Sunday, June 26, 2011

I wouldn't test drive a Lincoln for $50

Front of promotional material

At the New York Auto Show last month, I was approached by a Lincoln saleswoman who offered me the chance to earn $50 simply by visiting my local Lincoln dealer and test driving any car. Sounds like a no brainer, right? I did not mind putting my name on their mailing list - the worst thing that could happen is I would get some promotional material in the mail. The $50 offer expired in 1 month. I received this reminder in the mail (click through to see more):

Rear of promotional material
However, as time went on, I could not bring myself to do the deed. As a 24-year-old guy, I simply could not see myself devising a credible story to a Lincoln salesperson to convince them that I would ever buy any of their vehicles. Despite the fact that they are probably desperate to sell cars, even they would laugh at me and probably say "are you kidding me?" Truth be told, if the right deal came along, I would be in the market for a mid-$30k sedan, but with so many more compelling options (M-B C Class, Audi A4, anyone?), I simply cannot understand how Lincoln competes. Lincoln has tried very hard to target younger car buyers, but doesn't seem to have hit the mark yet.

Every weekend when I would have time to visit the closest dealership (which is actually 45 minutes away!), I start going through my opportunity costs, and realize that I would rather:
  • Go for a run
  • Do work
  • Sleep
  • Spend time with friends
  • Take a ride in a more exciting Zipcar (Volvo S40 / BMW 3 Series)
Sad, isn't it?

I realize that Ford recently announced they are spending $1 billion to revive the brand and forcing dealers to spend $1 million each to upgrade dealerships (ouch!) - both of which are fantastic and much needed - but as things stand today, the brand is a collection of neglected, unexciting, has-been, me-too warmed over Fords. And their MK nomenclature is bland and confusing. Going one-by-one:

  • Lincoln MKZ: I love the Ford Fusion - don't get me wrong - but not for $35k. While the Fusion looks edgy and aggressive, the former Zephyr somehow looks boxy and stodgy.

  • Lincoln MKS: mildly attractive, and certainly capable, but very bland. Anything is better than the ancient Town Car, but who wasn't disappointed when they revealed this blobby Taurus cousin?

  • Lincoln MKX: Again, love the Ford Edge, but this looks way to similar to be a legitimate entry into the competitive CUV field. How can this compete with the Audi Q5/Q7, Volvo XC60, MB M Class, and BMW X5? The interior is an upmarket improvement over the Edge, but from the side the cars are identical. Fail.

  • Lincoln MKT: Did someone die? This Ford Flex cousin looks like a hearse. What's with the weird kink between the C and D pillars? Unflattering back end, toothy front end. I also do not understand what segment this wagon competes in...
  • I don't think we need to take up much space for the ancient Navigator or Town Car. These uncompetitive entries are really only sold to fleets at this point (one would hope!)
So, Lincoln has a very long way to go before it will be a credible luxury player amongst younger folks. Let's hope Alan Mulally's success at Ford can spill over to this once-dominant American brand...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Our Nissan LEAF After Two Months

We've just completed our second month of Nissan LEAF ownership, and there is more good news to report.

Miles Driven this Month
We drove our LEAF 540 miles this month, fewer than last month because we were traveling for seven days.  We took a driving trip north to visit friends near San Jose.  We took our Prius because, yes that's right, the LEAF wouldn't make the drive because there is no fast way to charge it yet.  A network of quick charge stations running up Route 101 or Route 5 would make that possible, and one day, we hope that fast EV charging stations will soon be commonplace on major travel routes.  The quick charge stations are able to charge a LEAF in 25 minutes from empty to 80% full and one would need to be placed every 60 miles or so along the route.  As I've mentioned before, there is only one quick charge station in the state, and that one is turned off while some sort of certification is obtained.  State governments need to act, now that more EVs are on the roads, to place charging stations on major highway routes to encourage adoption and use of this new technology.  Oregon and Washington State have already made greater strides than has California, but all three states have agreed to contribute towards the building of a "green highway" of EV charging stations from north to south along the west cost.  See the article here:  For now, having a second car or another plan for long distance trips is part of owning an EV.  While this is true, the LEAF can handle the bulk of our local trips, and those are by far the largest number of miles that we drive every year.

