Posts Tagged ‘electric cars’

It’s a Volt!

August 11, 2012

About two months ago I wrote a couple of posts about my dying station wagon, the opportunity to buy a post-mommy car, and my waffling between a

  • Prius (familiar, safe; every single resident of the Bay Area has one; I’ve always owned Toyotas) and a
  • Chevy Volt (cool technology, green, cutting-edge but… AMERICAN??!).

Stork from babyclipart.net; composite image by Ilana DeBare

News flash: It’s a Volt!

I spent the afternoon at the Chevy dealership yesterday and, after listening to more Classic Rock than I’ve heard in the past ten years combined, made my downpayment.

It hasn’t come home with me yet. I asked the dealership to hold it until we return from taking Daughter to college. I couldn’t bear the idea of this shiny new car sitting unattended for ten days under the Icky Sap Tree in front of our house.

Long before yesterday, the dare-I-buy-an-American-car question had become a non-issue. I went for a ride with one of my haircutter’s clients who LOVES her Volt. I heard about my neighbor’s friend who LOVES his Volt. Then, after I did my Volt-or-Prius blog post, I got a bunch of comments from complete strangers who don’t even live in the Bay Area but own Volts and LOVE their Volts.

I started to think they should have named this car the Chevy Cult.

In any case, there were enough rave comments flying around that I stopped worrying whether its American-ness meant that a Volt would be a poorly-made, piece-of-junk lemon.

And I love the idea of not having to buy any gas. My daily commute is six miles round-trip. On weekend errands, I do maybe ten miles. So with the Volt able to travel 35 miles on a battery charge, I’ll be able to go for weeks — maybe months — without entering a gas station.

I also want to support the development of better, more environmentally-friendly auto technologies in the U.S. A Prius is good on gas mileage and would have been cheaper, but I see my purchase as a personal vote for support for those people in Detroit who are trying to be forward-thinking. The future of our auto industry depends on this kind of ability to look ahead and innovate.

I sat on the decision for long enough that I got used to it and it was no longer scary. (A tried and true approach of mine for big decisions. Ask Sam how long it took for me to decide to marry him.)

There was also a little shove of impetus last week when Daughter couldn’t get my 17-year-old station wagon to start. Between the missing hubcap, stolen radio, power steering fluid leak, anti-lock brake system trouble, crack in the windshield and now iffy starting, it was pretty much time to get off the dime and buy the new car.

Now I’m actually excited. Over the car itself but also some of the minor features. Like – duh – a working radio. (Welcome back NPR!  Now I can stop singing Mamma Mia out loud to myself while I drive.)

Or like the dashboard electronics that tell you how much air is in the tires. No more rolling around in the dirt of the gas station with a tire gauge!

Now, just a couple of weeks until I pick it up and bring it home. Do midlife transitions get any more obvious than this? Day one: Leave child at college. Day two: Bring home new car. Maybe I should just park the darn thing in her bedroom.

I’ll give it a couple of months and let you know if I become a card-carrying member of the Chevy Cult.

Chevy Volt?

May 31, 2012

Since my blog post last month about the imminent demise of my old mommy-car stationwagon, millions of Midlife Bat Mitzvah readers have been clamoring to know what new car I wll be buying.

Well, okay, maybe two MBM readers made polite inquiries. But this has been an interesting thought process, so I figured I’d write about it.

I clearly want to get as environmentally benign a car as possible. (Yes, I know someone will say that going carless is the most environmentally benign option.  But I do want a car. And after 17 years with my current car, I feel I’ve earned a new one.)

A Prius is the obvious choice, perhaps the new plug-in Prius hybrid that Toyota is just starting to sell. It’s a safe choice. Nearly every other driver here in this bluest-of-blue-states Bay Area has a Prius. There are probably five on our block alone. My neighbors have one. My brother has one. Plus every car I’ve owned as an adult has been a Toyota, and they’ve all been sturdy and reliable.

But then there’s the Chevy Volt.

Chevy Volt, charging in a driveway

The Volt can travel up to thirty-five miles on its electric battery, without burning an ounce of gas!

My daily commute is only about six miles round trip. I could recharge the car at night in our driveway and go for weeks, maybe months, without visiting a gas station. And for longer trips, the Volt switches seamlessly into hybrid mode like a Prius. So there are no restrictions on how far I could drive. Averaging the no-gas battery driving and the hybrid driving, the EPA estimates that the Volt gets something like 60 miles per gallon.  (Battery driving uses the energy equivalent of 93 miles per gallon; hybrid mode gets around 37 miles per gallon.)

The Volt represents the future. It’s the Detroit we want to see — innovative, environmentally conscious, forward-thinking. Of course I want to encourage and support that trend. BUT….

It’s an American car.

This is where the thought process gets weird and interesting. In my parents’ generation, it was considered unthinkable to buy a car that wasn’t American. To me, it’s unthinkable on a gut level to buy a car that is American.

I bought my first car in 1978, the height of the oil crisis. Remember lines queued around the block to buy gas? Jimmy Carter wearing sweaters in the White House to save fuel? Japanese cars were small and cool. American cars were big gas hogs. And American cars were lemons — we heard all sorts of disaster stories about American cars falling apart after a couple of years, while Toyotas and Datsuns and Hondas just kept going and going.

So on a purely emotional level, there is a big fierce grizzly bear that rears up and growls and makes me stop short when I think of the “Chevy” part of “Chevy Volt.”

But then there is other emotional baggage too.

I have never been someone who bought a car on emotion. I’ve always been practical, down-to-earth. No shiny sports car to cater to my inner supermodel, no BMW for status, no Hummer for… well, why would anyone of my gender want a Hummer anyway? I bought useful sedans with no frills. No leather seats, no upgraded stereos, no moon roofs. Basically, I wanted a machine that would get me from Point A to Point B as safely, cheaply and efficiently as possible.

