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A Sincere Accounting Of The Costs & Benefits Of Electric Vehicles, Part 2: History, Loyalties, & Analyses

carbon negative road tripBrian Kent is a Nissan LEAF owner who is about to embark on a negative-carbon US road trip to all 48 contiguous states. (You can help fund the cause via that IndieGogo link.) He has written an excellent 4-part series for CleanTechnica and our sister sites EV Obsession and Gas2 on “going electric.” In this second piece, Brian discusses weighing the costs and benefits when considering whether or not to buy an electric car, a conventional hybrid, or a relatively efficient gasoline-powered car. Enjoy the article, and share it with friends! See part one here.

By Brian Kent

I loved my 1999 Honda Civic DX, a car I bought secondhand from a computer programmer friend of mine in San Diego (a guy who clearly knew how to pick them). I put about 197,000 miles on it in the 14 years I had it, getting 37–39 mpg most of the time. It wasn’t long after I bought the Civic from Jamie that I started dreading the day it couldn’t go another mile [note: it was still going pretty strong when last I saw it at 208,000 miles].

I started looking into new vehicles in late 2013, and I decided to look at them based on two primary factors: environmental impact and cost. That narrowed the field of choices considerably, and that was the first cost that I faced: a more limited selection. Thankfully, the benefit associated with that cost was that it reduced the complexity of what would have been an almost impossibly difficult analysis: “compare all cars.”

I had a mixture of Honda, Toyota, and GM loyalty going into it. Mainly, I looked at various Civics, Fits, Priuses, Volts, and my dark horse: the Mercedes “Smart” car. I had no real preference amongst these; I thought they’d all be good cars. Tesla would have made the list too, if at that point the promised budget-friendly Model 3 had been out. Interestingly, it wasn’t until I started looking at those cars that the Nissan Leaf even showed up on my radar. At this point in the analysis, there were no other ‘costs’ to me—because I generally thought anything in the list above would be from a manufacturer I had some experience with, and would be economical and fairly ‘green.’

I then looked at 5-year cost of ownership and upfront cost. That took the Volt and most of the Civics out of consideration. I also wanted to try to best my ‘run of the mill’ 1999 Civic’s fuel economy of ~38 mpg. It was disheartening to see that the Civics I evaluated hadn’t improved much—if at all—in fuel economy in 14 years. You almost had to pick the excessively expensive Civic Hybrid to beat my ‘99’s gas mileage? Er…

The Honda Fit, various Priuses, and the Mercedes “Smart” were still on the table, as well as my new dark horse: the Leaf. I’m no more critically-minded than the next guy, but the acronym “Leaf”—Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car—got me thinking rather than sneering. An all-electric? What would that be like, I wondered. Still, no further costs were apparent, but rather a benefit: exploration of an interesting new technology.

Comparing both upfront cost and 5-year cost of ownership at the same time still left an impossible decision “purely based on numbers.” I had to make some judgment calls, and I also had to essentially guess. First, my guesses:

  1. I guessed that gas prices would continue to go up. Usually that’s a pretty safe bet, though lately they’ve come down somewhat. (Perhaps with some Herod-like oil industry help?)
  2. I guessed that electricity prices wouldn’t go up quite as fast as gas prices. Usually that’s a safe bet too, though it’s by no means guaranteed.
  3. I guessed that, if pressed, I could make even a limited-range Leaf (EPA estimated 84 miles) work for my purposes. Essentially, I just allowed it a chance. I thought that if I chose the Leaf, in the worst-case scenario, I wouldn’t be able to road trip as much as I might otherwise like.

My ‘judgment calls’ (I think of these as more based on some reasoning) were:

  1. EV technology is relatively new, but there’s an incredible amount of money and an alarming diversity of consequences riding on the success of that technology. It’s new, but it’s essentially proven, and what limits it has are relative, not absolute. Even more importantly, it has to work. Ask
  2. Any car I pick will have good manufacturer support—that to me was a given. However, when I considered relative manufacturer support, I reasoned that Nissan might well go to further extremes with the Leaf in particular because it had already bet quite a bit of money on being an industry leader in electrics, and it couldn’t afford to be aggravating people who were among the first to take a chance on EVs. I may be slightly less risk averse than most people, but this to me wasn’t a risk, it was a reality.

