Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Seven Months in Our Nissan LEAF, First Maintenance and Going Strong

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October marks our seventh month with our Nissan LEAF, as well as its first "maintenance" and the first recent monthly bill on our electric utility's winter rates.

Our LEAF continues to be trouble-free and very enjoyable and interesting to drive and to own.  The car  continues to be our family's first choice for any trips within its driving range, which includes the great majority of our driving.

Range Limitations Haven't Troubled Us
As in the previous months, we haven't had any problems running out of charge unexpectedly, and we've never been seriously concerned about that problem.  The LEAF's electronics package includes several instruments that help us to plan trips, to estimate our remaining miles of charge, and to locate charging stations.  The car has audible and visible warnings that appear when the remaining range is getting low, and a message appears that offers to guide the driver to the closest charging station, the locations of which are stored in the car's navigation system. 

And if all of that isn't enough, some of the LEAF's early adopter fans have built add-on displays that show the remaining state of charge, and a very accurate paper chart that shows how many miles you can drive based on your average speed.  The chart shows, for instance, that if you drive at an average speed of 60 mph, you'll use an average of 3.9 miles/kWh of battery power as shown on the dash and you can expect to drive 82 miles before running out of charge.  The few LEAF drivers whom I've heard of running out of charge have been those who are deliberately trying to push the car's limits to find out how far they can actually go before the car stops.  Nissan has even allowed for that eventuality by providing free roadside assistance and towing service for the first three years of ownership.  In addition, AAA has set up a mobile EV rescue service in West Los Angeles with quick chargers mounted on trucks to help drivers with depleted batteries to get to the closest charging station. 

A DC Quick Charger with Diesel Generator Mounted on a Trailer (NOT AAA's version)

Of course, as have most new EV owners, we have become familiar with the LEAF's range capabilities, and when a planned trip exceeds the car's limitations, we choose to take another car, usually our Prius.  But you'll notice that we're averaging 1,000 miles or more per month in the LEAF, which is a very typical monthly total for any car, and our Prius is being used about half as much. So the LEAF's limited range isn't turning out to be a limitation for our family.

A First Maintenance Visit
There is no required maintenance for the LEAF until a year of driving or 15,000 miles, whichever comes first.  But a trip to the dealer for a tire rotation and a few visual checks is recommended at six months or 7,500 miles.  As one of the earliest US owners of the LEAF, I want to be sure to stick to Nissan's recommended maintenance schedule and I want to help add to Nissan's database about the LEAF, so I scheduled a trip to Connell Nissan, my dealer in Costa Mesa, Ca.  I also had noticed some edge wear on the front tires, and to maximize the life of the tires, I wanted to get that tire rotation done.  Connell Nissan's General Manager was happy to offer this first service at no charge, and he'll even offer the same deal to any new LEAF owner regardless of whether they bought their car at Connell.  No charge is a cost that I can live with, as I'm sure most would agree.

But with so few mechanical systems as compared with a gasoline car or a hybrid, maintenance for the LEAF will continue to be simpler and less expensive throughout its normal life.  Brakes will wear more slowly since the car uses regeneration for much of its braking.  There is no exhaust system, no ignition, no transmission in the usual sense of the word, and no fuel system.  The cooling system is only used during charging, for cooling the charger and inverter,   The gorilla in the room, of course, is the main (or "traction") battery.  To completely replace the main battery will likely cost somewhere around $10,000 at current prices.  But the battery is warrantied for eight years or 100,000 miles, and individual modules can be replaced if they fail, without replacing the entire battery.

First Recent "Winter" Electric Bill
I've been curious to see our electric bill for October because the beneficial high (55 cents per kWh) credit that we've been getting during the summer months for Tier 2 solar power generation drops to 28 cents in the winter.  Days are shorter and heating our home uses significant power for the forced air blower.  With additional family members living with us for a few months and with charging the LEAF for 1200 miles, we certainly have used more power in October than our solar panels have generated.  Despite the "magic" of Time Of Use rates that have helped us to build a credit balance of about $360 through the previous seven months of our net metering year, October would clearly begin the months when our bills would no longer be negative (meaning credit balance bills).

