B Class Electric: Initial Reactions

Since all the electric car options I am considering are at least 18 months out, but my lease was up at the end of August, I needed to pick a replacement car that made sense, but also that didn’t commit me to another 3 year lease. As luck would have it, an off lease 2014 electric Mercedes B Class that was in great shape was listed on my dealer’s website. So, that’s what we did; swapping my fun roadster for an electric 5 seat family car. This is my initial reaction to both the B Class and owning an electric car.

Continue reading

Electric Car Dilemmas

My current car’s lease comes to an end later this year (August time frame) and while I totally love it, for a number of reasons I am looking to make a big change this time around. For a start, I have pretty much been told that I cannot get away with a two seater again. Secondly, the replacement for my current car has been made somewhat anemic by downgrading it to a smaller, less powerful engine. Thirdly, I am just not driving it much (I have done just over 4000 miles in the last 28 months, thanks to commuting via ferry or bus and my trusty scooter).

And so I started looking at electric options with an eye to perhaps letting my wife drive it on a daily basis around our little island city, keeping the miles off the car she insisted on buying rather than leasing and saving some fuel costs into the bargain. But what are the options…

Currently Available

Obviously, there are the two Tesla models, but both are well outside what I am willing to pay right now for something I don’t drive more than a few miles per week. So, that leaves a pretty short list; in no particular order:

  • Mercedes B-Class
  • BMW i3
  • Nissan Leaf
  • VW eGolf
  • Chevrolet Bolt
  • Ford Focus
  • Fiat 500e
  • Smart ForTwo

There are a few others too, but basically that list is the ones I see on the road regularly. Sadly, none of them jump off the screen as being something I really want to drive/own. They all seem somewhat plain and boring.

Coming Soon

Given the sad state of that list, I started looking into what might be coming soon from folks other than Tesla (the new Model 3 looks pretty good on the outside, but the site is very light on actual specs for the car). Interestingly, it seems as though 2018 through 2020 is going to herald a lot more options for electric cars. I found strong contenders from Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar, albeit essentially all SUVs. Even now, I cannot find any manufacturer planning an electric convertible, which is disappointing for me since I love open top motoring (I even had convertibles when I was living in the UK, so now I’m in California it just makes even more sense to me to drive with the top down).

Mercedes EQC

My current favourite, although not slated to arrive until 2019 at the earliest, is what is currently being called the Mercedes EQC. Much like the Tesla, there is very little information on what this will actually look like, but if the interior is anything like the current show concept vehicle, I want one. This thing resembles a science fiction space ship:

Generation EQ, Interior

The videos released for the concept just add to that image of it being a space craft. I seriously hope that as much of this interior as possible makes it into the production car.

Audi eTron

Not one, but two different cars bearing this tag are coming in the next 12-24 months. The first looks as though it will be a mid-size SUV (between the Q5 and Q7 in size). No idea of final pricing, but if you live in Norway you can pre-order one right now. The exterior looks pretty similar to the new Q5 and Q7, perhaps taking the more angular design of the latest cars a little further. The interior of the concept they’ve been showing also looks more like an evolution of current technology:

The “virtual cockpit” dashboard in there has already made an appearance in the current generation Q7 and Q5 cars (and, based on experiences with our new Q5 so far, it is a gorgeous experience). Clearly, this one has more screens, and less buttons though. All good in my books, but it doesn’t scream space ship at me like the EQC does.

The second car, coming during 2019, is a “sportback”/coupe version of the SUV. Perhaps a better fit for me than a pure SUV, but realistically it still doesn’t excite me as much as a convertible would.

Jaguar I-Pace

This one caught my attention last year, and was a bit of a surprise. I was not expecting the Jaguar brand to be where the first electric vehicle appeared from the Jaguar Land Rover family. Compared to the Merc and the Audi, the I-Pace seems like a strong contender however. Good range, amazing 0-60 time and fairly practical as well. Much like the Audi, this isn’t in the space craft realm for interiors, but it does look like a big evolutionary step from their current cars.

When I was choosing my current car, I test drove the convertible F-type from Jaguar. While the driving experience was fantastic, and nobody can deny that the F-type looks gorgeous, I was disappointed with the details that were missing in a car at its price point. Even more so when compared to the Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster. It concerns me that the same may well be the case with the I-Pace.

The Dilemma

The dilemma I now face is that with my lease ending in August this year, and all these new, more exciting electrics arriving late next year or beyond, what do I do to fill the gap?

