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Published on August 15th, 2015 | by Brian Kent


A Sincere Accounting Of The Costs & Benefits Of Electric Vehicles, Part 4: From The Ground To The Sky

August 15th, 2015 by  

Brian Kent Mark Ruffalo

Brian 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 fourth 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 herepart two here, and part three here. Thanks to Brian and 100.org (@100isNow) for the photo with Mark Ruffalo, above, taken last week at an event in New York State.

EV costs benefits 1

How close will we allow the train to get? Is the future ever so clearly valuable as this?

This final piece in the series will undoubtedly be anticlimactic for some. It is less about a sincere accounting of the costs and benefits of electric vehicles as they pertain specifically to individuals, and more about the ramifications of the decision to drive electric as it pertains to the world around us and the world to come. There’s nothing in the way of particularly shocking news here; I offer this part as a candid summary of what I thought about which finally provoked what I now see to be a welcome change to my driving behaviors. Moreover, it is a reflection on the things I tend to think about while driving.

Simply put, electric vehicles are skillful tools for a more advanced generation. They require slightly more from their operators, and reward those who choose to operate them with much greater efficiency and cleaner, quieter operation. Their extremely responsive throttles and regenerative brakes completely outclass those of ‘equivalent’ gas-powered cars, and the simplicity of their construction will ultimately lead to lower costs of repairs once comparable efficiencies of scale are reached. Yet such efficiencies can only be arrived at when greater use of electrics stimulates greater production and development.

Operating an electric vehicle is both cheaper in the now and cheaper in the future—especially when the inescapable costs of carbon pollution are accounted for. We cannot continue to quite literally burn our planet and deny that at some point we’ll have taken our unsustainable behaviors too far. There is mounting evidence to support that we may have already done this.

When I refer to the choice between “from ground to sky” or “from sky to ground,” I’m talking about just this point. The former speaks of our penchant for literally burning assets which have been around for millions of years in the blink of time since we’ve first found a simple use for them–the utterly primitive process of moving large pieces of metal. We can dress this up with however much chrome we like, but the fact remains: there may well come a day when we realize that the use of petroleum products for the production of plastics, for example, is far more critical to our way of life than our use of those same fundamentally limited products for the crude process of combustion-driven transport.

EV costs benefits 2

Will we yield to the freight train of oil or realize we’re at a crossroads and take action before it destroys our priceless future?

“From sky to ground” refers to the concept of our once lofty visions finally coming to real life fruition. It speaks of a willingness to reach out and grab advanced technology that is already within our reach. It means understanding that things are just not going to be the same anymore. It involves accepting that thinking and behaving differently do require some experiential learning—and that truly educating ourselves on something new necessitates abandoning our preconceived notions about what troubles we may face in the interest of improving the prospects of the generations to inherit this world after we’re gone.

EV costs benefits 3

Quite simply, it means turning around. Plenty of people drive electric already, and you can too.

I don’t want to see what happens if we wait too long on this, but it’s not up to any single one of us. The majority of us will decide what kind of future we have in store for us, and what we leave for our children. It’s a matter of whether we choose to think about this problem differently, now that we know that transportation using petroleum products really is a problem. It’s a matter of doing something different than what we typically do. It will be different, but it will also be better.

Given the choice below, which button will you press?

EV costs benefits 4

Can you already see the train, or do you really want to see what happens?

Find out why driving electric is both important right now and possible right now.

Studies show that 31% of American carbon emissions comes from transportation, but it doesn’t need to anymore. Beginning August 26th, I’ll dedicate about 31% of 2015 to show that the pollution we generate through motorized transport is by and large unnecessary. I’ll be driving fully twice as much as the average American travels in a year in just 100 days, relying solely on electricity to do so. I’ve arranged for hydro, solar, and wind-powered charging stops along the route, and a recent Stanford University study has shown that we can meet not just some but all of our power requirements nationwide using renewable energy by 2050. [You can find out more about this at www.thesolutionsproject.org]

Our transportation needs can be sustainable if we decide it’s important to us.

Please give some serious thought to the above video, and consider contributing to my efforts to improve awareness of locally-based sustainability initiatives—whether by pledging to my project on Indiegogo, or by sending me a heads up about sustainability efforts in your area [mail to: negativecarbonroadtrip@gmail.com ] I read my mail promptly and I’ll do my best to ensure that your local project gets the attention it deserves.


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About the Author

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.

  • Victor Provenzano

    You are simply restating a series of scientifically incorrect received ideas. They were wrong the first time that you stated them and they are wrong again. I posted in my response to you above the following article: (http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/publications/Howarth_2014_ESE_methane_emissions.pdf). You should read it. It cites a raft of recent scientific research that indicates that the “life cycle” carbon emissions of natural gas are indeed HIGHER THAN THOSE OF COAL. It does not matter whether it is conventional natural gas, fracking gas or tight gas. Each of them have higher net carbon emissions than coal when the CO2 emissions from combustion are added to the significant quantity of “life cycle” methane emissions that escape into the air during the drilling, fracking, piping, transport, storage, and distribution of the natural gas. Ignoring the most recent scientific findings either openly or because of one’s continued lack of the requisite knowledge is, in the end, a regrettable instance of “climate denial.”

    I proved above, copiously, with data from a CA government website and from a federal government website that your contention about the energy mix of what you referred to as three leading EV states was simply and verifiably incorrect. I proved that 65% of the electricity in CA derives from high carbon energy sources and that at least 84% of the electricity in FL derives from high carbon energy sources. Instead of a new evasive defense, you now need to carefully rethink your entire position. OPINIONS THAT ARE NOT FIRMLY ROOTED IN VERIFIABLE DATA AND IN THE MOST RECENT AND ACCURATE SCIENCE ON LIFE CYCLE CARBON EMISSIONS HAVE NO VALUE IN THE CONTINUING CLIMATE DEBATE.

    Your new statement about wood biomass shows a lack of understanding of the nature of “life cycle” carbon emissions. When one burns wood biomass, one is releasing either DECADES or CENTURIES of stored carbon into the air in a SINGLE DAY, thereby creating an IMMENSE “carbon debt.” If the tree is left standing, it will continue to store those decades or centuries worth of absorbed carbon. If the tree “falls in a forest,” it will rot VERY SLOWLY and release that carbon over the decades and centuries in the form of CO2 and methane; even a “softwood” pine tree can take 2 to 3 centuries to decompose (http://sciencenordic.com/how-long-tree-rots-away). If the tree is burned as fuel, it will SUDDENLY RELEASE DECADES or CENTURIES of stored carbon into the air in a SINGLE DAY, thereby creating an IMMENSE “carbon debt.” The three conditions that I named above—-a tree that is left standing, a tree that falls in a forest, and a tree that is burned—-are not in any way even minimally similar from a scientific point of view. Only a plant that is an “annual,” i.e., which grows for only a year, can have anything approaching “net zero” carbon emissions without creating a “carbon debt.” To those “net zero” carbon emissions, however, one must add, of course, the substantial quantity of the annual plant’s “life cycle” emissions that derive from the tilling of the soil, nitrogen fertilizer, farm machinery, industrial processing, transportation, etc. As before, almost every statement that you made immediately above is again scientifically incorrect and lacking in an appropriate analytical perspective.