Driving Experience
We continue to be very pleased, even excited by our new electric car.  Every time I get into the LEAF, I'm excited to drive this silent, smooth and zippy car.  The interior is inviting, bright, open, roomy and airy.  From the electronic tones that greet you when you press the Power button to the numerous driving efficiency displays and the standard XM radio and traffic display on the GPS screen, the car is inviting to climb into every day.  It is fun to drive the LEAF briskly, where it can zip ahead of other cars to let you change lanes safely and comfortably.  It is fun to drive the car gently, as it is smooth and quiet enough to allow quiet conversation at any speed.  And it is fun to use the advanced electronics that are standard with the LEAF.  I find that my favorite electronic feature is the rear camera used for backing up.  The guide lines on the display move with the steering wheel to help to carefully place the car in the chosen parking place.
(Photos are clickable for enlargement)

Costs and Efficiency of Driving
My measurements of the electrical power that we've used to charge our LEAF and the miles we have driven over our two months of ownership show that the car can reliably drive three miles per killowatt hour of energy, measured at our home's electric power panel.  This makes it fairly easy to calculate what a LEAF will cost to drive if you can predict your home's marginal electric rate.  You just need to divide your cost per kWh by three to get your fuel cost per mile.  Remember, though, that you can likely get better rates by charging your EV at night during Off Peak or Super Off Peak hours than you are paying now for your domestic electric bill.  Consider that a common car with a conventional engine gets an average of 20 miles per gallon.  At $4 per gallon for gasoline, that works out to a fuel cost per mile of 20 cents.  EV charging rates for Off Peak charging with a separate meter are about 10 cents per kWh, so you would have a fuel cost for charging an EV that way of 3.3 cents per mile, or about one sixth of the cost for that typical gas powered car.

Because of the combination of the solar PV panels on our home roof and Time of Use electrical rates from our utility, SCE, we will be driving our LEAF emissions-free for over 6,000 miles per year, AND free of any fuel cost for more than 12,000 miles per year.  This is because we are credited with a large credit for the power that we generate during Peak hours during the day, when we are making solar power, and we charge our LEAF late at night for a lower cost per kWh.  The month of May is the best month for making solar power at this latitude in Southern California.  Last May, in 2010, the month was particularly sunny and we made the most solar power in the four years that we've had our solar panels.  This May wasn't quite as sunny, but we still made a good 888 kWh, just 2% less than last year.  Even with charging our LEAF with 181 kWh of power, we still made 241 kWh more than we used overall, and we sent that 241 kWh to the SCE grid for other people and businesses to use.  Our electric "bill" for the month was a credit of about $77 that will be credited to our annual (Net Metering) bill as a "bank" to compensate us during the winter months when we will use more power than our solar PV system will make.

After having put our LEAF to the ultimate test last month of purposely running it out of power while driving 86.5 miles, we had no need (or desire ;) ) to run that low on power again this month.  Our longest driving day was 58 miles, when I drove the LEAF up the freeway to Cerritos and back for one of our local group get-togethers.  The LEAF handled that distance just fine, as we would expect it to, ending the day with three of its twelve bars of charge remaining.  We have become quite comfortable with judging the remaining charge by using the bars on the display, and we usually pay less attention to the estimated miles of range, especially at the upper end of the range.  Nissan has modified the displays with a software update so that the range display is more accurate in the lower portion, which makes a lot of sense.  We had no concerns about running out of power on any of our trips, and the LEAF did everything we asked of it.  After two months of experience with the car, I can say that I consider a total trip length of 70 miles the longest freeway trip that I would plan to make with the LEAF.  I expect to be able to make trips of up to 80 miles on surface highways at lower than freeway speeds.

