Saturday, June 07, 2008

New wheels... some day.

I have relations who are going to find this surprising. I grew up in a family full of engineers; cars and tinkering with them were, well... the norm. Heck, even my little sister is an engineer. I'm the sport--literature, history and... good lord... theology too, now?

I've never been about cars. Not the normal American guy who read car magazines and wanted to rebuild the engine or restore a classic car. Oh, I could maintain one; I kept an old Dodge Dart running and road-safe for years. But I didn't care that it was a Dart, or how it looked. It was transportation. Automobiles--all of them--have always been just transportation, to me. In a distant way I can appreciate the aesthetics of some, in about the same way that I can distantly appreciate the aesthetics of the ensembles that some designer has models strut down a walkway. And with about as much interest (read: minimal).

All that's ever interested me were transportation and user value. Enough space to transport stuff. Enough comfortable (enough) seats for the people who would be riding in it. Safety. Reliability. Economics. Efficiency. (I did say I came from a family riddled with engineers, right?)

So I'm sitting here marveling that I've gone and put down a deposit on a car (as opposed to going out and looking to buy one when I actually needed one, and had to get one (I live in not-urban core SoCal; public transportation is only beginning to maybe be meaningfully available to me... and only enough that I could use it some of the time). No, this one's not even going to be available to anyone until late 2008, and ours won't be available to us, in all probability, until 2010 (we're #3017 on the list).

The aesthetics of it, I can see, are quite modern and very, very functional. My younger son's reaction? "Want!" (Ok, so he's part of the mainstream genepool of the family...). Me? It's the insane level of efficiency that grabbed me. I've been tantalized by the Prius of a friend and it's 45-50 mpg; it's so much more fuel efficient than my van. But this? 230-300 mpg makes a Prius look like a gas guzzler. At last I'll be able to get green transportation.

Of course, it's not going to replace the van. I'll be watching closely to see when they start building a four seater model.

I did say I came from a family of engineering geeks, right?


kim said...

what are these cars selling for? Are they currently in production? are they stable? I one-wheel-drive enough?

ogre said...

kim, they come into production this fall (Nov). Not many will be built this year, I suspect (30? 50?). I've read somewhere that they project building 2000 in 2009, and the hybrids won't be available until 2010 (though all schedules are subject to changes and scrambling in industry, as I know only too well...). Current fuel economics and such may put pressure on them to find a way to manufacture more of them more quickly (if they can...).

Stable? Yes. Very. They intentionally designed the center of gravity very low, so it turns out that they're rather hard to tip over.

They're electric motor driven, so I doubt that they're one-wheel drive, but rather at least both fronts (maybe all three).

They say that the all electric will be just under $28k.
The hybrid's supposed to be just under $30k.

Slightly more expensive than today's Prius--and the gas savings will make that up within a couple or three years. Unless gas goes up more.

I'm looking at GA in Phoenix in 2012 and thinking that we can drive there from San Diego... and if gas is $10/gal by then, it'll cost us under $50 -- round trip.

James Newton said...

It's a nice car, and I'd love to have one, but I can't do anything without doing the numbers, so here they are...

The cost of anything, when you break it down and break that down and so on, turns out to be the total cost of the energy required to make it. To make this car you need $28,000 of energy. For example, the metal parts have to be machined (coal for electricity for the mill/lath/cnc and everything it takes to support the worker including fertilizer, pesticides and so on used to grow and transport his or her food) but first they must be transported (diesel) and before that smelted (electricity or NG) and before that the ore is hauled (diesel) and mined (diesel, etc...) and so on. The point I'm trying to make is that the COST of the car is the ENERGY used to make the car.

We expect cars to last about 5 years. On the bleeding edge, one tends to bleed, and electric cars are absolutely notorious for burning up batteries which are a major part of their cost. 5 years is doubtful in my mind. But lets give it the benefit of the doubt; so this thing is going to cost you $28000 / 5 (years) / 52 (weeks per year) / 7 (days per week) or about $15.38 per day no matter how much you drive it. That is how much oil, diesel, coal, fertilizer, pesticide, etc... you will consume with this car each day without driving it at all.

If you drive it 40 miles a day (which is about the national average) then you will be spending 38 cents per mile, NOT including the electricity to charge it. With a dollar or so per day of trons and some regular maintenance, you are looking at about 40 cents or so per mile.

My $10,500 used 2001 Camry, purchased in 2007, given that it has one of the highest reliability ratings in the world, will very probably last 4 years MORE or 10 years total. It has a proven track record. The mfgr warranty for most of the car is actually 8 years.

