by Robert F. Stonerock, Jr., M.D., President of FREA

Bob and his Chevy Volt Hybrid Electric Car

Bob Stonerock poses with his Chevrolet Volt at his Orlando home on December 21, 2011. The electric car is poweredby a solar-charging station on his property. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)

I have to tell you, I have never stopped being in awe of the many great things about driving an electric car. For sure, there is “another side to the coin,” but for me the favorable aspects of an electric car greatly outweigh those of a conventional internal combustion vehicle. I’ll elaborate on this shortly.

Paradoxically, even though I do not prefer internal combustion technology, I chose to drive a Chevrolet Volt. However, I do have a well-considered rationale. I am illogically vulnerable to range anxiety, and my pattern of driving includes the possibility of some spontaneity. An on-board generator eliminates the worry about running out of juice in the middle of an off-the-cuff excursion. Also, for years I have liked the concept of an electric car with an on-board back-up generator, so the Volt simply fulfilled my dream. I have to concede to the fact that the Volt’s generator uses gasoline-fired internal combustion, but I consider this an interim step until fuel cells become standard or until biodiesel or renewable hydrogen generators become available. In choosing a Volt, I felt I was enabling the industry to proceed in developing these final solutions for an unlimited range plus a zero carbon footprint. For sure, it’s important to develop less expensive, higher-capacity batteries. When that day comes, there will be a wonderful choice between a pure electric vehicle versus one with a back-up generator that runs on renewable energy. I’ll be loving it when that day comes, and I think we are rapidly heading in that direction.

Also, it is important to tell you that ironically because of my driving pattern, I almost never use the generator. In fact, at home I generate enough solar electricity that I use some of the excess power to energize the Volt’s battery bank. Therefore, 99+% of the time I am driving a sun-powered vehicle. In my opinion, we all should be driving using solar power, even if electric cars weren’t all that great. Happily, however, they are that great—in spades. I’ll tell you about that now.

The interior of the 2012 Chevy Volt

The interior of the 2012 Chevy Volt

When I go to work in the morning, I just push the power button, a couple of things click,and I’m off. There’s no noisy starter, no warm-up, no rich fuel mix for cold starts, no balky cold engine, and no fumes (!). I’m on the road, and things are whisper-quiet, and the acceleration is commanding and consistent. I can hear subtle nuances in the music on the radio. The ride is as smooth as silk. There are no vibrations due to reciprocating pistons. I am totally free from the needless waste of fuel when idling in gridlock or even at a long red traffic light. There’s no engine that keeps running when the car’s stopped. I fly past all the gas stations on the way to work. I don’t miss having to fill up. I don’t miss sniffing in stray gasoline fumes while filling up either! I feel that because I drive an electric car, my body gets a lot less exposure to toxic chemicals. That’s got to be good. And stopping using the regenerative brake is the most delicious part. I don’t use the brake pads all that much. The car is likely to go 200,000+ miles before needing a brake job.

I suppose that the initial cost of a Volt seems higher than that of conventionally powered vehicle of about the same size and specifications. That depends on your point of view, however. The Volt is in almost all respects a luxury car, and it astounds me how GM has paid so much attention to detail. GM has gotten it right, even in small ways that the designers could have just ignored—but didn’t. So just in terms of cost between vehicles that seem equivalent, it’s more like comparing apples and oranges, because they aren’t equivalent at all. However, one thing I can tell you for sure is that maintenance costs are minimal for the Volt as compared with those of conventional cars of any price. I have a hard time figuring out when to get interval maintenance, because there’s hardly anything to do. This is particularly true because I almost never use the generator. I changed the generator’s oil recently because it had been in the crankcase for 2 years, and the Volt adviser said that probably 2 years was long enough, even though 95% of the oil life was remaining. Otherwise, I do rotate the tires at the recommended interval, but that’s about it.

Cutaway concept on the Chevy Volt

Cutaway concept of the Chevy Volt

From the standpoint of efficiency, you can tell the Volt is better. There’s very little waste heat, for one thing. That’s got to be good for all of its parts, including the batteries, and it’s certainly good for Mother Earth. Even running the generator is more efficient than using a conventional power plant, because the engine displacement is smaller, and the speed is largely constant. In terms of mileage, there is an EPA-generated fuel consumption calculation that implies that the Volt gets about 100 miles per gallon-equivalent of gasoline. This is true in terms of the energy content of gasoline.

In calculating fuel costs, however, you can look at it differently. It is a happy coincidence that the range of the Volt when run off of the battery bank is more or less 40 miles. And if you deplete the battery bank, the car gets about 40 miles per gallon of gasoline using the generator. So for any 40-mile interval the available battery power per charge gets you about the same distance as a gallon of gas. Currently, the price of gasoline is about $3.25

The Chevy Volt Charging Port

The Chevy Volt Charging Port

per gallon, and the electricity cost to fill the battery bank at $0.115/KWh is ninety-eight cents. The way I see it, every time I drive 40 miles on solar electricity, I save about 2 and a quarter bucks. And I hardly have to change the oil. The Volt, therefore, is a serious money saver when compared with conventionally-powered cars. But you also have to know that the electricity you use to go 40 miles on a full charge is 8 KWh. A gallon of gasoline has the energy content that is equivalent to 33.4 KWh. So the electric drive has about 4 times the efficiency of a gasoline engine that improbably gets 40 m.p.g. So taking that into account in economic terms, a gallon equivalent of electricity is four charges at 98 cents apiece, and that avoids the use of 4 gallons of gasoline at $3.25 a gallon. So for every gallon equivalent of electricity I use, I save about $9.00. Not bad, indeed.

The beautiful 2014 Chevy Volt

The beautiful 2014 Chevy Volt

What is the other side of the coin? I guess if you are the type that would think of an electric car as an up-scale golf cart (and so I guess an internal combustion car is an up-scale go cart, right?), and if you miss the loud rumble of exhaust and the throbbing or buzzing vibrations of a reciprocating engine, and if you like the smell of incompletely-burned hydrocarbons, then you may not be ready for an electric car. On the other hand, I prefer to blow the doors off of Mustang GT’s using the Volt’s jack rabbit low-end acceleration that I unleash whenever I feel like it, and I can do it so quietly that you hardly realize what is happening. So much for old tech.

Personally, I never want to go back to driving a non-electric vehicle. I hope the day will come when the vast majority of everyone else feels the same way. In my opinion, electric cars right now are certainly worthy of making that transition happen.