Right now, I am leaning towards buying a used electric from the boring list earlier. Perhaps the Mercedes B250e. Not ideal but it would be a good fill in for that year or so, and also could be used around our home city to keep the miles down on the Q5.

Micro Suspension Scooter

Our five year old started Kindergarten this autumn, and since his school is close enough to walk to, I had been planning to walk him every day (at least when it was dry, which is pretty much always in northern California these days). Dropping him off is not just a drop off though; instead they do a “morning read” session where parents are encouraged to stay and read to a group of kids. That was making it hard to get to the ferry on time, so I came up with a solution: the Micro Suspension scooter.

Research

After a lot of online research, I concluded that the Micro Suspension scooter was going to work best for my commute. Additionally, my five year old could scoot it on the way to school with me walking, making his route to school a bit easier too. I was hoping to get it from Amazon, but at the time I purchased it they were not selling the suspension model (they are now). I bought it direct from Micro Kickboard, but oddly I cannot find it on their site any longer.

The Good

We’ve had it for several weeks now, and overall it has been working out really well. The kid loves riding it to school, with the handlebars lowered. When we arrive, I can fold it and carry it into his classroom for the morning read session; then, when it is time for parents to leave, I simply unfold it, raise the handlebars and scoot to the ferry terminal. That ride takes a little over half the time it took me to walk, so I arrive in plenty of time for the boat.

Once in San Francisco, it also reduces my time to get to the office by about as much. The final climb up Bryant St I walk, but the rest of my route I can scoot easily. It is also saving me a fortune since I can’t ride it and drink a Starbucks, so I am bypassing the Starbucks completely and just drinking the office coffee instead (sorry Howard; if it is any consolation, the coffee I drink at the office is normally Starbucks Verona).

The combination of the large wheels & the suspension makes light work of even the bumpy San Francisco sidewalks. While not as smooth as some of the early reviews I read, the suspension helps a lot over the worst of the bumps and does not impact the handling at all as far as I can tell. 

The Bad

There is nothing really bad about the scooter. The only things I would say that could be even slightly negative are: (a) the weight of the scooter, for when you need to carry it, (b) the brake.

The weight was not more than I expected up front, and the suspension model does incur extra weight that could be skipped easily by simply getting something like a Micro Black or White instead, but carrying it too far would be tiring. On & off the ferry, or into my kid’s classroom is not a problem.

The brakes issue might be caused by the long, steep downhill from my office to Embarcadero in SF. Riding down the hill I tend to have the brake partly on to regulate my speed, and that seems to be causing some uneven wear on the rear wheel:


I don’t think it is causing any problems right now, but I was not expecting the brake pad to cause such uneven wear for sure. 

Alameda Municipal Power Mix

We had a visit from an AMP employee/representative the other day trying to get us to sign up for their Alameda Green, 100% renewable source electricity program. That is something I have been meaning to look into for a while, and I might have signed up on the spot had it not been for one thing that seemed fishy: suddenly they are saying that the power mix for the ‘regular’ electricity is only 22% renewable, when I remember the power labels mailed in the bills showing that as being much higher.

A little digging and I found one of those power mix labels for 2012 in the AMP Flash PDF on their own website. Here’s the label if you don’t want to open the PDF:

Alameda Municipal Power Mix Label 2012

So, that clearly states it is “actual” and shows eligible renewable as 60%, and another 15% coming from large hydroelectric. Then there is the 25% from unspecified sources (most of which I suspect are non-renewable!).

Suddenly, in 2013, the eligible renewable drops from 60% to 22% (from this label) and unspecified sources jumps to 63%. That meant that the guy who knocked on our door was able to say that the regular program is just 22% renewable, but the green label program is 100%. Looking carefully at the 2013 label, at the very bottom there is this statement:

While AMP’s power mix exceeds California’s requirements for clean power, it has dropped due to the short-term sale of a portion of the utility’s excess renewable energy. AMP continues to own the same generation resources and, after 2016, the utility will return to providing a high level of renewable energy to customers. Even better, overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be lower after 2016 due to the projects paid for by the short-term sale of some of AMP’s excess renewable energy.

So, they sold off the “excess” renewable energy, and bought “unspecified” power back, thereby lowering the eligible renewable mix of the main product. The cynic in me might wonder whether that decision was to make the green label product look more attractive (after all, going from 75% to 100% carbon neutral is a lot less impressive than going from 37% to 100%). And after a couple of years of signing people up, the regular power mix returns to its very green levels (75% carbon neutral is much higher than the overall state average of just 23% in 2012).

This kind of “marketing” is what made me pause at the weekend. And now is giving me real pause for thought on the whole thing.

