Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's Just a Car...Isn't It?

But as the first mass-produced-for-sale all-electric car, the Nissan Leaf is a pretty significant car.

It’s important to remember that electric vehicles existed before hydrocarbon-powered vehicles – by decades. Many variants rose and fell, perhaps the most infamous being GM’s EV-1, as highlighted in the film Who Killed the Electric Car?
EVs have been slow to catch on, perhaps because of the many misperceptions and biases that work against them and cars even remotely like them. Even though the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid has been for sale in the US since 2001 (and this year passed one million vehicles sold here), I’m still asked if I have to plug in our 2010 Generation 3 Prius. That option, unfortunately, won’t be available until next year when the plug-in Prius becomes available.
As fuel prices rise and household finances are stretched, the driving community is showing signs of waking up to a new reality that redefines personal transportation.
The Nissan Leaf is positioned as the first EV intended to address this reality. A mid-size car with an MSRP of a little over $32,000 (typically reduced by incentives – your incentive may vary) and fully equipped, the Leaf is not what many envision an EV to be. It’s not a golf cart. It’s not a rolling roadblock limited to the right lane or surface streets. It’s not a flimsy novelty. It’s a real car meant to perform under real world conditions for a vast majority of drivers.
Of course, “real world conditions” require some definition. According to a report of travel trends from the US Department of Transportation, the typical US commuter in 2009 drove solo in a private vehicle for about 12 miles at a speed of under 30mph. Across all trip modes (commuting, family/school, recreational) each US driver averages a little less than 13,000 miles of driving a year, for a daily average of 35 miles. Long-distance recreational travel is a relatively small portion of household driving.
With a single-charge range of between 60 and 130 miles, five-seat capacity and a top speed of 90 mph, the Leaf is perfectly positioned to perform well as a commuter or in-town car, the two modes in which most travel is done. It’s obvious that this car is not suited for households that cannot afford multiple vehicles for various missions, but as almost 70% of households now own multiple vehicles, it is realistic to assume some mission-specificity is possible. The Leaf will never match the shear utility of a minivan but it will do at least most of what a minivan will do on any given trip and do so with no tailpipe emissions.
Note that I wrote tailpipe emissions. As a pure EV, there is no combustion, so there’s no tailpipe at all. The only things this car leaves behind are water condensed from the air conditioner and tire and brake dust, which all cars emit as those parts wear. There is no exhaust, no oil or antifreeze to leak.
But the energy to make it go has to come from somewhere and here in the US, that typically means coal-fired power plants. So even though you’re not producing any pollution locally, it’s being produced somewhere. Unless you’re fortunate enough to get your power from renewables or purchase carbon offsets, you’re still polluting the air by driving your car.
This is countered somewhat in the Leaf by its EPA rating of 99 MPGe (converting kilowatt-hours to the energy equivalent of gasoline), making it a very efficient vehicle indeed, nearly twice that of the 2010-11 Prius.
Based on the above objective measures, the Leaf is a well-considered if somewhat mission-constrained choice. For most households, it’s a perfect work and around-town car, but if one must make one vehicle work for all jobs, it’s most likely not a good choice.

A couple days back, I attended Nissan’s Drive Electric Tour stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a pre-registered test driver. After being checked in, I waited until our group of about ten was escorted through a couple displays explaining the Leaf’s battery and charging system and a walkaround of the car itself.  The exterior styling of the Leaf is unique – a cross between the Versa and Juke – and is intended to evoke aerodynamics and ecological sensibility. Nissan, I’m sure, is hoping the Leaf’s shape to become iconic as has the Prius’s.

Interestingly enough, the Leaf’s 0.29 Cd is only average for contemporary cars and higher than the Chevy Volt’s (0.28) and Prius’s 0.25, still the lowest of any production car. Exterior fit and finish was quite high, though one could quibble about minor details like how the side mirrors attach to the door. A nice touch is the design of the multi-mode antenna, which carries the elliptical curve theme of the rest of the car and is evocative of a plant bud.

We were then divided up, assigned a co-driver and vehicle and took a short drive on the surface streets of Speedway. I was really disappointed that we weren’t taken on the track itself, which would have made for a MUCH more interesting test drive!
As a Prius owner I felt right at home in the Leaf. The controls are very conventional, though the displays are quite different from a gas car, showing energy remaining and power being used and regenerated rather than fuel quantity and engine speed. It’s roughly equal to the Prius’s hybrid system indicator. The touch screen multi-function display can show the status of most of the car’s systems as well as control the audio and navigation system.

The interior of the car is also conventional, using a variety of hard and soft plastics and fabric upholstery. The fabric is made with recycled PET plastic, is soft and grippy – enough to make me wonder about its durability. The seats felt a little small but would be comfortable for any trip within the Leaf’s range. The quality of interior fit and finish is reasonably high – nothing remarkable. The money was obviously spent on the power train.
The rear seat, with its high floor over the batteries – the 600 pound case is suspended under the vehicle - was less comfortable but roomy enough. Leg and headroom would be adequate for most. The cargo area appeared to be able to hold plenty of groceries or one or two suitcases. Golf clubs or a large cooler would necessitate folding down the rear seat backs.