True to my expectations, our bill for October was about $52.  But subtracting this bill from our previous credit balance, we still have a balance of -$316 through the eighth month of our net metering year.  For the remaining four months through next February, we can average bills of $79 per month and still end the year with a balance due of zero for running our entire household and charging the LEAF for close to 11,000 miles in the year.  I'm estimating that we have a great chance to do exactly that.

But I get it that readers may be saying "Great for you, you have enough solar power that you can leverage Time of Use electric rates to your benefit, but what about the average family?  What would we pay to charge a LEAF?"  And that is a very valid point.  The answer is that you can still get Time of Use EV charging rates, and the Super Off Peak rates are the same as they are on my rate schedule, 10 cents on Tier 1 and 16 cents on Tier 2.  So at an average of 13 cents per kWh and 3.1 miles per kWh, your electric cost would be 4.2 cents per mile.  If you drove 1,000 miles per month, your electric bill would go up by $42 a month.  How much are you paying per month to gas up your current car?

How does this compare with your gasoline car or a Prius?  The average gasoline car gets about 20 mpg and let's say a Prius gets 50 mpg, and a fuel efficient small car might get 35 mpg.  At $4 per gallon of regular gas, the average car costs 20 cents per mile, the Prius costs 8 cents per mile and the fuel efficient small car costs 11.4 cents per mile.  If you drive 12,000 miles per year, by driving a LEAF at electric rates like mine, you would save $1,896 per year compared with an average 20 mpg car, $456 per year compared with a Prius, and $864 compared with a fuel efficient small car.  As gas prices rise, these savings will grow, and of course, if you have different electric rates in your area, that will affect your calculations.  Many areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, have abundant and cheap hydro power, so it is cheaper and greener to drive electric there.  In other areas, like in the East, a larger proportion of the power may come from dirtier coal and the electric prices may be higher.

The Numbers:
Month:  October 2011
Total Miles at Month End:  6,396 
Miles Driven in Month:  1,203 miles
Electric Power Used for Charging in Month: 368.2 kWh (measured at wall power source, includes public charging)
Public Charging in Month:
 38.54 kWh (Includes 15.6 kWh charging at a friend's garage)

Home Charging in Month: 329.66 kWh
Energy Efficiency, Month of October 3.27 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)

Total Charging Energy Used, Lifetime: 2,017.1 kWh (Includes public charging)
Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  3.17 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Most Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Day in October: 28.8 kWh  (7.8 charging hours, done in two charging sessions, including one session at a friend's garage)

Most Electric Energy Used for Charging at Home in a Day in October: 19.1 kWh (5.16 charging hours)
Least Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day: 5.3 kWh  (1.4 charging hours)
Average Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day:  15.3 kWh  (4.15 charging hours)
Household Power Used for Month:  785.35 kWh (without car charging)
Total Power Used for Month:  1,115 kWh (includes car charging)
Solar PV Power Generated for Month:  665 kWh
Net Power Used or Sent to Grid for Month:  450 kWh net used
Electric Bill, So Cal Edison, Schedule TOU-D-TEV:  
$52.17 (A charge in this amount will be added to our net metering total charge for the year.)
Solar Net Metering Year Total kWh Used at Month #8: 669 kWh (Total of 669 kWh net used for the year)

Solar Net Metering Year Total Cost at Month #8: -$316.42 (Total cost is a credit for the net metering year to date due to TOU rates)
Cost for Charging Car in October:  $0.00
Cost per Mile:  $0.00
Cost for Charging Car, Lifetime: $0.00
Cost per Mile, Lifetime: $0.00

(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost for Charging Car in October: $42.86)
(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost per Mile in October: $0.036) 
Average (Mean) Miles per Driving Day in October:  38.8miles

Average (Median) Miles per Driving Day in October:  37 miles
Longest Day's Driving in October:  104 miles (twice, both trips included charging mid-trip)
Shortest Day's Driving in October:  1.1 miles
Number of Times we Took the Prius Instead of the LEAF Due to Low Charge: Never
Unexpected Low Charge and Unable to Reach Destination:  Never

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why does GM need GMC and Chevy Trucks?

