Rename the Chevy Volt to the Chevy Bastiat

Quick - in your last fill up, how much did you pay for gas?  About how many gallons did you use?

If you are like most people, you can probably come pretty close to this.  I paid somewhere just north of $4.00 for about 18 gallons.

OK, second set of questions:  On your last electric bill, how much did you pay per KwH?  How many KwH did it take to run your dishwasher last night?

Don't know?  I don't think you are alone.  I don't know the answers to the last questions.   Part of the reason is that gas prices are posted on every corner, and we stare at a dial showing us fuel used every time we fill up.  There is nothing comparable for electricity -- particularly for an electric car.

I understand some inherent appeals to electric cars.  They are fun to drive, kind of quiet and stealthy like KIT from Knight Rider.  They are really torquy and have nice acceleration.  There is no transmission and gear changing.  All cool and awesome reasons to buy an electric car.

However, my sense is that the main appeal of electric cars is that because we don't see the fuel price on the corner, and because we don't stare at a spinning dial as electrons are flowed into the car, we pretend it is not costing us anything to fill up.  Out of sight is out of mind.  Heck, even experienced car guys who should know better take this attitude.  Popular Mechanics editor Jim Meigs wrote to Glenn Reynolds, re: the Volt:

Others might like the notion of going a month or two without filling the tank

This drives me crazy.  Of COURSE you are filling the freaking tank.  You are just filling the lead-acid (or lithium-ion) one with electrons rather than filling the hollow steel one with hydrocarbon molecules.  The only difference is that you don't stand there watching the meter spin.   But that should not mean that we pretend we are not filling the car and paying a cost to do so.

By the way, if you have read me before, you know I also have a problem with the EPA equivalent mileage standards for electric cars, which basically inflate the numbers by a factor of three by ignoring the second law of thermodynamics.  This fraudulent mileage number, combined with the EPA's crazy-high new mileage standards, represents an implicit subsidy, almost a mandate, for electric cars that gets little attention.  And that will have zero effect on energy usage because the numbers are gamed.



  1. sean2829:

    What's the big beef about filling an electric car and not really knowing the costs. We've been doing that for decades in healthcare and look how great that system has turned out.

  2. obloodyhell:

    You think the editors of PopMech are bad, try looking at the ones at PopSci. Those idiots are so in the tank for anything green that they fill their rag with overt lies just to push the Green Agenda. There was a recent piece on tornadoes that they actually let slide the author's claim that "there's no evidence, but one just has to wonder if this is connected to AGW" (not an exact quote, but the gist of it), pretty much.

    One of the stupidest, lamest excuses for a magazine, I'd trust PopSci about as much as I'd trust the Weekly World News.

  3. JIMC5499:

    Let's not forget the "I'm saving the planet crowd" because there is no smoke coming from their tail pipe. Is there a way to factor in the losses in transmission from the power plant to the wall outlet?

  4. glenn.griffin3:

    Ah HA! Got one of those Kill-A-Watt, and, I think the eforcity E2 clamp-on ohmeter power gauge thing. Plug one of those into your water heater, and watch behavior change ...

    Actually, it is interesting how putting post-its on all your electrics with the dollar amounts shows un-intuitive costs. Desktop server runs $14/mo, always-on, but a laptop eats $2, $1.60 with the screen off. Two towel warmers were eating $11/mo each, now they use 75% less ($3 timer only turns them on 6 hr/day). Trading kids bedroom lights for CFL is way cheaper than the breath used telling them to turn the lights off.

    I bet dollars to diamonds that the amp-hours used per charge is stored in the on-board computer, and the car could give you any breakdown of amp-hours/mile (and costs) you wanted. If the information is there, engineers will record it. If the Volt doesn't greet you with charge amount in dollars when you turn it on, when all the idiot lights flash -- that's a political decision by management. Or a sales decision cause the numbers were too scary.

  5. Tanuki Man:

    The car in "Knight Rider" was KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand IIRC). Two Ts.

  6. Dimitri Mariutto:

    Arghhhh. Beat me by 30 minutes. In fact, I think the proper spelling is K.I.T.T. but yeah what you said. :)

  7. mark2:

    EPA says that the Volt has a 38 mpg equ range. Doing simple math with data available online and I find that 38 miles ~= 33.7 Kwh of electricity. 33.7 @ 16¢ in my San Diego town brings my cost for 38 miles to $5.39. For my small car that gets 28mpg the cost is $5.43 assuming $4 gasoline.