Those two judgment calls are the primary things you have to know to be ready to give EVs a chance right now. So it came down to price and environmental impact. It came down to the Toyota Prius versus the Nissan Leaf.

I took an overnight test drive in a Prius—and I put about 240 miles on it. I wasn’t going to be shy about putting it through its courses. I loved the fact that I could get 50 mpg out of it, and that I could watch its economy respond to my driving. In the first two miles, I was improving the fuel economy interactively—just because I could see what jack rabbit starts and sudden stops did to it. At that point, I fully expected the Prius to win. I sure as heck wasn’t going to easily beat that car.

Then I test drove the Leaf.

How different the two cars were! The Prius seemed to quietly suggest “take it easy, buddy” right from the start. The Leaf acted like a bronco [not the Ford kind] pent up in a stable for too long. It put you back in your seat when you hit the accelerator, and definitely had more pep off the line than anything I’d experienced before. A sort of ‘zip’ that comes from the instant torque of an electric motor, and something that you need to temper with an awareness of how much use you need out of its charge. I’ll willingly endure a bit of inconvenience for that kind of responsiveness, I thought. At that point, I still had no idea whether it would be inconvenient or not, and if so, how often.

Overall, the cars were pretty equal. The Prius had a longer range on a fill-up (which translated to a bit more versatility) but it also caused ongoing pollution at a rate at least twice as high as the Leaf. It was the more conservative choice, but it was by no means a ‘safer’ choice. The Leaf had more ‘oomph,’ had twice the fuel economy (at least), was cleaner in general, had a lot less range, and was stickered $4,000 higher. Ongoing costs would undoubtedly be lower, but I still couldn’t tell how much. It all came down to how I’d use either car.

It turned into one of those analyses that I suppose we all do more often than not. The kind where our preference usually wins—in part because we spend more effort arguing for what we like more, or in some cases what we’re more familiar with. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily, but I do think that if you’re going to be picking based on favoritism, you ought to do it after having tried a few things. If you don’t, you’ll be turning up your nose to a lot of delicious fare simply because you loved chicken nuggets with ketchup when you were three.

My final ‘analysis’ looked like this:

Well, the Prius has excellent fuel economy, and you can’t go wrong with Toyota.

Yeah, but the Leaf can get twice the effective economy of the Prius, and it’s pretty easy to believe Nissan is a good company too.

Well what about upfront costs? You can get a base Prius for $4000 cheaper than a base Leaf off the lot.

Upfront costs should be viewed through the prism of ongoing costs: I’ll never have an oil change, there’s no exhaust system, no water pump, and no fuel filters or lines. There’s something like 35% less moving parts in the Leaf, so there’s definitely less that could break down. Plus, I’ll never have to go to a gas station again!

That’s no analysis! What about the price? You have to be fair about the price!

Hmmm… well, I’m aware of the present value of money, but I do think that the cost of oil and gas and relative environmental damage make for a big difference over time. For me they do. How long would it take to recoup $4,000 in purchase cost difference? $4,000/($0.06-$0.03) miles isn’t it? How much is that?

133,333.3 miles!

Alright, but if I consider the environmental cost to be as important as financial cost, isn’t it reasonable to consider it equally in the analysis, and consider the purchase price difference only carries half the weight? In a way, that means if I can get half that many miles out of the Leaf, the price difference will be negligible before I hit 70,000 miles.

You can’t put a price on environmental damage!

Yep, you’re right, I can’t. Leading, Environmentally-friendly, Affordable, Family car, say hello to your new owner.

Stay tuned for part 3: purchase and ‘growing pains.’

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Written By

I'm a pretty average guy—except that I'm bent on changing the world through those little ten-second choices that make all the difference. Things like: *choosing vegetarian foods *recycling/upcycling *saving power/water ... and driving electric. Which in reality is a choice that takes you about 8 seconds. Eight seconds to plug in when you get home. Eight more when you leave your driveway. Stop believing it's harder than it is. Oil doesn't make it easier to drive. It just makes it more costly.


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