Charging at Public Charging Stations
So far, we have mostly charged our LEAF at home, using the "Level 2" 240 volt charging station in our garage.  But we plan to experience public charging with a trip to Santa Monica some time during June or July.  Santa Monica has several public charging stations that are accessible through our Charge Point pass.  Though the distance to Santa Monica, 54 miles one way, is too far for us to make a round trip, we can certainly make it one way, and charging at one of the public stations should allow us to see a movie and have a meal while the LEAF is charging for the return trip.  Our first practice run will be a trip to our local South Coast Plaza mall, where there are some Charge Point charging stations.  We'll test out our coded Charge Point card and make sure that it works well before we venture to Santa Monica.

Utility of the LEAF
While our use of the LEAF is mostly for driving one or two adults on local errands and pleasure trips, we've expanded its use a couple of times.  We took our son and daughter in law and their one year old baby to dinner a few weeks ago.  The baby seat fit nicely in the rear seating area, latched securely to the standard latch points, and the baby's two parents rode comfortably on either side of her.  Our family of five found the LEAF comfortable and perfect for that kind of a trip.  Last week, we took the LEAF to our local Lowe's to shop for a small bar-height patio table and stools.  We decided to buy the set on the spot, so the LEAF became the delivery vehicle.  The box, measuring 37 inches by 38 inches by 17 inches  fit in the rear area with the seats folded down.  The width of the cargo hatch opening was just large enough to accommodate the 37 inch width of the box while fitting the 17 inch height.  Any larger in either dimension and we would have had to bring the Prius back to pick up the box.  It was a bit of a squeeze to get the box in, and the act of pushing it in did cause a small scrape on the interior plastic finish around the opening, which bothered me a little, being the first scrape on our new baby.  I managed to get over it, though.   By the way, we decided to disassemble the box and remove the contents while the box was still in the LEAF, in order to avoid any further scrapes and scratches.