    In addition you are ignoring the fact that wood biomass has a LOWER energy density than coal and hence that more of it needs to be burned to create the same amount of electricity. Moreover, wood biomass has an immense amount of “embodied carbon” in it from logging, processing, transportation, etc. According to one recent study, the amount of “embodied carbon” in American wood biomass that is being shipped to Europe to be burned as fuel is many times higher than the amount of its final CO2 combustion emissions.

    I did not contend that that the amount of non-carbon renewables in the energy mix in CA is not rising with respect to solar PV (or with respect to wind, geothermal or solar thermal). That, of course, is entirely self-evident, even if the energy transition is occurring far too slowly in California to arrest global warming in time to prevent a new mass extinction. I contended, rather, quite accurately, that at this point, the overall energy mix in CA is not very promising for EVs since almost TWO THIRDS (or 65%) of CA’s electricity still comes from high carbon energy souces.

    A recent study from Norway shows that, in the EU, the net “life cycle” carbon emissions of EVs that source their electricity from coal plants is HIGHER than the net emissions of ICEs, which use either diesel or gasoline as fuel (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00532.x/full). Since 61% of CA’s electricity comes from natural gas and since we now know from the most recent scientific research that natural gas has HIGHER net carbon emissions than coal (once again, please see the Cornell study posted above, which reviews the recent scientific literature), then, as a result, my statement about the “unpromising” energy mix in CA is verifiably and scientifically correct. EVs in the U.S. are only assured of having lower net carbon emissions than ICEs if the electricty in their batteries comes from solar PV, wind, geothermal, solar thermal, tidal, wave, hydro or nuclear energy. Depending on how many miles the EVs are driven each year and how many years they remain on the road, the net life cycle carbon emissions of EVs in California that source their electricity from a local locality fueled by either natural gas (61% of the state’s electricity), biomass (3.3% of the state’s electricity) or coal (0.5% of the state’s electricity) are either HIGHER than those of ICEs in California or are still significantly high enough that any claim that an EV is, at this point, anywhere close to being a “zero emissions” vehicle is prima facie nonsense from a scientific point of view (I know that you did not say that, but that is part of the debate).

    You do like to mix it up Oil4AsphaltOnly, but it is always better to first examine everything that one is about to say from a rational, mathematical and scientific point of view, and to do so thorougly and perspectivally, long before one even ventures to make an assertion. If not, one is unintentionally misinforming others, slowing down the progress of the debate, and thus preventing the most ecologically sound solutions from being adopted more quickly.

    We need EVs that are powered by electricity from wind and solar. We need EVs that are maximally efficient because they are made of ultra-lighweight carbon fiber and have improved aerodynamics and reduced rolling resistance. We need EVs that have been made in industrial plants that source their electricity from wind and solar and that use that electricity (not a fossil fuel) to create the process heat as well as the mechanical energy to make the car’s materials and the car itself. Until then, it is the notion that the EV is now anywhere near to being a “zero emissions vehicle” that is the “pipe dream” here, not the 2 year roll out claim of the European consortium formed to improve the manufacturing process for carbon fiber.

    In response to your final question, carbon fiber is now being made out of oil and in the future, it will be made out of either oil or biomass. Since the imminent “lightweighting” revolution in the transportation sector will include all land, sea and air vehicles—-cars, vans, trucks, trains, ships, and planes—-there will be more than enough oil left to make the carbon fiber for these land, sea and air vehicles since they will be highly energy efficient and thus, comparatively, as little as 15 years from now, very little oil will still be needed as an energy source in transportation. Cars, vans, small trucks, and trains can be run on electricity from wind and solar. Trucks, planes and ships can be run on a mix of 3rd generation algal biofuels, electrolytic hydrogen, decktop solar, “kite-like” sail power and other forms of “wind power” (such as the “Turbosail”).

    • Bob_Wallace

      “the “life cycle” carbon emissions of natural gas are indeed HIGHER THAN THOSE OF COAL”

      Don’t overlook the high dispatchable ability of natural gas plants.

      When we replace a coal plant with a NG plant we now have a high carbon generator which can be rapidly cycled on and off. That allows us to install more wind and solar without storage.

      Biomass from wood waste is different than biomass from wood purposely harvested as fuel.

      (And please quit abusing the cap lock key.)

    • Oil4AsphaltOnly

      First off, an apology. In this day and age of quick snippets of information, I didn’t appreciate the completeness of your argument until now.

      My initial response to you was simply that including coal power plants in describing how “most” EV’s were powered was incorrect. I see now that you were more concerned about the carbon intensity of the power source.

      As your cornell link was more a study of studies, I’ll have to analyze it more deeply before answering further, but separating the coal fuel by shallow mines versus deep mines completely misses the different grades of coal – which significantly affects the amount of energy expended to produce a MJ of electricity.

      Here’s my source to refute your conclusion (which you drew from unrelated studies): http://www.environment.ucla.edu/media/files/BatteryElectricVehicleLCA2012-rh-ptd.pdf

  • For every type of ICE vehicle, fast forward 10+ years of service. With EVs there won’t be a worn faded EV spewing smog at a traffic light. They will be worn and faded, but will remain entirely clean. This is why EVs are our future.

  • Sean

    How realistic is it to expect people to fuel up every day using renewable energy sources? I live in Colorado. . I don’t know anything about renewable sources to plug my car in here.

    • Bob_Wallace

      17% or so of your electricity comes from renewable resources. That amount will almost certainly grow every year. Excellent wind resources on the Front Range. Great solar resources in the southern part of the state. Good hydro potential.

      When you plug in your car some of the electricity will come from renewables and with each passing year your electricity will get greener and greener.

      If someone wanted to drive on 0% fossil fuels they could install some solar panels on their roof and produce (over a year) as much power as they use to charge their batteries.

      Yes, the electrons would get commingled with dirty electrons but the net would be the same. A switch from oil to renewable energy. The electricity you use to drive would not result in any additional coal or natural gas use.

  • Victor Provenzano

    The ultra-lightweight car made of carbon fiber will be more important than the electric car with its lithium ion batteries in bringing about the slow retreat of the oil firms. Here is why, for instance:

    The 2015 VW XL1, which is made of carbon fiber and weighs
    only 1753 lbs, gets an unimaginable 260 mpg on diesel (313 mpg in imperial gallons).