$10,500 / 5 (years I plan to own it) / 52 / 7 = $5.77 per day. It gets 23MPG (25 estimated, 23 actual) and I drive about 50 miles per day so add 2.18 gallons of gas at, say $4 dollars per gallon. That is $8.72 per day in gasoline for a daily total of $14.49. I have a buck a day more than you to put towards maintenance and repairs. If gas goes up much past $5 a gallon, I loose, you win.

But that is with my crazy commute. In terms of cost per mile, I pay less than 12 cents a mile to own the car and less than 18 cents a mile to drive it at $4/gal or 43 cents a mile at $10/gal. So that is between 30 and 55 cents a mile depending on the gas price. If gas stays at $4 I save 10 cents a mile over you and if it goes to $10 I pay 15 cents a mile more.

Put it another way, 40 - 12 is 28 cents a mile allowance I have for gas. Gas would have to be $6.44 a gallon to justify my purchasing this electric.

At $6.44 a gallon, there are a LOT of sources for fossil fuels that start making economic sense and so will become available. Oil shale extraction in West Virginia, algae bio fuel, etc...

Maybe they will come out with a lower cost version of some of these electrics in the next few years and all of this will change, but for now, driving an old beater is the most ecological thing any of us can do.

ogre said...

Ah, James... let me wrestle that a little.

FIVE YEARS? Dear god in heaven, the first car I owned was a '68, and it was '79 when I got it. I drove it for another three years. I don't consider a car broken in until it's at least five years old--I've just finally gotten past treating my van as if it were new; it's six years old now and having to replace the damned transmission (at 65,000 miles! shocking, in a Honda, but apparently that's not that unheard of... for the Odysseys of that era) was the death blow to that fantasy.

Five years? Hell, we'll be driving that van for at least another five, and more likely 15--gas prices permitting. Given what I think will happen there, we'll have it longer because it won't be worth much and will become a useful beater until it drops, but only for short, high load trips.

Yes, there's an embedded energy cost in any purchased item. Food and everything for everyone who contributed to it.


This vehicle is being manufactured locally. In Vista, from what I read.

The vehicle's got some recycled materials in it, uses natural dyes for things that are dyed, and is white (only), and there's talk of recycling plans.

I don't think it's the answer, ultimately. It's the bridge to such answers (and we'll live with that bridge for most of the remainder of our lives, you and I).

Someone's got to invest in the leading edges of such tech--or it won't happen and won't be improved and won't have those economies of scale that bring the price down (there's something in there that argues that the environmental cost of an early unit is exaggerated, but I don't feel like digging for it right now). 250 mpg is just inescapably better environmentally... in the long run.

It may be that it makes more sense for us to sell the van to someone who'll use it for hauling 7 people around all the time--making that 18 mpg a hell of a lot more responsible than one person using it to get around. But in that case, the environmental and financial sunk costs get passed along and shared, too.

In short, I think you're doing the numbers in the narrowest context. If we compare the car one already has, and ignores the costs and downsides of that to the environment then it's impossible for almost anything to compete.

Now... to the math.

You've cited a five year battery life (I think that's already in error, that Priuses are getting better. And there's a connection between Aptera and a battery company... Google is funding both as leading, apparently sucessful technologies (2.75 million to each, you could google to find out about them). But you've also cited the whole cost of the car ($28000) when costing battery replacement.

Ok. Let's go look at the Prius.

There are almost no reported battery failures in the 2000-2003 vehicles. None in 2004 on. They're warrantied for 8 yr and 100k miles (150k in some states). The cost for a new one that I found cited in one place is $2500 (salvaged from wrecks, they go for $400-$1000).

They're NiMH--not environmentally toxic like lead-acid or NiCads, and fully recylcable.

So we're talking about $250-$300 per year (today's cost, a fairly conservative estimate) in battery replacement cost. That's less, incidentally, than the damned transmission I just replaced on the Honda after 6 years and 65k miles.

I figure that we'll get it in 2009, and we'll drive it for 10+ years. At 10 years, I'll expect to see about 150,000 miles on it (assuming I put MORE miles on a year than I have been). That's 18.6 cents a mile--plus operating costs. With your numbers.. 20-21 cents/mile.

Only... I don't see what will make this become a junker in 5 years (or ten). The body's non metallic and won't corrode. The technologies for electric motors and braking recovery of energy are now over 8 years old (in the hands of Toyota and Honda--they're pretty well hammered out and reliable). Aptera's holding distribution close (CA only) for a year or two so that they can stay right on top of any defects and problems and correct them. They can't succeed in moving a radically new vehicle into the market if they build with the quality standards of the big Detroit makers.