Other LEAF news of interest:
* The California Clean Vehicle Rebate Fund CVRP has had two major infusions of cash from its funding agency, the California Air Resources Board, and has issued or reserved over 1,350 rebates of $5,000 for electric or hydrogen cars in the state to the date of this writing.  Most of these rebates have gone to buyers or lessees of the Nissan LEAF, though owners of some Tesla Roadsters and lessees of Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell cars have been the recipients of a small number of rebates.  As of this writing, there is enough money in the 2010-2011 fund for about 495 more of these rebates.  Once this fund is depleted, probably before the end of June, a waiting list will be established for funding in the 2011-2012 round.  However, the dollar amount of the rebates for those who are wait listed will be lower, probably half of the current $5,000 amount.  The remaining few weeks of June will be an anxious time for those who have LEAFs on order and who will be waiting for phone calls from their dealers so that they can lock in their rebates at the current amount.
* Outcome of Nissan's delivery scheduling problems.  Nissan managers have acknowledged in phone calls to members of the most prominent LEAF enthusiast online forum, that there were administrative errors made in delivery sequencing for fewer than 100 LEAFs, and that issues with parts availability in combination with characteristics of Nissan's production scheduling systems caused delays in the manufacturing of other LEAFs so that cars ordered months later were delivered to their owners months sooner.  This has caused quite a bit of worry and disappointment among the waiting buyers, especially those who are hoping to take advantage of limited state rebate funding (see above topic).  Issues related to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power problems suffered by Japan in March worsened the parts supply and production situations.  Lastly, a significant number of LEAFs have been parked in the port of Long Beach CA, waiting for accessory parts, software updates and paint reconditioning from a mysterious pollen problem.  Once the delivery errors were identified, Nissan USA managers worked hard to rectify the situation by reassigning cars from later orders, dealer demonstrator cars and fleet purchases to fulfill earlier orders sooner.  This was a difficult task, and it demonstrates Nissan's desire to honor LEAF orders in the correct sequence.  It seems that better oversight from higher levels in the company throughout the process would have reduced the need for corrective action "on the fly".  That said, Nissan deserves praise for taking the initiative and the risk to produce the world's first affordable mass produced highway capable electric car.
* EVSE Home and Travel Charging Options. One issue of concern to prospective EV owners is deciding how and where they are going to charge their new cars.  Charging docks, called EVSEs, that are wall mounted and hard wired into the home's electrical system cost from $750 up to several thousand dollars to buy and the cost of installation by an electrician can cost hundreds to even thousands of dollars, depending on whether the home's electrical panel needs to be upgraded and whether new wiring needs to be run long distances to the EV's new parking space.  Enterprising individuals, including one electrical engineer, started a company called EVSE Upgrade in the San Francisco Bay area.  Customers can send their standard Level 1 (120 volt) charging cable system to EVSE Upgrade, and for less than $400, including shipping and insurance, receive an upgraded charging cable system that is fully portable and can charge at either 120 volts or 240 volts, with the same amount of power as the more expensive wall mounted units.  If a customer has an unused 240 volt dryer plug available, there is no need for expensive work to be done to their home wiring.  Note that many buyers in the early roll out states of California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona qualified for free or reduced price EVSE installations through a government funded project called The EV Project
* Google leads the way:  Google Corp. in Mountain View, California is leading the way for other employers toward a greener future by installing many Level 2 (240 volt) charging stations at its corporate headquarters and by purchasing a total of more than 30 Nissan LEAFs, Chevy Volts and Toyota Priuses that have been modified for plugging in.  This "GFleet" of EVs and plug in hybrids is used by Google employees for transportation in and around Google's home base.  See the impressive video at:
* Different Charging Connectors:  I had occasion to help a friend who had bought a charging dock (EVSE) from a small company.  The "J" connector that connects to the LEAF's charging plug on this particular EVSE looked different from any that I'd seen.  When we plugged it in to my LEAF, it wouldn't disconnect no matter how hard we tried.  This essentially immobilizes the LEAF.  The problem turned out to be that the release mechanism was either incompatible with the LEAF or it was broken or jammed on this unit.  I would recommend that you use caution when using a connector that is not known to you.  Keep tools handy in case of a problem.

The Numbers
Month:  May 2011
Total Miles at Month End:  1,387 miles
Miles Driven in Month:  540 miles
Electric Power Used for Charging: 181.1 kWh (measured at wall power source)
Energy Efficiency, Month of May:  2.98 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  3.14 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Most Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Day: 18.4 kWh  (5.0 charging hours)
Least Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day: 2.7 kWh  (0.7 charging hours)
Average Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day:  11.3 kWh  (3.1 charging hours)
Household Power Used:  467.9 kWh (without car charging)
Total Power Used:  647 kWh (includes car charging)
Solar PV Power Generated:  888 kWh
Net Power Used or Sent to Grid:  241 kWh sent to grid
Electric Bill:  -$76.97 (A credit in this amount will be added to our net metering total credit for the year, offsetting future bills for months with lower solar output.)
Cost for Charging Car:  $0.00
Cost per Mile:  $0.00
(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost for Charging Car in May: $23.54)
(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost per Mile in May: $0.044) 
Average Miles per Driving Day:  28.4 miles
Longest Day's Driving:  58 miles
Shortest Day's Driving:  4 miles
Number of Times we Took the Prius Instead of the LEAF Due to Low Charge: None
Unexpected Low Charge and Unable to Reach Destination:  Never

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Repairing a ceiling in K's house, spreading mud, not exactly a Michelangelo at it, listening to As the World Turns, for a full minute thinking one of the characters is a man called Spot ("...Spot you are one of the most amazing Men I've ever met and you deserve..."); its actually Scott, but I may have a new song to work on...