    Once you take the steel out of a car and replace it with carbon fiber, which is lightweight and has ten times the strength of steel, the fuel efficiency of the car will improve immensely. It does not matter if the fuel is diesel, gasoline, biofuel, electricity, hydrogen or compressed air.

    Thus, while the transition to the electric car is already well underway and is a highly welcome one, the future car made of carbon fiber composites will see a far more radical improvement in its fuel efficiency, no matter what its fuel happens to be. This will be the most essential new technological revolution in the realm of transportation, not the rise of the electric car or the autonomous vehicle. It will affect cars, vans, trucks, trains, ships and planes and the result will be a very sharp fall in the need for oil in transportation. As this occurs, however, the carbon fiber for the land, sea, and air vehicles will likely be made out of oil.

    Less than two years from now, the price of carbon fiber
    will be around ten times less than it is now—-i.e., only twice the price of steel—-once the manufacturing process that is now being developed by the consortium of BMW, Siemens, Airbus and the German government is unveiled. At that point, the “lightweighting” revolution will slowly begin for all land, sea, and air vehicles. The electric car running on electricity from wind and solar may be a game changer, but the bigger game changer by far is carbon fiber since it will affect the transportation sector as a whole: EVs, ICEs, trains, ships and planes.

    • Oil4AsphaltOnly

      The XL1 is a performance slug. That mpg rating wasn’t due to weight, but predominantly a detuned engine. Look for the Shell eco-challenges to see what kind of MPG you can get with tiny engines. It’s the lack of oomph that turns consumers away from fuel-efficient cars. One of the main selling points of EV’s is the 0 rpm torque, something that no fuel efficient engine can compare.

      Plus, with engines, 1/2 to 3/4 of heat from burning the fuel goes directly into heating the air around the vehicle. No matter the efficiency, you’re still burning something and producing CO2 just to move around.

      So although carbon fiber construction helps the situation, moving to electric drive is the most effective answer, as it removes the CO2 emissions (if powered by renewables) AND is desirable by consumers.

      • Victor Provenzano

        Most EVs run on electricity from either coal or natural gas plants, thus, until we have a 100% renewable electrical grid, which is a long way off, efficiency is the key to reducing and eventually eliminating carbon emissions. This will be based on the use of carbon fiber composites, on improvements in aerodynamics, and on the use of new tire designs that reduce rolling resistance. An electric drive train will surely contribute to this improvement in efficiency, but with or without it, in less than 2 years, the increasing use of carbon fiber will, little by little, be significantly reducing the need for oil and its increasing use will affect the entire transportation fleet and system on land, sea and air.

        • Oil4AsphaltOnly

          “Most EVs run on electricity from —- natural gas plants [or renewables]”

          corrected it for you. Most of the EV’s are in California, Florida, and Washington. All states that have little to no coal in their electricity supply and have strong mandates to switch to renewables. Plus a significant portion of EV owners have solar panels installed in their homes offsetting their own carbon footprint from utility power.

          Secondly, you still haven’t recognized that there’s 2 components to market penetration, the supply of hybrid vehicles with carbon fiber construction AND the desire of customers to buy such a vehicle. How many XL1’s have VW sold to date?

          2 years is a pipe dream. Even with BMW’s carbon fiber dedication, they still haven’t made it cheap enough to be used ubiquitously. BEV’s with steel construction are cheaper to build and operate and available NOW. Enough short-range EV’s are being sold that the reduction in fossil fuel consumption is happening NOW. That’s a fact that you can’t write away with your sophistry.

          • Victor Provenzano

            Your facts are not quite right. For instance, as of the end of 2014, 61.3% of the electricity in California was coming from natural gas power plants. http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/electricity/electric_generation_capacity.html The net “life cycle” carbon emissions of natural gas are now known to be HIGHER than those of coal because of the combination of the CO2 emissions from the burning of the natural gas and the amount of methane that escapes into the air during the drilling, fracking, piping, transport, storage and distribution of the natural gas. Methane or CH4 has a GWP that is 86 times higher than that of CO2 over a 20 year period. http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/publications/Howarth_2014_ESE_methane_emissions.pdf As of the end of 2014, 3.3% of the electricity in California was coming from biomass plants, often wood biomass, which has high net carbon emissions and a high “embodied carbon” content, and which creates an IMMENSE “carbon debt” since most trees live for either many decades or up to a few centuries and thus when one burns wood or wood “waste,” one is releasing either decades or centuries of stored carbon into the air (see this webpage to see the average age of most trees: http://bigtree.cnre.vt.edu/TreeAge.htm). Finally, around one half of 1% of California’s electricity comes from coal plants. And thus, if one adds the state’s three high carbon fuel sources together, one can see that California, a U.S. “leader” in both energy efficiency and in RPS, gets nearly two thirds (65%) of its electricity from high carbon energy sources. That is not yet a very promising energy mix for EVs in spite of the near complete abandonment of coal as an energy source in the state.

            You are clearly ignoring the actual relative weight of the decarbonized portion of the electricity in CA, which is, by far, the most populous state that you mentioned above. Thus you are making a mostly counter-evidentiary or unempirical case that would, in the end, not hold up in a court of law.

            Florida, the next most populous state that you mentioned, gets 61% of its electricity from natural gas and 23% of it from coal. Given that we now know, based on a variety of recent studies, that natural gas has even HIGHER net “life cycle” carbon emissions than coal, your argument on behalf of Florida is even weaker.

            Only the state of Washington—-which gets around 7% of its electricity from natural gas and none of it from coal—-in any way substantiates your very broad and, on the whole, very inaccurate claim about the relative level of carbon emissions of any of the three EV states that you mentioned. http://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=WA#tabs-4 Washington is, however, by far, the least populous of the three states that you referred to above, having only 7 million residents—-as opposed to 38 million in California and 20 million in Florida—-or only around 11% of the total population of the 3 states.

            As for the two year period for the unveiling of the new manufacturing process being a “pipe dream,” I am afraid that I place far more trust in the ability of the highly competent consortium of BMW, Siemens, Airbus and the German government to deliver on the 2 year “roll out” claim that they made in a press release a number of months ago than I do in your comparative ability to make a verifiable claim here about the carbon emissions of leading EV states before you have fully checked your facts.

    • Brian Kent

      Carbon fiber has been around for a number of years, and to my understanding its use in vehicles is limited heavily by the referred-to cost considerations. I’m skeptical that a ten-fold price improvement will occur in the next two years, but if it does, I doubt there will be an electric-drive enthusiast more excited about it than I will be. I have very definite reasons for this–which have nothing to do with improved “miles on petrol” considerations.