    I think the real advantage for the Volt - regardless of the cost - is that it is charged up at night, when utilities are throwing away tons of baseload power. From a utility perspective the power is free for them since it was being tossed anyway. From a pollution perspective, The Volt is zero emission (if charged at night) because no additional energy will be generated.

    Is the car practical @$49K - probably not, I'll take my Ford Focus @ $18K and get slightly worse mileage and come out ahead in a 10 year ownership calc, for sure. And newer focus's are suppose to be much more fuel efficient than my 2001.

  8. mark2:

    I got a subscription to Pop sci in 1976 and kept it about 10 years. At the beginning it was nifty science discoveries and inventions, at the end - in the early 80's it was an Eco rag. I still read it occasionally in the library, and can see it has not changed much.

  9. mark2:

    This is too funny - was trying to do some calculations based on the Volt sister car the Chevy Cruze - and I discovered this. The standard version of the Cruze with 1.8 liter engine (30mpg combined) is $17000. The Chevy Cruze eco - which has a 1.4 liter engine to get 33mpg combined, is $19300.

    They are charging you $2000 more to get a 25% smaller engine - which is 90% of why the fuel efficiency increases and difference in the eco. Are people really such saps?

  10. Vitaeus:

    Another question I have is who is paying for the "charging stations" that are being put in various places? Do you stick a credit card in and pay or is it"free" and being paid by the municipality?

  11. mark2:

    I should get one of those. Some things like the dishwasher would be hard to test though since the power plug is hidden behind the device.

  12. Mole1:

    Nits, Nits, Nits, but you deserve it for this one, since I'm pretty sure you know better.

    "You are just filling the lead-acid (or lithium-ion) one with electrons..."
    Well, no.

  13. bdaabt:

    Interesting comments heard from electric car owners: "I haven't been to the gas station in months!!".

    OK, so I get that it sometimes seems a bit inconvenient to have to stop at the gas station 1 or maybe 2 times per week, depending on your vehicle, your mileage, and your total miles driven. But with an electric vehicle, you HAVE had to actively search for an outlet (the proper KIND of outlet) to use at least once every day, generally more. You have to worry about having enough juice to get home every time you leave the house. Silly.


  14. anonzmooses:

    I picked up a Scientific American the other day. Wow, has that gone downhill. The first editorial was about reproductive rights and the war on women. I wanted to read about science, not politics!

  15. Josh Vanderberg:

    Yeah, that baseload power is free now, wait until 1000 houses on one substation all charge their car overnight.

  16. glenn.griffin3:

    I ended up clamping the eforcity ammeter on the main leads into the inside circuit breaker panel, check the draw, then turn on the lights (or the dryer, with the weird 220V plug), check the difference. Just got a rough idea for some things, especially low-draw lights. But those aren't your power hogs, anyway.

    BTW: Every LCD tv drew less than $0.01/month, regardless of all the "unplug when you're not using" nonsense you see in Mother Earth Magazine.

  17. sean2829:

    I believe the smaller engines are also turbocharged so they actually deliver higher horsepower (but less torque) and are a bit more expensive to make. However, I would not put it past the auto companies to do "value" pricing based on fuels savings to increase margins.

  18. mark2:

    Interestingly the difference in car cost is actually $2550 and the Break even point assuming $4 gas is 210,000 miles of driving. Modern cars go about 250,000 before being dumped so it is reasonable that this would break even over its life, but then you have to consider the cost of money in the calculations over the 15 year period, not sure if there will ever be a break even then.

  19. Tim:

    Who pays to install the charging stations? Typically, building owners install the stations as an amenity for their tenants or customers. Municipal garages are paid for by the taxpayers/users. The actual electrical costs are either paid for by the user via a self-serve POS system; or provided "on the house", depending on the meter.

    As for "looking for the right kind of outlet" (as Bruce questions); the Volt can charge on 110V 20A service, you get a charging cord included. But you really don't *have* to charge -- you have the gas-powered generator on board to extend range if you can't re-charge.

