Archive for the ‘Mobility’ Category

I will admit that I am a gadget geek. Electronics companies love me, as I am always interested in trying the latest and greatest. That love of bigger, better, stronger, faster, has translated into my professional life as well, albeit now tinged with green – high performance buildings. Now it’s smaller, better, faster and more efficient that I am gunning for.

As you can see from my other posts, that extends into my personal life as well. For some time now, I’ve been looking for a way to reduce, if not eliminate, my gasoline purchases, and to green my commute. My gadget obsession extended to my previous car, and I tinkered with it as a bit of a project. A rally car converted from an econo-box, the Subaru Impreza WRX has served me faithfully since I purchased it new in October of 2005. The good: its a tank in snow thanks to snow tires and full-time all-wheel-drive, it has more than enough power to make your hair stand on end, and it’s sharp looking (the functional hood scoop ramming air into an intercooler to cool turbocharged air is a pretty distinct feature). The bad: 10 to 11 liters per 100 km, or 21-23 MPG for my American friends, means a pitiful 400km (250 miles) per tank of 91 octane fuel in mixed highway and city driving. I don’t baby the car, nor do I drive like a maniac, not with that quickly moving gas gauge staring me in the face. I new what I was getting into when I purchased it, and it has delivered on those expectations.

So, as per my previous post, I’ve been looking for an electric vehicle (EV), and have been smitten by the Leaf (even though that name is pretentious beyond belief). My goal is to sell the Subaru to a fellow enthusiast (still in progress), and use that to pay for the majority of the Leaf. The remaining finance payments will be covered by my not having to purchase any gas, or change any oil. Being able to charge at work definitely plays a major role in this decision. Insurance, unbelievably, is exactly the same as the Subaru.

EV-Chargers and Leaf

I have been looking at all the pros and cons for a year now. I’ve looked at the various Plug-in hybrids (Prius, Focus) and the Volt, I’ve driven the i-MiEV, and nothing seemed to really accomplish what I wanted like the Leaf, nor provide the bang for the buck in terms of gadgetry and performance.

The end result? There is now a 2012 Leaf SL in my garage (with quick charger and cool little PV cell on the spoiler to trickle charge the 12V battery). Now we will see how this thing performs when I have to use it on a daily basis instead of just borrowing someone else’s. I just put 45 liters of gas into the Subaru, and I am hoping that is the last tank of gasoline that I will ever purchase for my personal vehicle.

photo

Is that a proboscis?

I am sure that I have some surprises in store. Will I run out of charge? How much will my home energy consumption increase as a result of charging at home? How does it handle in a Canadian winter? How the hell do you use the navigation system?

After just a couple of hours, I have managed to connect my garage door openers to the homelink system, enter my house as my home charging station on the GPS system (just in case I forget how to get home – do people actually use these features?) and top up the charge with the supplied trickle charger. The carwings app now has a home on my iPhone – just because I really needed a new app – and I’m remotely connected to be able to pre-condition the car while plugged in, check the charge status or start/stop charging.

Carwings App

Carwings App

I will admit that I am stumped as to how I am going to get 220V power to the garage without tearing out drywall to access the top of the breaker panel. It looks like I will be taking advantage of Ontario’s EV Charging installation rebate that starts January 1. I have a feeling this will be a bit of an adventure as I currently renting my home (and content for a future post!).

We still have our family minivan for longer drives like camping trips and visits to the grandparents. My wife can now use the Leaf around town for her errands, whereas she could not drive the manual gearbox WRX (I tried to teach her and I think the smell of burning clutch was just too much to bear). I think that the sky-blue leaf now occupying my garage will make an excellent addition to the fleet.

I have spent my few spare minutes this past week (when not dealing with family life) investigating electric cars in earnest.

The driving force behind this is the need that my current car has for (expensive) maintenance – a timing belt and clutch in the near future. I don’t want to spend the money on it.  I’d rather use that money for a down payment on something that not only doesn’t need to have any oil change – ever – but that will not need to filled up with gas – ever.

I’m not a fan of the plug-in hybrid (Prius plug-in, Chevy Volt, Fusion Energi, etc.), as I think it’s just too much of a compromise. Over the last 6 months, I can count on one hand the number of times that I would have had an issue with the range of a Leaf or similar electric vehicle (EV), and the dramatic decrease in range as a result of carrying around the weight of a second powertrain just defeats the purpose in my mind.

I have also had the luck to use a Leaf for two weeks through my day job, which I wrote about here, so range anxiety is not as large a concern for me as it might be for other commuters.

The biggest hurdle for me to overcome, not surprisingly, is cost. A Leaf is $38,500+ the usual taxes, levies and new car fees. An $8,500 rebate from the Province of Ontario surely takes the edge of this price, but it’s still a barrier to entry for all but the early adopter. For more people to adopt EVs as a real alternative to the internal combustion engine, prices needs to come down, and that likely means that the cars need to be simpler.