      Let’s look at this in parts.
      To use the case which presents, you’re talking about a car that is more than twice as expensive as a base Tesla 85D: http://my.teslamotors.com/models/design

      and which is driven by a two cylinder engine providing a scant 47 hp (in addition to the critically-important supplemental electric’s 27 hp.) For reference, the aforementioned Tesla has 417 hp (5.6X as much for less than half the price…)

      Even more importantly, the car manages “just” 120 mpg without the required every-47-miles electric charge stops (in other words, Volkswagen invented their own parameters for the fuel economy test.) This is a plebian number for a car that weighs just a bit more than half what a Nissan Leaf does, and which has an impressive drag coefficient of 0.189 (compared to the Leaf’s 0.32.)

      So what gives?

      The “magic” of the car is entirely dependent on the vehicle’s ELECTRIC motor. It cannot travel even half the distance you list here without that irreplaceable component. The lesson learned should not be the relatively obvious “make cars lighter with carbon fiber: coming soon!” attraction of an inventively manufactured “new” material, but that the use of electricity to take us from point A to point B now amounts to the most critical point in our transportation equation.

      “Only twice” the price of steel for the material to build a car that results in a total curb weight slightly less than half of the 2010 average vehicle weight…

      The average new car weighed 3,221 pounds in 1987 but 4,009 pounds in 2010. [Source: quick-and-dirty Google search]

      …results, once again, in a car that will likely be about twice as efficient for about twice the price. There is nothing new here. Mass adoption of efficient vehicles waits not on vehicles with an increased cost well in line with their increased efficiency, but rather a magical combination of low sticker price, low operating cost, and better, more widespread understanding of what those vehicles can do. EVs already suffer from miniscule adoption rates despite being, for *virtually* all intents and purposes, superior vehicles. They won’t be adopted in larger number by improving their efficiency with concomitant increases in price: in point of fact, Tesla’s quite successful business model works almost exactly in the reverse of this fashion.

      A magical combination of low sticker, low operating, and improved public understanding is what’s needed.

      The second of these is already accomplished, the first cannot be solved with carbon fiber, and the last is the subject of my upcoming Negative Carbon Roadtrip: watch what a very basic EV can do.

      For the referenced limited production VW (250 built) “pricing starts at US$146,000.” This is not to throw rain on your parade, but the VW XL-1 you’re talking about is apparently built as much for “proof of concept” and marketing as anything else. It’s not practical, and the primary reason is price.

      Carbon fiber will be a game changer, certainly, but it won’t be nearly the game changer you’re suggesting. It’s hard to believe that any of the following is the case:
      (1) a carbon-fiber Leaf weighing about half as much and with better aerodynamics which could go approximately twice as far (i.e. 168 miles per charge) would be a vehicle people could be expected to purchase in huge numbers at twice the current price (i.e. a total sticker of about $50,000)
      (2) an improved carbon-fiber Tesla capable of twice its already impressive 270 mile range which cost fully twice as much would be purchased by more than fringe enthusiasts the likes of Jay Leno
      (3) that successfully implementation into major vehicle product lines of a technology which is “due out” in just two years will happen anything faster than in the next five years. By which point the death contract of the ICE industry will already be punched, stamped, sealed, and delivered.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of using carbon in durable goods rather than sending it into the sky as fast as we can find it, dig it up, and burn it. However, I see this development as something which, if anything, is likely to forestall the still-inevitable decline of the petroleum fueled transportation economy. Let’s put this sick dog to rest, finally.

      • Omega Centauri

        I think you are a bit to quick to equate weight equals energy cost to move. The energy cost to move is about dissipative forces (drag, aerodynamic, rolling, and internal parts like the transmission). The aero drag, which is a big deal for EVs depends on the cross section, and drag coefficient, weight won’t change that one bit. Frame and body parts are only part of the mass that goes into a car, lightening those won’t change the mass of the rest of the vehicle. Now the two biggest benefits of cutting weight are less rolling drag, and probably the use of a smaller engine, since we usually size the engine by the acceptable amount of acceleration. Cutting the weight of part of the vehicle will help, but not nearly as much as you think.

        I read the drag coefficient of the 2011-2012 was .29, reduced to .28 for the 2013.

        • Brian Kent

          I didn’t bother to equate a specific relationship between weight and energy cost to move, because it’s a lot more complicated than a direct relationship, as you’ve correctly pointed out here.

          What I’m saying is that the initial assertion–which struck me as “carbon fiber is lighter by far than steel and as a result will revolutionize the auto industry more than electrics once it’s ten times as cheap two years from now”–is a faulty assertion.

          For one because a direct relationship DOES NOT exist between reduced weight and energy cost to move (despite that reduced weight was the foremost point originally cited), for two because even in the most generous case in which we assume that it would (it doesn’t)–the fantastic gains in fuel economy originally posted cannot and will not occur without the critically important aid of an electric motor.

          Effective cross sectional (drag) area is what we’re essentially talking about when it comes to efficiency at speed. That’s where the lion’s share of the energy “goes.” At low speeds, it’s rolling resistance which depends largely on the vehicle’s tire parameters and the curb weight. At high speeds it’s drag. There’s nothing new here. What we’re talking about is a factor which–while welcome and hopeful–is not nearly so relevant as the initial comment suggests.

          The hero which will usher out big oil is the fantastically efficient electric motor. Driven by an appropriate battery with a high energy density, I for one fully expect electrics to render ICE cars essentially obsolete in the next 8 to 10 years. It’s not carbon fiber lightness which will do the job, but battery energy density.

          Recall that as recently as 3-4 years ago, Tesla was ‘on the ropes’ despite being the only serious 100% American automotive company. Remember (is that the right word?) that Tesla has rocketed (pun intended) back from the brink of disaster and now offers a “ludicrous” mode Tesla which–despite comfortably carrying as many as seven people at a time–can best the acceleration of virtually every supercar in the world and do it while jumping off the line as quietly as a deer vaults across a prairie.

          I’m not very interested in the fine physics involved here; my feeling is that the majority of people are not moved by (let alone rocked by) numbers so much as they are by hyperbole. I have no doubt that if Musk were given the reins of a much larger fraction of the automotive manufacturing lines than the pitifully small percentage he currently commands, the transition to an electric economy would happen faster than a hyperloop train.

          Does anyone even doubt that it’s technically possible to produce a million (or even ten million) fully electric 200 mile range cars for $20K apiece already?

          It’s simply not a question of whether, but when.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “t it’s technically possible to produce a million (or even ten million) fully electric 200 mile range cars for $20K apiece already?”

            What are the assumptions you use in that statement? I’m guessing battery costs dropping to ~$100/kWh with scale?

          • Brian Kent

            I’ll respond to this loosely, because the assertion I made is based on a thumbnail analysis. I absolutely can’t wait to see how many tons of bricks fall on my head over this one.

            We know that a new Nissan Leaf battery costs $5500 a year ago in June. This is a 24kWhr battery, and it weighs 660 pounds, of the car’s total curb weight of just over 3300. The car has a drag coefficient of 0.32–reasonable, but not especially good.