    Lastly, to answer Glenn Griffin, the Volt's center stack does display energy usage at the end of every drive. (see
    "This includes distance traveled in Electric Mode, distance traveled in Extended Range Mode, total distance traveled, electric energy used from the battery, total fuel used, and average fuel economy."

    Of course, this won't completely correlate to the kWh used at home to charge; because the Volt can regeneratively brake, but if you were really interested; you could install an additional power meter. My electric utility will install a car-specific meter and bill at $0.036/kWh off-peak. Doing it that way will provide a separate line item on your bill, so you know your costs.

  20. Matthew Slyfield:

    In my oppinion for electric / hybrid vehicles will only be competitive when they reach the following milestones.
    1. Travel 300-400 miles with no refuling or recharging.
    2. Recharge time no more than double fueling time for an equivilent all gas car. For a plugin hybrid this means refilling both gas tank and battery
    3. Price within +/- 5% of an equivelent all gas car.

  21. obloodyhell:

    }}} POS system

    A POS system for a POS car embodying a POS idea.

    I think I can go along with that.

  22. obloodyhell:

    }}}} this won't completely correlate to the kWh used at home to charge; because the Volt can regeneratively brake

    I don't see this as relevant. Regenerative braking makes a semblance of sense. Along with high-cap capacitors it might actually make semi-electric cars make sense (I say "semi-electric" because it seems to me that having a constant-burn system that charged the batteries onboard from chemical stocks might actually make sense. The whole ICS idea itself is kind of ephtarded overall. Starting and stopping the "burn" is hardly the most effective system. Some kind of miniature turbine system that could generate a steady stream of electricity might actually make a more efficient system if it was supplemented by batteries for steady juice and a capacitor for fast juice -- the main advantage is that you could re-charge the batteries anywhere parked via the turbine, rather than having to plug it in at a special place, and it could greatly extend the range of the car... this would require a radical restructuring of the car's whole motive dynamic, involving electric motors on each wheel, a turbine and batteries and a large capacitor).

  23. obloodyhell:

    Dunno how you got those numbers but...

    Cruze Eco(1.4) vs Cruze (1.8) == 39mpg hwy vs 35 mpg hwy.

    Typical driver drives 10k-12k miles per year, so gas expense (assume 12k miles):
    307 gal vs 333 gal (12k/39 vs 12k/36 -- not what I'd call a lot) -- let's assume FIVE dollars/gal), so
    $1535 vs $1665 -- $130 per year of use. That's 19.6 years of ownership with gas at FIVE per gallon the whole time. To BREAK EVEN.

    The average car owner owns their car for 5.5 years the last time I checked. That's likely gone up since a couple years ago, but probably not by 14 years, LOL.

    Let's be even more generous and go for $7 per gallon:
    $2149 vs 2331 ---- ooh ahhh, it saves a whole $182 per year!! Only 14 years to recoup the extra costs!!

    Ah, but what it it's all "city"?
    Eco vs. non-Eco -- 26 vs. 22
    461 gals vs 545
    @$5: 2305 vs 2725 -- $420 -- still talking 6 years just to break even... at higher prices than they've ever been in the USA for six straight years...
    @$7: 3227 vs 3815 -- $588 -- 4.3 years to break even. But note that that's with gas @ $7/g for the ENTIRE time of ownership.

    "Combined" typical mileage for the two cars:
    31 vs 27
    387g vs 444g
    @$5: 1935 vs 2220 -- $285, or just under NINE years.
    @$7: 2709 vs 3108 -- $399, or 6.4 years.

    I believe once you are armed with that figure -- 12k miles per year -- you start to understand how LITTLE gas mileage really matters to the cost of owning a car. Unless you're comparing a monster truck at 10 mpg to a Prius, there's really not a lot of difference in cost of gas used, and it really doesn't matter until you get to better than a 15% difference under 25mpg.

    I recall detailing these figures out to someone who was "pro" fuel efficient vehicles. He was mechanically apt, and liked to convert cars to run on waste vegetable oil... He tried to turn it on "making a statement".

    I replied -- "If you want to 'make a statement', buy a freaking billboard. Cars are for transportation. And how good they do that job is the primary factor in choosing a car."
    MIND YOU -- some jobs, you drive a lot more. That does affect this quite significantly. If you're on the road doing 20, 30k miles per year, then one of these might be worth it. But for the typical user, they aren't ready for prime time.