Eco Bulbs

Over the weekend, the bulb that has lit our shower for the past 6+ years burned out. That started me on a mission to replace not just that one, but all the other incandescent bulbs in our bathrooms. The kid’s bathroom has a row of 40W globes, eight in total, over the sinks, and we spend at least half an hour every night in there with him getting him bathed and ready for bed.

The first catch though is that many of the standard looking LED replacement bulbs I found were not rated for damp areas. The second was that they often included a warning that they should not be used in fully enclosed fixtures. The shower one, as well as our closet ones, are all fully enclosed.

The Cree bulbs I ended up with are damp rated, and the only restriction on fully enclosed fixtures was that they not be mixed with other bulb types.

I ended up getting a mix of 40W and 60W equivalent bulbs, rated at 6W and 9.5W respectively, to replace most of the remaining incandescent bulbs in the house, including the eight globe lights. In terms of the light they give off, they seem every bit as bright as the bulbs they were replacing, and being LED they are bright immediately – none of the 30+ seconds of warm up time you get with CFLs.

The only noticeable difference, and it is the row of eight in the bathroom where this is most apparent, is that there is a dark patch at the top of the bulb. Doesn’t affect the amount of light in the room at all.

In the walk in closet and one bathroom, the builder had fitted double bulb units (with a pair of 60W bulbs in them). I was able to also leave one bulb out using the 60W equivalent, saving even more. Of course, I could have done that with the incandescent as well to halve the power consumption. Even with just the single bulb, there is more than enough light in the small rooms these are fitted in.

Although none of the ones I have installed were attached to dimmers, the bulbs do claim to be dimmable.

Daddy Eco-Tips #1

One of the things I try to do is to be as light on the planet as possible, although it doesn’t always work out as well as I’d hoped (don’t ask me about nappies/diapers). A few things have worked out pretty well, so I thought I’d share those occasionally on here. First up, Green Toys…

Our little boy took a liking to cars, buses and trucks very early on. Initially the small Hot Wheels size cars were all he was interested in, but more recently he has been playing with some of his larger toy vehicles. School buses were a early favorite as were garbage trucks, the latter being a weekly attraction at home that he had to go and see when they came to empty the bins.

So, those two vehicles were natural choices for his first two bigger toy vehicles. The Green Toys school bus was the first we bought and we were impressed by how durable it was. Our 2 year old is not gentle on toys (currently crashing them is a favorite way to play cars), but the bus stands up to the abuse very well. 

Continue reading

Tesla’s “True” Cost of Ownership

Last week Tesla Motors announced a new pseudo-lease program claiming a true cost of ownership of just $500/month. That would be considerably less than I am paying right now for a car that would be comparable to their mid range, but that low figure comes from the entry level model of course.

Unfortunately, their way of getting to that number is stretching the truth quite a bit, and the program they announced is not really a lease at all; just a relatively high interest rate car loan with a buy back guarantee. We'll get to that later though. First, I'd like go go through the calculator web site they presented to get to that figure of $500/month; I am going to use the mid range model though as I suspect that is a more realistic option (the low end model has serious range limitation as the price difference comes from cutting the battery capacity).

Here is what they estimated as my monthly cost on that vehicle, after I removed the dubious business tax allowance, but leaving the high monthly mileage and average gas price in place:

Quite a lot more than the $500/month, and quite a lot more than I am paying now.

Continue reading

Tax Season

US Tax Form 1040It’s that time of year again, when almost 140 million people in the US have to waste many hours of their personal time collecting information from forms sent to them by employers, banks etc, then enter it all into another set of forms to be sent to the federal and state tax services. Oh, and all that information has already been sent to those very same authorities. Just so they can check your answers? Is this some kind of annual test?

Wasted Time
The IRS estimates that on average across all people filing any type of federal return, individuals will spend 17.3 hours “preparing” these forms. The IRS reported (pdf) that in 2007 there were almost 139 million individual tax returns filed. So, a quick calculation suggests that every year in the US, 274,509 person-years are wasted on collating and transcribing information that the recipient (the IRS) already had. And that doesn’t include the burden from the state tax filings.

Wasted Money
In addition to the ridiculous amount of time wasted on this activity, the IRS also estimates that it will cost individuals on average $225 to prepare these returns; that’s $31 billion every year (and, again, doesn’t take into account state tax filing costs). That could be spent on things that were a lot more beneficial than collating and transcribing information from one set of forms to another.