            Now let’s play with some numbers:

            From this paper: https://gcep.stanford.edu/pdfs/ChEHeXOTnf3dHH5qjYRXMA/10_Browand_10_11_trans.pdf

            We can see that the net pressure force working against a vehicle in motion is directly related to the drag coefficient. While this still continuously varies based on dynamic pressure (which cannot be easily quantified outside of a wind tunnel)–the most important point here is that the net pressure force acting against the car is directly related to the drag coefficient, and the net pressure force is primarily what the car works against at highway speeds (yes, the rolling resistance comes into the equation too, let’s wait on that, shall we?)

            Since we know that it’s possible to achieve a drag coefficient approximately half as large as the current Leaf’s–the above-referenced VW XL-1’s prototype had a scant coefficient of just 0.159–we essentially know that the electric power train of a Leaf, packaged in an XL-1’s chassis might easily be expected to have a drag approximately half of the current Leaf’s (though it obviously would no longer look like a Leaf.)

            According to the Tire Rack, rolling resistance of wheels accounts for about 1/4 as much influence on fuel economy as does drag factors. Now we’re getting somewhere.

            If we know that in a typical EV, there’s approximately a 20% loss of energy in inefficiency related to the motor and drivetrain, then we also know that the bulk of the fuel economy (~80% *4/5) or on the order of 60-65% is determined by drag factors. It seems to me evident that if our drag could be cut by, for example, 45% (and it can) then we could experience about a 45% improvement on, for example, that 60%, which would translate to about a 27% improvement in range (and an uglier car, to some.)

            At the current EPA estimate of 84 miles per charge, a 27% improvement would yield about 107 miles of range on the standard battery chemistry (which is, by the way, battery chemistry that is a few years old even at this point.) adding 24 more kWhrs of battery cells would cost on the order of $5500 (less, at production cost) and would not appreciably impact drag. It would result in greater rolling resistance, but as we’ve already seen, that might easily be expected to be on the order of (~80% x 1/5)*4000/3340 = a 19% hit to economy–and would likely be far less.

            I’m well aware that the math is nowhere near this simple, however, from what I see a vehicle with at the very least 175 miles range is possible with a ridiculously simple thumbnail analysis, and it’s also somewhat obvious that production in the referenced scale would be subject to massive economies of scale.

            I think the existing advancements in the energy density (not so much the improvements in the cost) are the most relevant factors here. I also think that we should stop ignoring such things as the ability to harvest a certain amount of energy from the sun while in transit–especially considering the fact that a) more driving happens during the day than at night, b) the average car spends the vast majority of its life parked, and c) when you approach higher and higher ranges, you’re talking about having the car on the road for longer and longer periods given the same speed. There’s no reason why a significant fraction of cars couldn’t harvest on the order of a quarter to half a kilowatt daily with a relatively insignificant change to design.

            I hear you saying “ah, that doesn’t matter.” But let’s check the numbers:
            If we did that with all 253 million cars in the U.S., in the course of a year, solar power from those panels alone would comprise 1% of our annual energy usage, and match the entire yearly energy usage of a country such as Israel.

            …over 46 BILLION kilowatts, or enough to drive 152.4 billion miles unless I’ve made a silly mistake in my ‘rithmetic.

            I’m sure I’ll soon find out if I have.

          • Bob_Wallace

            When it comes to putting solar on top of EVs I keep running into these problems.

            1) The angle is wrong. Especially as the Sun drops lower in the sky once we’re past the spring equinox. Panels are going to be horizontal when they should be angled at latitude up to lat + 15 degrees. And pointing toward the Sun at all times.

            2) Shade. Hard to avoid shade when driving/parking. On average you’re going to lose some percentage of the output due to parking in garages, under trees, on the east/west/north of buildings, even parking lot lights throw shadows.

            3) Market acceptance. Cars covered with solar panels (thin-film, adhering to contours) is going to be too geeky for a lot of the market.

            (Same problem with extreme aerodynamic cars – Aptera, for example.)

            Put the panels in fixed places where shade can be avoided and angle/orientation can be optimized.

          • Bob_Wallace

            $20k longer range EVs.

            I think we’ll get there, or very close to there before long. My guess is probably more than 5 years, less than 10 years.

            I’m basing that on the cost of batteries and assuming that we need about 50 kWh. Based on an analysis of materials in the Panasonic/Tesla batteries the material cost should be about $70/kWh which means a $100/kWh price for cells and about 30% more for pack costs.


            Take a look at where $130/kWh is on the graph below (that’s battery pack costs on the x axis).

        • Victor Provenzano

          The Hypercar, designed by RMI—-which is the basis of the new carbon fiber cars that are being made by VW, BMW and Audi—relies not only on the use of lightweight carbon fiber, which RADICALLY reduces the amount of fuel or electricity needed to run a car, the Hypercar also relies on improved aerodynamics and on new tire designs that reduce rolling resistance, both of which significantly but still, in comparison, only INCREMENTALLY reduce the amount the amount of fuel or electricity that are needed to run a car.

      • Victor Provenzano

        One is not talking about a car that is “more than twice the price of a Tesla,” one is talking about a car that can be designed to weigh less than half of what existing cars now weigh, since the existing ones are made out of steel, and thus one is talking about a new car that can be made for a cheaper price than that of steel cars once the price of carbon fiber is only twice the price of steel.

    • It is one reason I lean toward getting the i3.

      • Victor Provenzano

        Zach, it may be best to wait for the 2018 models of the i3, when the price will likely fall very significantly in light of the scheduled introduction of the new BMW manufacturing process for carbon fiber in 2017.

        • I’ve been car-free for ~11 years. Believe me, would stay that way if not pressed to get a car, but with a likely move to Florida and a baby, will basically need to get one. We’ll see. Having a very hard time choosing between financially prudent (my general nature) with a Leaf, best and safest car in the world with access to free and reliable Supercharging to explore the US with my Polish wife and daughter with a Model S, or something in between + the greenest car in the US with the i3…. totally up in the air right now.

    • Tom Moore

      It’s just the opposite; electric propulsion is much more of a gain than light weighting. And that’s not only because of the extreme efficiency of an electric motor, as Brian Kent points out, but because an electric motor can trivially regenerate most of the energy that goes into kinetic or potential energy of the vehicle (as contrasted with the energy that goes into heating the air, bearings, tires and brakes).

      You should not dismiss this as insignificant, because it is the only real advantage of a hybrid vehicle, and it has been well proven that hybrids make a significant gain by recapturing energy that otherwise would be wasted by heating the brakes. EVs combine that advantage with a much more efficient drive unit for a one-two punch that no practical amount of light weighting can ever match, though it may contribute substantially.

      Electric drive conserves without compromising on performance, while light weighting is just plain sacrifice of performance with no conservation at all. We can always choose to need and spend less; the trick is to get as much as you need and spend a lot less on it.