Thats why my drive today really had me thinking. I had a Mitsubishi i-MiEV for a trip to work, some photo opportunities during the day while charging, and then a trip home.

i-MiEV Charging

Now, after my time with the Leaf, I was underwhelmed. The 120km range was still acceptable, but for $33,000, you’d think you would get a bit more car.   I understand the economics, and that the battery cost is anywhere from 30-40% of the cost of manufacturing an EV.

The Leaf has a lot of electronic whiz bang gadgets (really called telematics) that make me happy, but that completely baffle most people who are not tech-obsessed.  Even putting the Leaf in gear takes some thinking, or training. The i-MiEV (I have trouble even typing that, let alone trying to say it), is easy to understand. You sit in the seat, put your belt on, put the key in, and turn it. A beep signifies that you are ready to shift into gear, which is not a joystick, but a true P-R-N-D labelled shifter. It does have an eco-mode and a more aggressive regenerative mode, but really, how often does the average driver ever use anything but “d” anyway?

i-MiEV Dash

Even the dash is easy to understand. Speed, charge status, estimated range, whether you are discharging or regenerating the battery, and thats it. No LCD displays telling you things that are neat, but really unnecessary.

I think Mitsubishi is onto something – although not with the looks, as this is a face that only a mother could love – with the i-MiEV’s simplicity. Really, this simplicity is how EVs will go mainstream. IF prices come down. The built quality, driveability and general fit and finish of the i-MiEV feel like a $20,000 car.  Its a shame, because it will turn a lot of people off an otherwise fine subcompact commuter car. I could see this car as perfect for a new grad – complete with $1,000 discount if you bring your diploma.

Simpler electric vehicles will take some of the fear of the unknown away from new buyers. Many new car owners might not want to consider an alternative from what they consider to be a “normal” car.   Nissan, GM, Ford and other EV manufacturers could learn a lesson or two from the i-MiEV’s simplicity.

As for my car search, the Leaf is still my preferred EV. The Volt is too expensive and its performance is a compromise, and the i-MiEV just doesn’t provide enough value for me.  I have to see what I can sell my Subaru for, and deal with payments (that will be offset in whole or in part by gas/maintenance savings).  Stay tuned to see what’s next in my EV saga.

In true North American fashion, I am a car lover. Really, I am tech junkie, but for most of my life that interest has been focused on cars. Before I was four I could name every car on the road. I am sure my father encouraged it to no end, as his interests were similar.

Not an easy thing to reconcile with trying to be an environmentalist and engineer who should know better.  I have investigated electric cars, and was fortunate enough to get to borrow one for a week. I wrote about the experience here. Sadly, I can’t justify the premium (yet!) to purchase one when my Subaru keeps humming along faithfully, and I don’t have a car payment. The same goes for a hybrid.

The obvious solution would be (and should be) transit. But that is not an option for me. I work ~25km from home, and outside the city. The connection between the Toronto Transit Commission and Vaughan Transit simply doesn’t address my route. It would take me 3 hours to take transit for what is usually a 25 minute drive.

I spend about $75 on premium gas for my Subaru every 8-10 trips (yes I know it is not fuel efficient). So each trip costs me about $9 per trip just on fuel, not including maintenance, insurance or depreciation. A quick napkin calculation leads to me to a cost of ownership of about $500 per month for my car. I know I could have bought something more economical, but I didn’t, and now I’m living with the consequences.

This week is smart commute week, and so I decided to pull up my socks and ride my road bike to and from work. 33 km took me an hour and 19 minutes, and judging by Toronto traffic after today’s rain, my trip home would probably have taken an hour by car.  While riding, I enjoyed the Humber River trail, and how peaceful the ride was. No radio, no honking, no one in an Escalade weaving through traffic. The exercise felt fantastic after a bit of a rough day at work too. All this effort, and I basically paid myself $18 to leave the car in the parking lot.

Humber River at Dawn

I obviously cannot do this every day, and I have my gripes about it. Bike lanes from here to Vaughan are almost non-existant. I ride through parks as much as possible to avoid traffic because I don’t feel safe when on a major road without a bike lane, even in a hyper-yellow jersey (too many people driving distracted for my liking). Transit is simply not realistic, and a hybrid or electric isn’t in the cards until my existing wheels need to be replaced.

The location of your home will factor into what your commuting options are. Too many people that I know are perfectly fine spending an hour or more commuting in one direction every day, and the waste of time is staggering, not to mention the money spent on fuel, and the environmental impact of all these cars and road works.

I’ve only done this once (so far) this year, but I plan on doing it more often, if for no other reason than to laugh at people stuck at traffic lights while I ride past a burbling river burning stress and calories. If you’re thinking of riding to work, check out some tips, plan it out, start slow, and say hi to fellow riders.