Thursday, July 03, 2014

Hybrid and electric cars will save us?

In these days of continually increasing energy costs, economy has become a driver of technology. Technology for its own sake is worthless; it must improve the human condition. There is nothing like the continued march of peak oil to slap a society that worships the god of technology into awareness.
Having totaled a nice, fuel efficient 2003 Toyota Corolla in 2013, I took my insurance payout and bought what I could: a 1999 Chrysler 300M. It's a nice car, but going from 28 mpg to 20 mpg was a bit of a shock. Through more efficient driving, most especially driving with the secondary objective of avoiding brake usage (primary objective is always safety), I manage to get 20.5 mpg according to the readout on the car, although I think I may be getting 21 or even 22 mpg. Anyway, driving a six cylinder engine has completely opened my eyes to the fact that American roads and highways are designed for cars with 200+ HP. The 300M (250 HP) doesn't break a sweat where the Corolla (130 HP) would have gone to 3500-4000 RPMs just to maintain speed up certain inclines.
As an old car, now 15 years old, it could go out anytime. I take good care of it (as I have done all of my cars) but you never know. So in my curiosity I decided to review my options for a new car that wouldn't take a large toll on my budget, should I need to buy another one due to a catastrophic mechanical breakdown on my 300M. Initial price is important, but fuel costs are important, too. I settled on three contenders: the Chevy Spark, the Toyota Prius c, and the Nissan Leaf.
The Chevy Spark is a small, fully-gasoline powered car that gets 32 mpg combined. The Toyota Prius c is a budget, non-plug-in hybrid that gets 50 mpg combined. The Nissan Leaf is an all-electric car that gets 99 MPGe combined. I'm not getting a lot of horsepower with any of these vehicles but I can't afford to pay for a new car with 200+ HP, so I better enjoy my 300M while I can!
I created a spreadsheet that calculated the monthly cost of owning each car at various gas prices and various annual mileages. For the Nissan Leaf, each MPGe is equivalent to .0292mi/kWh, so at 99 MPGe, the Nissan Leaf gets 2.8908 miles for each kWh used. Fuel cost is calculated using this figure and the national US average electricity cost of $0.12 per kWh. The car payment is estimated using the MSRP from for the model and dividing by 60, making the assumption that I qualify for zero percent financing.
US drivers average 15,000 miles per year on their cars:

$5 $436.06 $477.38 $555.89 Spark
$6 $475.13 $502.38 $555.89 Spark
$7 $514.19 $527.38 $555.89 Spark
$8 $553.25 $552.38 $555.89 Prius c
$9 $592.31 $577.38 $555.89 Leaf
$10 $631.38 $602.38 $555.89 Leaf

Well there you have it. Until about $8/gallon, an old fashioned fully-gasoline powered vehicle is more economical than even a hybrid. The hybrid reigns briefly around the $8/gallon mark, with crown going to all electric right away at $9/gallon. Now let's stop and think about this for a minute. Aside from the glaring economic practically of a cheap, gasoline-only car, it almost makes no sense to buy a hybrid. By the time gas prices get to the point that a hybrid is a better economic choice, the all-electric car is only $3.51/mo more expensive.
Some may complain that the price of hybrids and electrics will go down in the future. This doesn't change the cost of ownership for several reasons. One, increasing gas prices will result in inflation that makes the car more expensive to start with. The same increasing gas prices will increase the cost of electricity needed to run an electric car. Last, my fuel cost for the Nissan Leaf doesn't take into account charging losses of up to 15% (electricity lost between the wall and the battery), so I've given it a bit of an advantage in my comparison.
But what is absolutely insane is when you take a look at the bigger picture. Where do you think our economy will be with gasoline at $8/gallon? Commuting costs will be the least of your worries, if you even have a job at that point. The golden rule of increasing oil prices is 2008... a tipping point is reached, the economy hits the skids, the economy recalibrates to higher energy costs producing higher inflation and higher base unemployment, gas prices drop temporarily, then meet and exeed their previous high until another, higher tipping point is reached. By my guess we are two more "recessions" away from $8/gallon gas, and our economy will be in shambles by then, unless our government takes us to war.