      • Victor Provenzano

        Your argument is a rhetorical one, not an empirical one. It also misrepresents what I said. I said, rather, that the EV was a “game changer” (and not that it was in any way “insignificant” as you claimed that I said). But I also said that lightweighting was clearly “even more of a game changer” since it will affect EVERY realm of transportation: cars, vans, trucks, trains, ships and planes. We will not be able to run ships and planes solely on electric motors and batteries and it will be quite sometime before we might be able to come even somewhat close to relying on batteries and electric motors alone to propel large trucks along the highway, assuming that this will ever be possible in the future. That said, lightweighting will create such radical new efficiencies that, as a result, in the years to come, trucks, ships and planes will require only a small portion of the fuel that they require today. Hopefully, the remaining fuel need will be met by a combination of algal biofuels and electrolytic hydrogen in the planes and big rig trucks of the future—-all hopefully lightweighted—-and a combination of algal biofuels, hydrogen, decktop solar, sail power and wind power in the ships of the future.

        As for the empirical efficiency argument, the 1753 lb VW XL1 gets 260 mpg on diesel (or 313 imperial mpg). Where then is the consumer EV at this point that gets mileage that is even somewhat similar to that? There is, of course, no such EV. Thus, your claim seems to be statistically incorrect. And what if VW were to make an XL1 that weighs less than 700 lbs as its initial prototype did, or even less than that? What kind of mileage might eventually be possible for a car that is that light? It would be a level of mileage that no EV could ever come close to achieving without being similarly radically lightweighted. Thus, while the EV will clearly be front and center in the future of efficient automotive transport, on its own, it will never achieve the kinds of efficiencies that can be attained by ultra-lightweigting alone or, as in case of the RMI Hypercar, by a combination of ultra-lightweighting, improved aeodynamics and improved rolling resistance.

        • Tom Moore

          The VW XL1 does not provide the performance that is expected from a family or personal vehicle and it is therefore irrelevant. A powered bicycle would consume even less energy getting around, but so what? The figure of merit is really energy used per unit mass moved, for a useful amount of mass.

      • Victor Provenzano

        Thus, what we will need, in the end, to attain maximal efficiency and very low to no carbon emissions are ultra-lightweight carbon fiber EVs running on wind or solar electricity with improved aerodynamics and improved rolling resistance, as well as a manufacturing process for the EV that uses either wind or solar to create the electrical process heat or solar thermal (not solar thermal electricity) to create the same process heat that will be needed to the make the car and its materials.

        It is not a matter of an either/or.

        • Bob_Wallace

          No, Victor. What we need is EVs charged with renewable energy.

          Material substitutes such as carbon fiber can help as they lower the mass, lowering the amount of energy we need to start the vehicle moving.

          Lower mass is useful but not necessary.

          Lower mass, better aerodynamics and less rolling resistance all help, but are not necessary. They all lower the amount of energy needed but none are required.

          • Victor Provenzano

            In line with your reasoning, Bob, nothing is required. We should all simply sit still in our yerts and drink water and goat’s milk.

            I cannot quite take the full measure of the exquisite irrationality of your evasive, anti-ecological, willfully inefficient, cul-de-sac argument here, Bob, yet somehow I am unsurprised.

            And yet, still, Bob, I have to ask: how do you do it? How is it possible to think in such an elusive and unreasonable manner and to do so so consistently?


            You have a gift for thisl—-for being willing to play the role of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury.


          • Victor Provenzano

            The word is “yurt.”

            I will never be forgiven.


          • Victor Provenzano

            Bob, this is not Facebook.

            Have you not noticed that I have NEVER responded to a single one of the comment strings that you have initiated on CleanTechnica? Why, for instance, do you think that is?

            Please, Bob, can you show me some simple reciprocity and leave me be? You tire me out. There are many others who comment on this website with whom you might have a fruitful dialogue.

            Once again, Bob, I have NEVER replied to you on a single comment string that you have initiated either here or elsewhere.


            I would genuinely appreciate it.

            Thank you in advance for this new kindness.

          • Bob_Wallace

            No, Victor. I will not stay quite and let you post things which, in my opinion, are false.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Over the line, Victor.

          • Victor Provenzano

            From this moment on, I will not respond to anything that you say in reply to any of the comments that I make on CT, either now or in the future, and as has always been the case in the past, I will not reply to any comment string that you have initiated on CT.

            All the best, Bob.

          • Bob_Wallace

            And this should cause the world to grasp its pearls and gasp?

  • TCFlood


    How long does a charge take with a level 2 or a level 3 charger? What is the typical mileage you get for a level of battery discharge that does minimum damage to the battery? How much does fast charging shorten the life of the battery? What is the life of the battery likely to be? How much does battery replacement cost?

    • Brian Kent

      The bottom portion of this response is likely to be the most useful, though the top is more along the lines of a technically specific answer to your question.

      This is a good specific question that requires a good general answer. Tom Saxton, Chief Science officer at Plug In America, has spoken directly to the point of charging speed with various level 1 and level 2 charging combinations (which depend not just on voltage but more importantly on amperage) right here:


      The table shows specific increases to the battery charge (measured in “miles per hour” increases.) There are three things I’d like to point out:

      (1) this is vehicle specific; the rate at which a given vehicle takes up charge from any set parameters of source charge will depend on what sort of vehicle it is. The distance the vehicle can be expected to travel from a given “number of electrons” also varies widely.
      (2) charge rate tapers significantly in virtually all (if not all) electric vehicles as charge level nears maximum battery capacity
      (3) the EV community needs to STOP referring to this metric as “miles per hour”! Miles per hour is a convention we already well-recognize to be associated with the speed of a vehicle’s travel. It is inappropriately confusing to people to read that and immediately think of vehicle travel versus what it really refers to: the expected miles gained per charge hour.

      I intend to continue to fight this unnecessarily confusing crossed-convention because we’re dealing with a topic which is already confusing enough for people. Most people are unfamiliar enough with the numbers and dynamics of EVs that they tend to throw up their metaphorical hands in confusion–expecting that someday it’ll all be much simpler. We really DO NOT need to inject pointless confusion into this by repurposing terms.

      It doesn’t help in the slightest to blithely proceed with our discussions completely oblivious to the fact that we’re hardly in position (as EV drivers or enthusiasts) to commandeer language used by countless millions of people and to use it however we please. Let’s not do that anymore.

