zero?

Technically, no one knows what years of heavy use will do to these lithium-ion batteries. We know they’ll lose capacity; the only question is “How much?” And there is happy handwaving about repurposing used Volt batteries for electric-grid power balancing, but that may or may not happen. So what’s the residual value of a car that’s half battery when the battery is half-depleted? I don’t know.

So there are just too many uncertainties for me to write a check for this car. Luckily, GM is way ahead of me, and is offering a heavily-subsidized leasing option. It’s widely advertised as “$2500 down, $350/month.” Of course, that’s for a stripper model without the fancy nav system and backup camera and all the other toys that you really want. And it doesn’t include taxes and all the silly fees that the U.S. dealer network insists on charging. But it’s still a great deal, and I wish more people knew about it.

Taking the Plunge

After a week, our loaner car needed to go back home… and we realized that we would miss it. Cissa’s 2003 Pontiac was getting a bit tired after years of noble service, and it was time for a new car. We spent a few evenings shopping the competition, and finally decided that a Volt needed to live in our garage. Our loaner had over 4000 miles on it, and black leather seats. (Chevy really pushes the black leather. Apparently, none of their engineers have visited Georgia in the summer.) But we found a white car with beige leather seats and all the toys at Superior Chevrolet in Decatur… where the Internet sales manager happens to be a friend of mine from high school! To his credit, he’d noticed some of my Twitter posts about the Volt and emailed me pictures of the one on his lot… which led directly to the sale. (Daniel Hudson, (770) 595-5624. Tell him I said hi!)

(Yes, the huge stickers on the side are removable.)

We got a good deal, and we get a warm fuzzy feeling from supporting not only all the assembly line workers, but all the engineers and marketers and corporate managers who have put their butts on the line for this car. I think it’s a major step forward, and I’m proud that Cissa is going to be driving one. I hope you can look past the jokes and consider buying leasing one for your family as well.