GMC Yukon
In GM's recent government-forced purge of unnecessary brands (Pontiac, Hummer, Saab, Saturn, not to mention Oldsmobile a few years ago), I am very surprised GMC survived. For as long as I can remember, GMC has been an unimaginative rebadging of Chevy trucks. GM's rationale has always been that it makes sense for volume and distribution: there are Chevy / Cadillac dealers and Buick / GMC dealers. Why not turn Buick / GMC dealers into Chevy / Cadillac dealers? As an aside, I love Buick's new designs, but I still don't see where they fit in the GM product strategy, as they overlap with Chevy's top-of-the-line cars and Cadillac's low-end cars. And GMC trucks barely have any differentiating factors from their Chevy counterparts, yet GM has 2 separate ad campaigns that could easily be consolidated. Recent efforts to retool shared platforms to give GMC an identity have been lukewarm at best (e.g., Terrain). Click through for the rest of the discussion:

GMC Suburban

Chevy Suburban
Since practically the beginning of time (!) GM offered the Suburban under the Chevy and GMC brand. They didn't even bother to change the name! That's how lazy their rebranding efforts were. In 2000, they switched GMC's name to Yukon, but otherwise the SUVs are still nearly identical. Besides dealership location convenience (e.g., the GMC dealer is closer to a customer's house than the Chevy dealer), I can't understand why someone would be attracted to one brand over the other.

GMC Typhoon
GMC Syclone
In the early '90s, GMC came out with high-performance turbocharged versions of the Chevy Blazer / GMC Jimmy and Chevy S-10 / GMC Sonoma called the GMC Typhoon and Syclone, respectively. Back in the day, both cars' acceleration stats were compared to Porsches and Ferraris - now that's a cool value proposition. Both models were very limited in production, and GM should consider doing something like this today...a high performance tricked out version of the GMC Canyon or Acadia to compete with the likes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 or now dead Chevy Trailblazer SS.

GMC Terrain
Chevy Equinox
I really have to applaud GM for trying to differentiate their latest rebranding efforts for the Equinox. The Terrain (as well as the Cadillac SRX) look nothing like the Equinox. When GM tried to directly port over the last-gen Equinox to the Pontiac Torrent, things didn't work out so well...and I'm sure did not help the brand's viability in its final days. But I digress. The Terrain, while a noble attempt to differentiate GMC's otherwise clone-like brand, is quite ugly (matter of opinion) compared to relatively attractive Equinox. The Cadillac SRX beats both of them. It looks like GMC tried to go after the Jeep / Hummer demographic looking for a boxy, rugged design. However, you can tell that the designers were bound by certain rigid parameters set by the Equinox platform, and certain angles of the Terrain look odd, such as the flared wheel arches, which I feel should flare out more; the grille, which is too toothy (reminds me of the ugly Pontiac G6 GXP schnozz). While I really like the back end, it looks like they copied the Jeep Grand Cherokee / Dodge Durango. And the interior - while very attractive - is identical to the GMC and Cadillac (extra shame on you Cadillac...NO excuse).

GMC Yukon Hybrid
The fact that GMC offers the Yukon Hybrid is irrelevant for a couple of reasons - 1) Chevy and Cadillac also offer it through the Tahoe/Suburban and Escalade and 2) the bump in fuel efficiency is insignificant compared to the higher price.

GMC Granite Concept
What is my recommendation? I believe GM has a number of options, some more compelling than others. The first one is the most likely outcome, and that is to change nothing - the brand is relatively easy to market, development is likely part of the Chevy cost center, and it is probably a steady cash cow for GM. If GM wanted to get more creative, here are a couple other strategies: 1) turn GMC into a light truck company. I'm usually unimpressed by concept cars, but this Granite Concept from last year is pretty intriguing - why not create a series of ultra-fuel efficient small SUVs that are nimble in the city and rugged off road. 2) go the complete opposite direction and pump up the ruggedness of the brand, positioning GMC as a premium off-road SUV to compete head on with Land Rover, Ford Raptor, and fill the spot now left by Hummer. The Hummer brand was synonymous with anti-environmentalism, but the demand was fairly high pre-recession. I bet a reincarnated Hummer-like GMC brand would fare well in today's market. If either of these strategies fail, they could always go back to cloning Chevys...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

National Plug-In Day and "Revenge of the Electric Car" Premier

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I wanted to report on two events that we attended in October  The first was the National Plug-In Day event in Orange, California and the second was a special event held by Nissan for the opening of the movie "Revenge of the Electric Car" in West Los Angeles.