      So it’s miles per charge hour. That’s MPcH if you want to shorten it. It’s an interesting and convenient number to play around with, because it denotes “how fast you can put the charge back into the car” and it’s easily compared with its road-based analog (despite that MPcH is a “parking lot” convention.) For example, if I have a 240V, 70A source charge, I can reasonably expect to return 61 miles’ worth of range to my battery if I leave it plugged in for an hour, provided there’s room in the battery for the charge, and I don’t reach the forced-taper which occurs when nearing max charge capacity. {And provided I have a car comparable to the vehicle referenced–which strangely is not even provided as a header on the table. Hint: it’s a Tesla}

      This is the long answer to the first part of your question, which I give here in part because people have commenced to harp at me about being even more morbidly specific about things than I already am.

      The short answer is this: from a level 2, you can expect about 20 miles per charge hour, as a basic average. You can get almost twice as much as that from a charging station with sufficient amperage (if your vehicle will allow it) though you can also get a good deal less than that if you’re close to max capacity and on a low amp charger.

      Level 3’s, on the other hand, are about four times that fast or faster. Typically you can get enough from a level 3 in 30 minutes to either fill your (Nissan Leaf) battery or at least come close enough that it’s not worth paying for a second 30 minute charge (because typically DC fast chargers are charge-for-electrons locations which measure things in 30-minute increments.) Note I here avoid the more resonant phrase “charge-to-charge” because it’s senselessly confusing. It carries a different connotation when we describe this as “charge-for-electrons” but it’s also more obvious what we’re talking about for some.

      Here’s what I go by, for rough calculations (please note that my 2013 Leaf does in fact have the high-speed charger–which represents about a 6.6kWhr/charge hour max throughput vs. the standard 3.3):

      1. Any “regular” outlet I look at as 5 miles per charge hour. It might be as low as 4, but in my experience, provided the cable is plugged in, and the light on the cable reads “charging” versus “fault” you will invariably get 4 or 5 miles of additional range every hour you’re plugged in until you reach max capacity. Level 1’s don’t seem to taper so much–I don’t know why and I still haven’t pursued that level of detail.
      2. A typical level 2 can be relied on for about 15 miles per charge hour. Sometimes slightly less, but sometimes quite a bit more. The example I’ll give is my Leviton home charger: I had it professionally installed on a 40 AMP dedicated circuit and the battery fills as fast or faster than I’ve ever experienced from any public outlet when I charge at home.

      You will want a fast charger at home, because it makes everything so ridiculously convenient that I can’t explain it in a way that you’d accept and/or believe me. Unless I’m on a long road trip…

      • TCFlood

        Brian: Thanks for taking the time to write that detailed response. Unfortunately, I still have a couple of questions.

        The Saxton link says the Tesla has a temperature regulator to control heating during charging. Does your LEAF (or all EV’s) have this? By omission you seem to imply that fast charging does not take a toll on battery life.

        How deep a discharge does your normal driving range involve? Does the car keep you informed about this? How much discharge does the manufacturer recommend for optimum battery life?

        • Brian Kent

          The Leaf I own (a 2013 base model S with the optional fast charging pack) does not have a temperature regulator to control heating during charging, to the best of my knowledge. It is air-cooled and has no radiator. This is an important point to note, in my view, on especially warm days when you might take advantage of a DC charger.

          The battery can and will heat up when subjected to 440V DC charging. I regard this as less of an issue when the temperature of the battery is already low (due, for example, to an ambient temperature lower than about 45 or 50 degrees F) and less of an issue also when you expect to drive it when it’s cold enough out that the air cooling can have a more dramatic effect but not quite so cold as to require the use of the resistive cabin heater. My car does not have the “lizard chemistry” battery which was transitioned into use–to my knowledge–in 2014 or 2015. Those batteries are much less heat labile than is mine, and that’s one reason why I’m taking my upcoming trip first across the northern States and only later across the southern ones.

          I didn’t intend to imply that fast charging doesn’t take a toll on battery life, to reflect on the evidence (even setting aside the recommendations) is to conclude that it probably does have some effect. I generally keep my fast charging to a minimum–in part because I simply don’t have much access to fast chargers in Western New York (the nearest five are all in Toronto as of this writing) and even when I’m on the road they’ve still been few enough and far enough between that the total number of charges I’ve made with them is on the order of about 10–and probably more like 6 or 7. I could probably count all of them if I tried.

          The best recommendations I’ve found to date are here:


          They point out that partial charges with a lithium-ion battery chemistry do not result in a “memory effect.” My charging has generally been “when I’m less than about 45% and I’m near a convenient charger, I plug in.”

          I typically charge at night, only, I don’t have Car Wings enabled on my dash (to set this), I don’t have variable grid pricing (day vs. night) and I do have the only level 2 charger outside of a service bay within about a 20ish mile range of my house. I charge to 100% virtually every time I charge, and given the very strong performance of my battery to date, I find it hard to believe that doing so is especially harmful to the battery, or that it will result in an appreciably shorter life. It’s anecdotal, of course, but I don’t see evidence to suggest that charging fully makes much of a difference at all.

          All of this having been said, I’m also a strong believer in trickle charging. I started my battery’s life predominantly with trickle charging once the first longish roadtrip to bring it back from the dealer was done, and at nearly 30K miles and only about 2% battery degradation, I think I’ve either been lucky or found a good combination of charging behaviors.

          I don’t baby the car or battery very much. It’s most typically parked outside of the garage, I’ve experienced two terribly cold winters and more use by a fair margin than most people expect out of a gas car.

          In the end, I’d put it against any car of any make or model at the same or similar price point. It’s ridiculously convenient, incredibly efficient and inexpensive, quiet as a mouse, and has done its share of educating nonbelievers at traffic lights. This most notably occurred in New York City when an angrier-than necessary cabbie honked at me from behind when I wasn’t white-knuckle gripping the wheel and pasted three feet from the bumper of the car ahead of me. Said cabbie swooped beside me along Fifth Avenue as it passes by Central Park and was apparently determined to zoom dramatically in front of my poor little underpowered EV in a dash to the next light.

          As I pulled to a stop at that next light, I looked in my rearview mirror to observe said cabbie finally nosing his way out of the previous intersection, apparently more reluctant to continue making his point.

          In closing, I’d say I don’t make a habit of either fast charging or galloping away from intersections like I just referred to. What I realize now that I never would have before is that with a sufficiently fast home charger, the primary thing that changes about your life is that it becomes cleaner, quieter, and more convenient.

          There is no way I would buy an ICE vehicle again. It’s just plain not worth it to me.

          • TCFlood

            Brian: Thanks for the great series of articles and, especially, for the detailed and informative responses to questions.

  • In former days a car was to get you to cheap real estate close to your job.
    Now cities can’t afford to expand outwards and densification has no room for polluting vehicles.

  • John Norris

    Just contributed. Thanks Brian, you are inspirational!

    • Brian Kent

      Thanks John. Actually just heard this morning from a Metallurgist who lives in Akjoujt, Mauritania–a city I didn’t know existed in a country which I’m embarrassed to say I only vaguely knew the location of. His report was that they experience “no rain at all” and temperatures in the 52 degree Celsius (125 degrees Fahrenheit) range already. He wanted to know more about electric vehicles and considers them his country’s future. Also asked what he could do locally to contribute to the efforts to combat climate change so that–in his words–they don’t have to migrate for cooler (if not greener) pastures.