  24. a_random_guy:

    Double the power required, and you won't be far off. Generation inefficiencies, transmission losses, transformer losses, charging losses - pretty near half of the power is lost, i.e., you need 2 kwH of input energy to put 1kwH into the battery.

  25. OP44:

    Some utilities price their power on time-of-day use, most don't. So it isn't free to the consumer.

  26. Tim:

    My point on regen braking is that it would somewhat distort the correlation between electricity used to charge and electricity used for motive force -- you would, theoretically, consume more kWh than you charged.

  27. mark2:

    The Volt cars are impractical because they cost much more than they return in value, but I believe we could easily charge half the cars in the US without needing much additional infrastructure in the USA. Even houses use much less electricity at night. You would be trading Air conditioner use for car charging use, and the factories are still closed.

    The trick is building a car where there is a cost ADVANTAGE to using electricity. Assuming $4 gas and 8¢ electricity you would have to drive a Volt 550,000 miles before it breaks even with its sister car the Cruze eco. In CA where electricity is 16¢ the Cruze eco is cheaper to run from the start.

  28. mark2:

    Those government unplug ads drive me nuts. They brainwash kids into unplugging cell phone charges - the newer charges do not use electricity when not charging, it is the older transformer types that have not been used in 10 years. So our brainwashed kids are expending more energy to unplug the cell phones than is actually saved.

    The only device I have had with a huge constant power draw is the cable box. It was always hot to the touch even when off. I hate those things.

  29. Bret Banfield:

    Hey Mark, where did you come up with 33.7 Kwh? Wikipedia shows the total charging capacity to be 16.5 Kwh.

  30. Mark2:

    No I was comparing Cruze eco vs Cruz, those are 30mpg combined vs 33mpg combined. Wasn't even considering the Volt - turns out to make up the $2500 difference between those two cars is about 210K miles. To make up the 30K difference for the Volt is a much longer period - if ever (I figure 8 cent electricity and $4 gas will get you be in 550,000 miles - if you are in CA where elec is expensive, there is no BE point)

  31. Matthew Slyfield:

    Hybrid cars will never be practical the way that they are made. The batteries and extra motor and transmission add too much to both weight and cost. If you calculated the gas fuel efficiency of a hybrid using only the miles traveled using the gas motor alone, the efficiency is nearly half that of a similar all gas vehicle. The Volt based on Chevy's original promotional materials was supposed to be different, the gas engine only used to generate electricity an only a single all electric transmission. By the time it finally made it to market it was a standard hybrid. I don't know if they had technical difficulties with the original design concept but I do know that they had political difficulties with it. The companies that already had "traditional" hybrids on the market complained to US authorities saying that the Volt wasn't a true hybrid. They did this largely because they knew that the Volt if executed to the original design concept and marketed as a hybrid would have shown the other hybrids for the over priced jokes that they are. This political issue is why Chevy came out with the "Extended Range Electric Vehicle" nomenclature.

  32. JIMC5499:

    Regenerative braking is more efficient, but, is not a gain because it is just recovering energy that had to be added by the motor / motors in the first place. So your kWh data would correlate.

  33. mark2:

    I know it is not free to the consumer (unless you get solar to steal from the power company) but from a CO2 "pollution" sense - since this is all about saving us from the CO2's you aren't adding to the carbon footprint, if that is your goal due to your religious beliefs.

  34. mark2:

    To me it doesn't matter, I just look at the cost to "fill up" if it costs me $3 to go 40 miles by plugging into the wall and $5 to go 40 miles by pumping gas, the economic choice (assuming the cars cost the same) would be to use the electricity. From a CO2 perspective you may have a point, from an economic perspective, lowest cost wins, no matter how much CO2 is generated.

  35. epobirs:

    Who are these people who rarely go more than 40 miles (the Volt's range before it must burn gasoline) and always find an outlet wherever they go? I'm not sure I could handle living, working, and all else in such a small range of travel. The last time I had a job closer than 30 miles was in 1999. If I were driving a Volt my trips to the gas station would only decrease by a minor frequency. And I'd be very reluctant to plug in to charge in a lot of the places I have to go. I can imagine vandals having a field day severing cords with some insulated implement.