National Plug-In Day
Plug-In America organizes this event each year to celebrate the growth of the electric car movement.  It is an understatement to say that this year's events were the largest ever.  Twenty-nine U.S. cities held Plug-In Day events, with many hundreds of EVs gathering, representing many millions of miles of emissions- free driving.

The flagship event was held in Santa Monica, where about 200 EVs paraded, two abreast down the city's avenues.  Celebrities present included Ed Begley and Alexandra Paul, as well as Chris Paine, director of "Who Killed the Electric Car" and "Revenge of the Electric Car".

We attended the event in Orange, California, where over 70 EVs gathered, representing over one million miles of emissions-free driving.  The event was organized by Linda Nicholes, a long time supporter of the growth of EVs and member of Plug-In America.  After gathering at the Orange Library, many of the cars paraded through Orange to publicize the event.  As in Santa Monica, a large proportion of the cars were LEAFs, which isn't surprising since the LEAF has already become the largest selling electric car in the US, and probably in the world.  Our LEAF was joined by several original (eight years or older) Toyota RAV4s, a few Chevy Volts, some gorgeous Tesla Roadsters, an early demo by Mitsubishi of its soon to be released "i", a very interesting converted Miata, two replica Porsche Speedsters, a Chevy truck and a few other home-built EVs.

It was a great feeling to be among so many kindred spirits, and it was really fun to parade through the town together.  Our Leaf was the first blue one in the parade in the video at the Orange Plug-In Day site: here

The 2012 Mitsubishi i Electric Car

A Porsche Speedster Replica EV from South Coast Electric Cars

Linda Nicholes of Plug-In America Leads the Ceremonies

"Revenge of the Electric Car" Nissan LEAF Owner Premier Event
In conjunction with the National Plug-In Day observances, Nissan hosted a special event in West Los Angeles at the offices of their advertising agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day and we were lucky enough to score an invitation with the kind help of our friend Mike Walsh.  We were part of a group of about fifty LEAF owners who were welcomed for one of earliest public showings of Chris Paine's new film, the follow-up to his very influential "Who Killed the Electric Car".

We had a great time and we really thank Nissan for inviting us, and for hosting LEAF owners at the premier week of the film at the NuArt in Santa Monica.  Besides hosting us, Nissan provided some food, a few LEAF souvenirs and a DC quick charger to help some of us who had the longer drives to get home.

The documentary follows three fascinating and very different CEOs, Elon Musk of Tesla, Bob Lutz of GM and Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan through the decisions leading to the release of their companies' EVs, along with the story of an enterprising "outsider", Greg "Gadget" Abbott of Left Coast EVs, who is building EV conversions.  The movie is fascinating on many levels, not the least of which is the human interest story of how these men, each in his own way, took great personal risk to make the bold move to produce an electric car against the tide of "common wisdom" within and outside their own companies, common wisdom which said that they were crazy to put such large resources into EV technology.  We loved the film and were riveted to the screen throughout the showing.

Chiat/Day went out of their way to host us at their offices. One very special part of the evening was getting to walk around within the workspace, which is an amazingly open and interesting design, obviously built to encourage creativity in the staff.  As an example, the viewing space for the film was set up on the indoor basketball court that is part of the central area of the offices!

DC Quick Charger on a Truck

Part of the Crowd, with Chelsea Sexton, Influential EV Leader, Center

Inside the Offices of Chiat/Day

Chris Paine, Director

Nissan's Tim Gallagher with Director Chris Paine

Sunday, November 6, 2011

R.I.P.D. movie car chase scenes sighted!

During a trip through downtown Boston a couple weeks ago, I came across a film crew shooting some awesome car chase / car crash scenes and snapped a few pictures. Later I did some more research and found out that the movie was R.I.P.D. (stands for Rest in Peace Department) starring Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, and Jeff Bridges, and is expected to be released in 2013. The plot is evidently about a murdered cop who joins forces with living cops to find his killer. Sounds like a good action movie to me, and anything with a blacked out Porsche Cayenne has to be entertaining. It must be a big-budget film given that a good part of the city was shut down for the weekend. Click through for some more pictures.