      Sad commentary, though it does help reinforce the importance of what the growing team here is trying to do.

  • Frank

    I think the electric car, and renewable energy is great for climate change. I’m less convinced about the tree. Sure, it pulls CO2 out of the air, but doesn’t it all go back when it decomposes? Unless it ends up getting buried underground, and turns into coal. Speaking of which, the stuff that did so very conveniently turn into coal, and is already so conveniently buried, out of the way, we should leave it, right where it’s at. Renewables are cheap.

  • Martin

    What I would like to see is some body making a trip like that in places without the support of electricity for faster charging in a number a places but which only level one charging around.

  • wattleberry

    Whilst fully supporting this project, I’m concerned that its credibility is not helped by the bald statement ‘Electric is cheaper’ because, for low mileage users, the depreciation, particularly on new, outweighs the savings on running costs because of the availability of older vehicles.
    The good news, of course, is that used prices will soon, or quite soon, remedy even this inconvenience.
    In the meantime, a slight change to ‘Electric running costs are cheaper’ or similar is suggested.

    • Mike333

      There are excellent used Leaf’s coming on to the market now at Ridiculously low prices.

      • Brent Jatko

        $10,105 in Houston TX for a used 2013 Leaf with ~40K miles.

    • Brian Kent

      The statement I made was more specific than that.

      “Operating an electric vehicle is both cheaper in the now and cheaper in the future—especially when the inescapable costs of carbon pollution are accounted for.” There isn’t much in the way of debate on this. If we’re going to discuss which fuel is less expensive to operate overall…well that’s Pandora’s box, isn’t it? Just because we aren’t currently counting carbon in any sort of quantitative manner doesn’t mean it’s not a cost of operation.

      I realize that the general tendency is to boil things down into the shortest sound bites we can, but we’re prone to inaccuracy when we oversimplify such issues as this one. I’m not about to engage in an unspecific analysis of “older vehicles” because doing so does not amount to an analysis. What I will do is compare a hypothetical “best case” older vehicle in an effort to make a reasonable comparison.

      If you can present me a single vehicle which has a lower operating cost than, for example, a 2013 Nissan Leaf (which I use because that’s the one I can speak most directly about) I’m all ears. I think you’re setting the bar a lot higher than you think you are, however. To suggest that it’s easily possible to find a used car which is less expensive to operate than a used Leaf is a precarious road to drive down, as I think my previous analysis of a used Nissan Leaf versus a used Toyota Prius shows:


      Sure, there are some outlier points that you can find–fringe cases where rare finds among the literally millions of used gas cars out there have the miracle combination of low price, low mileage, high fuel economy, and high durability to supplant the new king of “Most Inexpensive to Own and Operate” vehicles, but you’ll be looking a lot harder than you think if you actually try to do it.

      Use reference figures.

      $2.667 per gallon for the average price of gas nationwide according to http://www.fuelgaugereport.com/ (which is in itself not a particularly fair number considering that it indirectly involves a whole lot of foreign interests that it costs this country a great deal to police, and carbon costs we don’t count.)

      Use the average price of a unit of electricity: about $0.102/kWhr according to http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_5_03 (which might potentially be produced in a dirty manner, but more importantly CAN be produced in a clean manner via renewables.)

      Use a reasonably affordable Nissan Leaf like the one I used in the aformentioned comparison, and stand it up against anything you like.

      Assume you’re going to spend $1000 for [insert gas car here] and have zero in repair bills from 15,000 to 125,000 miles. Assume even that you find a car that makes 50% more than the 2014 average U.S. fleet economy of 24.1 miles per gallon for those 110,000 miles–call it 36.2 mpg for the sake of argument. What do you end up with?

      $1000 for the car + $825 worth of oil changes (at $37.50/5000 miles) + $8104.14 in gas. That’s $9929.14 using what I think we can agree are pretty damn generous numbers for the car price and generous guesses about its reliability. This also only considers running it for 110,000 miles, and assumes you find that priceless gem of a car with only 15K miles on it for just $1000. If you can do that without costing yourself hours of research and time spent at car auctions, by all means do it. But do it with an awareness of how little you’ll actually save in the long run, and how much it costs: an extra 45.2 metric tons of carbon pollution over the referenced miles.

      The Leaf I previously presented costs fully 11.45X as much, and ultimately achieves that same mileage for a total (including the vehicle cost) of $14,842.28 (or $0.1313/mile.) That’s $4913.14 more, without using a puff of direct emissions.

      In other words, to make an ACTUAL comparison of the vehicle you reference here (i.e. “an older vehicle”) doesn’t show an especially large amount of savings even in the most ridiculously unlikely of cases–and it shows no savings at all if you’re measuring the operating costs I initially referred to, as follows:

      You will spend $8929.14 over 110,000 miles in operating costs, assuming you don’t spend a penny on repairs. That’s $0.0812/mile.

      The Leaf, on the other hand, will go 113,076 miles for $3,392.28 from my original comparison ($0.03/mile) or, using the EPA reference figures of 3.33 miles/kWhr and the above price for electricity, $3463.59 for those same miles at a final cost of $0.0306/mile.

      $0.0812/mile vs. $0.0306/mile or 165.4% more in operating costs for the used gas car versus the nearly-new Leaf.

      Won’t you realistically pay $6000 for a very good used gas car that will enable you to see the next 110,000 miles without much in the way of repairs? I think you will. And in so doing, you’ll pay not only about $86.86 more total, but you’ll pay more than one and a half times more strictly in operating costs, you’ll wait for 30 minutes x 20 or more oil changes, and you’ll pollute the atmosphere by about 45 more metric tons of CO2 in the process.

      That to me is no bargain.

      • wattleberry

        Thanks, Brian,for your comprehensive reply. That’s the wonder of Internet; where else can we have a discussion with an author straight away?
        Unfortunately, I don’t think you have made your case. For one thing, you talk about operating costs which I am not questioning. For another, you assume a lengthy period of ownership which I,as a pensioner, do challenge as we tend to look at things more on a year to year basis. This approach is not restricted to our category.
        All I was saying is that to simply say electric is cheaper is not always applicable and should, therefore, be amended, even if only to something like ‘for the majority of….’.
        I look forward to reading more of your accounts in due course.

      • Jfake Hname

        awesome points id like to add. antifreeze and transmission fluid both need to be changed at set intervals mi/time(ic cars). there are also a large number of ic cars that have a timing belt that has to be changed every 60k miles. or spark plugs air/fuel filter. these arent repairs but needed maintenance. there are other stealth costs that ic car lovers never mention.

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