The short of it is, regarding the leak in K's ceiling, there is an intermittent failure in the seal of bathtub drain of M's apartment above. So a trip to the attic where a foregone conclusion as materialist 20th century human condition abides and testifies to a prosperity of sorts; 19th century sewing machines next to 45 inch plasma tv boxes and a Canon windows 95 desktop computer, guitars, teddy bears, old water heaters, clothes, blankets, beads, building materials, knick knacks, Ronco gadgets, souvenirs, reel to reel audio tapes and the close tips of circa 1850 nails coming through the roof...
I judge it a hazard that must be cleared before the tradesman enters, as I'm not touching this crawl-space corroded galvanized bath drain into brass fitting, no sir.
So gather, collapse, and consolidate many cardboard boxes (hating styrofoam) and fill 8 large garbage bags, in a filthy 120 degrees, reckoning this labor will fill three tanks of gas, 1200 miles, west, so that's not bad, but -
a fancy Shopping Bag (Lenox Gifts That Celebrate Life) containing two large ziplock baggies, enclosing two quart sized plastic tubs (inside paper bags) with snap lids. I am a conscientious sorter of things, and certainly this attic has its share of rare fine good and no telling among all the boards and dvd player box junk.
At first I think, bath salts?
Then open the other. It is calcium of an aggregate particle size I recognize - along with a faint, indefinable (dreadful) smell - I recoil.
Human remains.
As if the spirit came out and enervated me, a little like nausea, and I had to take a break.
I bring K his old beautiful guitar that has been residing here two decades at least.
And a soft white Christmas Teddy bear with a blue sweater.
He doesn't know about anyones ashes.
It must be an old tenants he says.
Probably shouldn't leave them there I say.
Oh no, K agrees, they could be haunting the house.
Maybe you could spread them in the garden.
I think of these damn feral cats who I can not keep from shitting in my flower bed,
where consequently nothing but weeds grow.
I think of the Mississippi, five blocks away, sometime this evening.
In the meantime, there's where to keep these two containers -
the fancy shopping bag was torn in the strife of purging the attic.
Not coming into my house.
Not in the bucket in my bikes cargo basket.
There's a plastic cooler under the house.
Cool shady secure chill, someones ashes.
I set it inside.
and Tonight, I think I'm going to go...
down to the river, and hope that's alright by you
So, two quart sized polyethylene snap lid jars, containing human ashes,
sheathed in paper bags enclosed in ziplock baggies, found inside a fancy
department store bag in K's attic this morning, left long ago by tenant unknown,
the sun is waning but yet bright, are you ready?
For a long time.
Ride in the black shoulder bag Rebecca gave me 2003 or so.
Okay I'll tell you two stories, I collected a lot of fine beach stuff in this bag,
from the Gateway to the Spirit North America, and once religiously kept
composition notebook and pen along with blood glucose monitor.
But the funny thing is, at the Greyhound Bus Station in Atlanta,
beginning in New Orleans and headed for Charleston, I was buying a
newspaper when one of its straps got caught in the dispenser and I was...
Right, no change in my pocket to open it.
I spent 10 furious minutes sawing the strap with a key and then run to barely catch my bus!
You tug my shoulder.
Quart and a half of Calcium...
Its a lot of ballast.
What about Washington Square Park -
I'm not getting a clear picture of the Big Muddy.
Kind of Sedimentary?
This grove with a winding path to the Nola Aids Memorial.
Engraved names on granite bricks and glass faces with memorial benches.
I don't know what the flora is called, long leaves, purple flowers.
And how about some grass.
On the lawn.
Bright and sunny. Frisbees and blankets and novel readings and picnics,
that sound alright?
Yes the white chips are kind of conspicuous for much.
Mostly white, some tan, orange, yellow, a blackness or two.
I don't like looking too close.
You know I met this park in October 2005 when it had been taken
over by commune hippies and barefoot doctors.
It was called the Welcome Home Kitchen and it was a beautiful