But now I have this emotional response of deep-in-the-chest fear when I think about buying the Volt.

And then I have another emotional response when I think about buying a Prius! It’s the safe, cheaper choice. But it feels so… boring!

Maybe if I lived in Texas, buying a Prius would be a statement of visionary nonconformity. Here in the Bay Area, it’s like owning a piece of Ikea furniture. Yawn. Another Prius on the street? How will I be able to remember which house is mine?

For the first time in my life, I have all these feelings roiling around about cars. Fear of Detroit. Desire to be in the green forefront.

And that’s on top of actual practical considerations. The Volt is about $10,000 more expensive than a plug-in Prius would be. The Volt has a bucket seat in back, so it can only hold four people. The Volt has a tiny trunk because of its battery.

Sounds like I should get a Prius.

But… shoot! I want a Volt!

Now if only I could get over this spasm of grizzly-bear terror at the prospect of buying American, I could perhaps buy a car.

Better Place — An Electric Car Vision Becoming Real

November 23, 2011

For the past four years, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi has drawn headlines with his audacious plan to end world dependence on oil through a system of mass-market electric cars and roadside battery-changing stations. Today I had a chance to visit the Israeli showroom/ visitor center for Agassi’s Better Place startup — which is just months away from putting its first cars into action here.

Better Place Visitor Center / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Agassi’s vision, in a nutshell, is to make it feasible for large numbers of average drivers to switch from gas to electric cars, by:

  • Producing electric cars that are as affordable, roomy, and powerful as traditional gas-powered family sedans, and
  • Extending the range of electric cars so they are viable for long drives as well as short trips around town.

Better Place’s big innovative idea is the battery-swapping station. Like other new electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, Better Place relies on lithium batteries that will be recharged at small pump-like charging stations at drivers’ homes, workplaces or other public spots. But it is also building a network of roadside battery-swapping stations — where drivers whose batteries are running low can drive in, have a robot replace their diminished battery with a full one, and be on their way in less than five minutes.

Cross-section of Better Place car with lithium battery in back / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Israel is the first test market for Better Place, to be followed by Denmark and Australia. The company has already sold about 300 cars here and expects to have several thousand on the road in the first quarter of 2012. It has ten battery-switch stations in final testing, with another 18-20 under construction. By March or April, there will be 40 stations that will allow Israelis to drive from Eilat to Metulla without stopping for longer than a five-minute swap.

Better Place charging spot / Photo by Ilana DeBare

My companions Shlomo Maital and Danny Shapiro and I stopped by Better Place’s visitor center in Tel Aviv, where you can test drive its cars (manufactured by Renault in Turkey). The center is as sleekly and classily designed as a Disney production, and in fact feels a bit like Tomorrowland, complete with twin life-size holographic images of Shai Agassi narrating a video presentation in its theatre.

Amidst the high-tech setting, little details reinforce the company’s environmental mission. The visitor center itself is housed in a refitted water tank that was formerly used by the oil and gas company. The plush theatre seats are in fact recycled bucket seats from old cars, with little plaques noting their former incarnation: I sat in a “1999 Mazda 626.”

We test-drove one of the cars. It’s as quiet as the hybrid Priuses that are common back home in the Bay Area, with the same initial unsettling feeling: I turned the key, but I don’t hear anything! Is it really on?  I haven’t driven a Leaf or a Prius myself, so can’t compare the driver’s experience. But it seemed as comfy and powerful as anything I’d need in my daily life, and roomy enough to be a family car. There’s an electronic information system that goes beyond the usual GPS tricks — it tells you how much battery power you have, how much battery power you’ll need to reach a given destination, and the location of the most convenient battery swapping stations on your route.

Midlife Bat Mitzvah takes a Better Place test drive / Photo by Danny Shapiro

The upfront and operating costs are in the ballpark of other Israeli cars, although structured differently. A standard Better Place Renault costs 122,900 Israeli shekels, about $36,000. Then, instead of paying for gas, owners will pay a monthly membership fee based on how much they plan to drive — for instance, 1,090 shekels ($290) each month for up to 20,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) per year. That provides electricity, a home charging spot, free access to public charge spots and battery switch stations, 24/7 customer service and free towing/transportation in case of problems. With gas going for $8 a gallon here, it’s comparable to fuelling a conventional car.

So what do I think? In the past I’ve been skeptical about Better Place — charismatic leader, tantalizing idea, but it could easily turn out to be smoke and mirrors. Agassi is aiming for nothing less than the transformation of an industry, a familiar daily routine, and a big chunk of our culture. There are lots of reasons to think he will fail.

But I’m encouraged by Better Place’s utter commitment to its vision. For Nissan, the Leaf is only one initiative among all its other conventional cars. Ditto for GM and its hybrid Volt. Those companies are experimenting with electric cars, but they also remain deeply invested in the old oil paradigm. Better Place, on the other hand, is betting the entire farm on electric cars — so has every reason to make them succeed.

And today — test-driving an actual Better Place Renault, standing beside a charging post, seeing a group of young Israelis crowd around one of the cars at the visitor center — it hit home that Better Place is really rolling this stuff out. On schedule. In the next few months. And not just as a pilot project with one or two charging stations, but through an entire country.

That is darn impressive. I look forward to seeing what happens.

Potential Better Place buyers? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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P.S. Wondering what this little road trip had to do with my writing project here in Israel? Yep, you guessed it — Shai Agassi is an alumnus of the Technion. In fact Agassi — who started computer programming at age seven — enrolled in the Technion at age 15.