Thursday, August 5, 2010

New From People's Automotive Collective Number 1!!

Is that what we call them?  Government Motors?  Barack Motor Works??  Whatever we call them, I give you the Chevy Volt Song and Dance! 

(don't laugh - you're paying for it)  Seriously, could this be any dumber? 

About 5 years ago, I bought my current car, a Toyota Matrix.  It's a conventional gas engine, and gets around 28 mph in my city/highway mix.  At the time, the Prius was the darling of the market; while I was at the local car store, I even saw an elderly gentleman come up the counter and inquire about getting one.  He was told there was a one year waiting list! 

Naturally, being a techno-geek, I had to ask myself how much they cost and how much I'd save with their superior gas mileage.  This is a simple analysis: the Corolla costs $17,000 and gets 28 mpg.  The Prius costs $23,000 and gets 50 mpg.  How many miles would you have to drive per year to save that extra $6000 in gas over the course of a four year car loan?  Any middle school algebra student could set this up.  This depends on the price of gas, so let's assume a value higher than we're paying now, say $3/gallon for regular. 

The answer is just about 32,000 miles per year, or 128,000 miles of driving is required to save the selling price difference in gas.  If you put more than 32,000 miles on your car in a year, the Prius makes sense.  If you drive the national average of about 12,000 miles, it takes over 10 years to break even.  That's a bad investment.  By that time, other costs, like replacing those batteries, will be a bigger concern. 

With the volt, one side of the question is simpler.  Let's assume you can live with a car that gets 40 miles on a charge; you live less than 20 miles each way to work, and you won't drive more than 40 miles in a day on a weekend.  The question here is how much gas equals the cost difference of that $18,000 for a conventional car vs the $33,000 for volt - how much is $15,000 of gas?  Using $3/gallon, again, that's 5000 gallons of glass.  At 28 mpg, that's 140,000 miles worth of driving.  So if you buy a conventional gas engine car with a typical mileage, it will not pay for you to get that Volt unless you drive over 140,000 miles in a reasonable amount of time.  The life of your loan - 4 or 5 years - seems like a good time period to make it pay. 

The harder part to answer is just how much it will cost you to "fill it up" from your wall outlet.  You remove the gas you're burning in your car and turn it into coal or natural gas at the local power station.  I simply have no data on how the costs compare, so this limit of cost above is "at best".  It will cost you more to run your Volt than the $0.00 I assume.  It certainly costs the collective, um, community more.  If everyone switched to using electric cars, many more power plants would have to be built (as I pointed out elsewhere, the smart grid doesn't fix this - it makes their life easier, not yours). 

That limit of 40 miles on a charge seems to put the Volt in the category of over-priced toy.  Possibly useful as a second car, possibly useful as a house-sized UPS for after the SHTF (or latest hurricane). Not really useful as a car, though. Most useful as a status symbol to tell people who don't even know you how environmentally responsible you are.   

Bad dance for a bad car.  I guess they go together well. 


  1. As far as the range issue goes, that depends entirely on what you use a car for.

    I find it interesting when suburbanites or country-dwellers scoff at the uselessness of a 40-mile range.

    Maybe for them, but the only time my roommate puts more than 10 or 20 miles a day on her car is when she drives to Dayton for the Hamvention. She could rent a car once a year and drive an electric Smart the rest of the time.

    So then it comes down to cost, as you rightly point out. I'm hearing numbers of $2-$4 for a full "tank". The life ex[ectancy of the batteries is another worry of mine.

  2. Of course, the range question is the big one in figuring practicality. I happen to live in a small city, and could get by with a Volt most of the time. Maybe 75% of the time. Things are spread out enough around here that I'd need a regular car around once a week.

    And this is nothing like the western US, which tends to be very spread out. We were out in NM a few years ago, and pretty much every trip other than right across town was at least 60 miles.

    As you pointed out the other day on your blog, electric cars are nothing new. The fact they haven't succeeded wildly may be the most remarkable thing about them. It's just hard to compete with the energy density of gasoline in the IC engine - especially when you consider the hundred years of incremental improvements in engineering.

    I did some more reading, and it turns out the reason this costs about $8000 more than the Nissan Leaf is not GM's cost structure, it's that they put a gasoline engine in it to charge the batteries on the road. It runs on high test only, typically 20 cents a gallon more than regular. This is probably a good thing; an insurance policy for never getting stuck somewhere with a dead battery. Complicates the payback analysis, though.

    So while it will work for many commuters (as would an electric golf cart), it still seems to be a $40,000 car with all the room and comfort of a $15,000 car.