In the end, I think you're making a more purely economic argument than an environmental one. The Camry you're running is already 7 years old to give you that $10k cost. What's the cost of a 7 year old Prius? They're not losing value as quickly....

So... what's your guess on the price of gas in late '09? '10? '11? '12? Please remember to take into account the strength or not of the dollar and the rise of the euro as the normative monetary unit for denominating oil contracts.

Given what I've observed in the last 8 years and what I know about oil and the international demand... I'll be shocked if it's not back around $5/gal next summer. And heading up.

We both know the era of cheap, plentiful oil is dying. Oil shale demands lots of water. That's not available in the West. We can drink it, we can farm with it and we can process rock for oil with it--but probably not all three. No, certainly not all three.

The rest of the world--paying waaaay above $6.44/gal for gas--will be delighted if algal oil pans out. But I wouldn't bet on it until it does. We already know that corn ethanol won't fill the gap (eat or drive, pick one).

Longer term, we can generate electricity from a range of sources, including wind and solar electricity (nuke, if that's the way you lean... and have a magic bullet for the waste...). An EV or plug-in hybrid will run on that.

The bet on PV on the roof I made in 2001 was a good one--electricity hasn't gone down, but rather up. We'll pay off well inside the original and acceptable time frame. Oh, look. I just improve our electric use around the house and I can get 100 mi/day without adding to my operating costs.

It's complex, I grant.

But I don't buy that the long term use of beaters will turn out to be environmentally sound. But I figure I'm on the bridge there...

James Newton said...

The problem is that we are both trying to see into the future, and there is no way to do that with any real accuracy or confidence. You may well be right.

Just a few points I want to re-emphasize:

1. Batteries are NOT as good as people think. The reason that the batteries are lasting in the Prius is that they are not deep cycle. In other words, they are never discharged for more than a few minutes. Once a battery actually dumps a load of energy, as it will at the end of a long run in an electric car, the batteries start to break down chemically. Check into it; average life time on a battery pack in an electric car is 2 to 5 years. And even then, they are at a reduced capacity.

2. New technology, on the bleading edge, causes you to blead. The Prius is a rare exception. I truly hope this thing you are bying also beats the odds.

Are you willing to stipulate that an older car can be an ecological choice at least nearly as good as the new "green" things?

Best wishes.

ogre said...

Sure, James. Of course.

I just look at the last eight years... and gas more than doubled. The economic horizon looks far more troubled, to me. The dollar is weakened, the national debt is staggering--$9 trillion when this administration leaves, trailing its fantasies behind it, leaving us a war we still have to disentangle from.

Wars have usually been followed by a period of inflation--this war's gone on long enough that it's erupting now. Particularly in fuel and food (not a problem unless you use energy or eat...).

I note that corn ethanol was very profitable when they started building plants, but now... there are closed plants and plants that with one spike in corn prices from where they are... and they'll go out of business. You may be right that there are fuel sources (I hope they're renewables, not strip mining for shale oil) that can come in at $6.50/gal. But my guess is that the price will go well past that first because creating the infrastructure to create that fuel will take plenty of time--and while it's being created... the market scarcity of fuel will keep prices much higher. Gas at $8 or $9 a gallon--real prices already in parts of the world--would be... a rude shock to us.

And that assumes relative stability in the Middle East. If one of the oil hubs in Saudi gets hit by a fanatic or rebel, or a naval encounter or war causes the Gulf of Hormuz to get closed...

< shudder >

But heck yes, buying a used vehicle that's pretty efficient, keeping it in good order and running it to death is in many ways a very green option. But I'll bet that you get significantly better gas mileage in it than the van does. At this point, I'd have to calculate against 16.5-17 mpg, plus assume that I get to buy a transmission again in 5-6 years. That makes up for the batter pack even by your numbers.

Aptera hasn't spilled the technical details on the battery (or much, so far... teases...). But reading between the lines, Google invested in Aptera and ActaCell at the same time, same amount, same press release. ActaCell is in Austin and working on "next generation high energy Li-Ion batteries."

Battery tech -- well, energy storage, in any form -- is going to be a hot field for decades, I suspect. It's become critical.

I'll admit I'm hoping that Aptera's going to roll out something new and hopeful there. But NiMH for now would be ok. Maybe Li-Ion is the replacement pack.