thing for a traumatized derelict and 4/5ths abandoned city.
800 meals a day, good meals, a place to congregate.
Free Peanut Butter and clothes and condoms.
Meals Ready to Eat.
Very Nice Vegetarian Dinners.
Then the Property Owners got upset and shut it down after Thanksgiving...
Lets walk down Frenchmen.
I'd like a beer from the Deli.
And a Peanut Crunch bar just for you.
Two pretty young girls in little dresses and chubby arms just came
in all smiles...
You like this kind of evening don't you.
Warm and golden hued, those racketing insects in the trees.
Maybe you were the entomologist, I don't know, cicadas', crickets...
Now past Check Point Charlies.
One guy playing to no one, wah wah 70's funk, lets keep going.
A crosswalk while we wait for a green-light.
I know you were cared about in that fancy shopping bag,
inside a bag, inside a bag and inside these sealed jars.
You must have been alright and maybe just too sudden or much for someone.
I'd guess you are woman about 120-40 lbs, going by previous containers.
I don't know what store, it was so -
lets not talk about that disagreeable attic, I agree.
I know you have been ready for a long time, shoulder tug.
Balcony Music Club - Sunny Side of the Street....
We wont go down Decatur!
Left along the Mint toward the River, Right through the Market.
Is closing now, just a few vendors closing shop.
Would I be surprised at all to learn August 21 is the day you were born.
A bantering going on.
He's saying: That is None of Your Concern.
This is about seeing him next Saturday.
Good natured, it appears, but there's always an edge to things
people say, you know that.
Marvin Gaye on the PA.
Why'd his Papa have to take him like that, but isn't that sweet?
Now live music playing in a courtyard and when we Kiss
segue into sax solo -
Now another left.
Smells a little like Singapore by this restaurant.
The waiter is on his game and a big round table is happy.
Its great smelling and eating tasty things don't you think.
Now I can see the Bridge.
This is going to be your view, okay.
Governor Nichols Wharf to the left, Jackson Square to the right,
Algiers just across the way, the Bridge right now, it looks like
a Joel Meyerowitz photograph, this is really fine.
She and I took our 2nd walk in Nola here.
A Saturday in June.
That night she went to a wedding and came back a little past tipsy.
I was staying in this big impressive house all by myself.
We slept in the corner bedroom.
Sometimes we'd try the next one over.
It was like changing sets or inhabiting a beautiful painting.
She said she loved me and it wasn't just the drink saying so.
Well it was, but I did..
Did you know this is where I made a movie called Deja Vu with Denzel?
Yes Washington. Right across there in Algiers.
I was National Guardsman Buck Private DUNN.
$75 a day and good food. I felt like a dope in the uniform, but at least
I didn't have to wear those silly sailor white bell bottoms.
Sure I had a back story - its a little grim for right now though.
I'd board the Ferry with a few dozen sailors, we were going to New Orleans
on leave to Mardi Gras, so we were supposed to be uninhibitedly happy...
There's be an explosion set off by a terrorist to sink the Ferry.
They told us the splashes would be added digitally in Los Angeles.
Yes, I did, and Denzel gave me the Stink Eye for staring.
Oh he is definitely a lot of charisma.
So lets do this.
I'm climbing down the levee over these rocks.
its great being able to walk and balance and hop and carry you.
Now there's a little sandbar.
I'll put my feet in the water.
First Jar.
You are a cloud of powder drifting away from the scatter.
You are a white plume in the water.
You are sinking and filling in the ridges of sand.
Now I'm walking a few yards away in the direction of the Bridge.
You are another cloud of powder drifting away from the scatter.
I've tried to throw you farther.
There's a young man stacking or writing with rocks on the sandbar.
A couple walking along the Levee.
A man sitting up there saying
Last week the water was this high.
Pointing to where he sits.
The young man with the rocks says it can go down fast.
Pause at the trash can.
I'll keep these jars.
Rinse them and keep my mother of pearl shards.
If you don't mind.
Walking back.
The band is playing Chaka Kahn.
Tell Me Something Good.