Wasted Resources
It doesn’t end with wasted time and money either. Every year, employers, banks and other companies mail out those tax details to all their employees/customers. Some now offer electronic delivery at least, but I wonder how many of those end up being printed at home, either for reference while preparing taxes, for providing to an accountant or just for records?

Estimates online range from 9,000 to 15,000 sheets of paper per tree (obviously, the type & size of the tree plays a big part in this!). Let’s assume the 15,000 sheets per tree number for the sake of this post. That means, assuming each person filing a return received at least 5 of these forms (probably lower than reality based on my experience), 46,000 trees were destroyed to print these forms (and that doesn’t include the envelopes used to mail them – probably close to as much again).

Then there are the tax forms themselves. The IRS reported (in that same data book PDF) that about 79 million of the 139 million returns were filed electronically (a great achievement, by the way). That still leaves 60 million that were mailed in, on paper, though. My federal return from last year was 13 pages. For the sake of round numbers though, let’s say that the average person mailing in a return is 10 pages. That means another 70,000 trees were cut down to send the information to the IRS a second time.

Every year, that means over 100,000 trees are being destroyed every year just to pass this information around multiple times. And that doesn’t include the rest of the carbon footprint of this process (converting trees to paper, the resources used in printing, and the delivery of the forms).

A Better Idea
I don’t expect the US to do the smartest thing and switch to a taxed at source model, where companies who pay people are responsible for deducting the correct amount of tax before sending out the money, any time soon. I just don’t believe it is in the American psyche. Especially not when I hear so many people who are ecstatic to receive a refund from the IRS! They don’t seem to realise that all those refunds mean is that they gave the IRS an interest free loan for the year.

There is another solution though that would make much more sense than the current scheme: just bill me!

Yes, that’s right, the IRS (and the state tax authorities too) have all the information that they need to be able to calculate how much tax I owe, or how much they owe me. They have the resources to process that data, and it is all keyed off of a single identifier. So, why can’t they just send me a statement, and either a bill for what I owe or my refund? That would reduce the time most people spend on taxes to just minutes (the time required to scan the statement, and pay the bill).

The paper waste is also reduced dramatically. Let’s assume an average of 2 pages, printed double sided, per person billed, and 139 million bills mailed out. That’s under 10,000 trees now. Add electronic statements as an option, and no-fee bill pay options, and you also reduce the paper wasted by the process even further – assuming the same proportion of people who e-file their taxes, it would drop to below 5,000 trees per year – a reduction of over 95%.

Tax Reform
How about it President Obama? Democrats? If you want to make a meaningful difference to the tax system in the US, how about reforming the collection mechanism rather than individual taxes? It makes sense from a fiscal perspective; it makes sense from an enforcement perspective (less avoidance); and it makes sense from an environmental perspective. What’s not to like here?

HOAs and the Environment

Those who follow my Twitter feed might have seen that we received a snarky letter from our HOA here at Bayport in Alameda this week complaining about our front lawn. The complaint itself was not specific (it said something along the lines of the lawn needing “weeding, edging, mowing and/or fertilizing”).

Now, my opinion of HOAs in general is pretty low (and of the particular management company used here, Vierra Moore, even lower), since most of what I have seen from them has been silly time wasting nonsense. At our expense since our monthly dues pay for these time wasters. To highlight just how much nonsense Vierra Moore believes in, one of last year’s “straw polls” for potential new rules they could impose on residents included whether home owners should be allowed to fly flags, and if so what sizes and types of flag. Pathetic people. Learn how to live and let live. Let’s take away all the rules that are not ensuring safety and deal with it.

But, complaints about lawn condition have a much larger implication. By requiring that lawns be kept ‘green’ they are essentially requiring a massive, and unacceptable, waste of water. And the houses here in Bayport do not include grey water systems (a shame in newly built homes). Currently water is a precious resource here in northern California, with a serious drought entering its third year now. Why are we wasting it watering grass?

Unusually for me, I honestly think there needs to be a change in the law to prevent HOAs from requiring their members to run irrigation at all. If grass can’t survive naturally in the climate, then it is simply the wrong thing to plant. That said, even when it is burnt badly in hot summers, it usually comes back unaided when the rain returns in the winter months (as the many un-irrigated hillsides in the bay area demonstrate every year). Of course, it doesn’t look green all summer, but really people, is having a green lawn more important than having water to drink? Perhaps this year we can make brown the new green.

I do think it is time that cities and/or states stepped in here to prevent these pathetic, bullying organisations from being able to require their “members” to waste precious resources. So, I am going to be sending this post to a number of places, including local and state politicians, to see if anything can be done to knock some common sense into these HOA management company bullies.