We merged into rush hour traffic, turning west on 16th Street and got a quick dose of electric motor acceleration. It’s important to point out that unlike a gas or diesel engine that develops peak torque only after reaching a certain speed, an electric motor has available peak torque from the beginning. This makes for very brisk acceleration; the lack of noise, with only the wind and tires as cues, makes it very easy to overshoot the intended speed. I found the electric power steering to be too light and numb; the Prius has a similar lack of feedback but is at least nicely weighted. The regenerative braking is very effective though also has a feel unique to regenerative systems; it takes a little getting used to. The Leaf comes with stability control and ABS as standard equipment.
The palm-sized controller in the console allows switching between “power” and “eco” modes which can be done at any time. “Power” mode boosts acceleration (and energy consumption) significantly.
The Leaf’s low center of gravity makes up for its relatively high stance. Cornering and lane changes are handled well. Again, the IMS road course would have been a much better place to explore the Leaf’s performance. I really doubt there will be many Leafs turned into autocross rides, though Nissan has demonstrated a Leaf-derived racer at LeMans.
We returned to IMS where I parked the vehicle and talked with some of the staff. I learned that Nissan is not taking orders at the events and that registration for cars in Indiana won’t commence until early 2012. I was told Nissan’s staged rollout is intended to preclude price gouging and also permit the catching up of charging infrastructure and dealer support, but some in the community are worried that pent-up demand may lead potential buyers elsewhere. Seeing as how Volts are still only trickling onto the market and the plug-in Prius will become available by mid-2012, one must wonder if there will be too many alternatives available by the time Leafs are widely available.
As a Prius owner, I was impressed by the Leaf, but not blown away. It’s what I expected it to be – the next step of automotive evolution and a really good transportation appliance. It’s not a revolutionary vehicle by any means. Even the first Prius wasn’t revolutionary. The Leaf feels and sounds different from internal-combustion engine cars, but not much so. It does what it says it will do and does it with grace and comfort. It is transparent in that the driver can interact with its power train as desired. It will work for most trips for most households.
I wish Nissan and the Leaf well. As resources become increasingly scarce, we will need a more diverse fleet of vehicles to meet our transportation demands.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Fathers' Day!

Last week three years ago, Dad left us after a long battle with health issues. While he's with us all the time in our hearts and memories I really do wish I could speak with him face to face now and then. I could use his advice on so many topics.

But I can at least hear his voice; it's the upside of Mom's not being home, as his message is still on her voicemail...

"Thank you for calling and have a nice day!"

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I will have a good day.

Happy Fathers' Day to all of you out there - no matter where you are!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Art History I: Memorial Day Edition

As we remember those who serve, Indianapolis has the distinction of having one of world's largest war memorials located at the geographic center of the city and state - the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. This memorial, dedicated in 1902, is often taken for granted, which is understandable despite its presence (at some point you just kind of accept it's there and move on).

Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Back in 1998, fresh out of architecture school, I had the unique opportunity to work on a round of renovation work on the Monument to prepare it to receive the Colonel Ely Lilly Civil War Museum. I investigated its history and spent some time at the Monument studying its architecture, but especially its statuary which is quite remarkable for its allegorical power.

The west side is a homecoming scene - a soldier returning to his family (not visible here but in the linked image) with the allegorical figure of Columbia (holding in her left hand the shield of the Union - "E pluribus unum") leading the returning victors. At her feet, a grateful freed slave offers up his shackles as farmers and tradespeople carry on their tasks. A victorious angel oversees all, marking, presumably, the Almighty's approval. The background also includes a tree and what must be a sunrise (consider that you view the tableau facing east) of a New Dawn.

In researching this article, I learned of a controversy regarding a current Indianapolis art project that would have appropriated the image of the freed slave in a new piece by Fred Wilson:

I believe the piece to be smart and provocative as it can be viewed from the Monument (though the Homecoming tableau is on the west face and the new piece is east of the Monument) and the appropriation - and statement - are clear. As counterpoint, I'd like to offer another famous flag-bearing Indianapolis figure:

"Pro Patria" (Henry Hering) faces downtown from the steps of the Indiana War Memorial. the subject of Wilson's sculpture, were he standing, would direct evoke Pro Patria and begin to tell a story of victory over adversity.
The east side features a group of soldiers tending to a fallen comrade. Above them Columbia again watches over, bearing a torch leading onward the troops behind her. The march forward is irresistible. There is no doubt whatsoever about the outcome.

Atop the Monument, yet another Columbia stands ready with torch and sword in hands. One popular fable has her facing south to guard against a possible second uprising, but I prefer to think the architect Bruno Schmitz just thought it nice to have her face the sun.

"Lady Liberty" and Columbia are synonymous and represent the embodiment of American ideals. Images of the Monument when viewed alongside John Gast's painting make clear where our collective head was at in the late 1800s. The maintenance of the Union and the concept of Manifest Destiny are linked here, and not very subtly. The painting suggests the displacement of Native Americans and the conquering of Nature.

File:American progress.JPG

Like all great public art the Monument works at several levels to tell several stories at once. They are products of their time and must be viewed that way. There are some who would seek to retell or redact the stories they feel do not conform to today's mores. This is ironic in that the Monument memorializes, however imperfectly, thousands of citizens who died, at least in part, to preserve the Nation's values, the greatest of which is the freedom to express ones self.


Memorial Day Thoughts...

People often wish each other "Happy Memorial Day!," which to me is a clear indication they are not aware of the meaning of the day. That's especially sad considering that we have been in a de facto state of war (in that Americans are fighting on behalf of national interests) since October 2001 when we invaded Afghanistan - nine years and seven months. For some perspective, that's longer than World War II and the Korean Conflict combined. Only our involvement in Vietnam (~1954 - 1975) has lasted longer.
Almost everyone knows someone who is currently serving, or knows someone who has a family member serving. One would like to think we would be a little more mindful of the significance of the day.

I also sadly see some taking advantage of this national day of remembrance to pass moral judgment or to make pronouncements about US warriors' injustice or atrocities. This is a sad confusion. Not to diminish the horrors of war, but it's critical we separate cause from effect, and the deeds of an individual from those of the whole.

Memorial Day is not about whether our warriors' mission was correct or moral. That's not a warrior's decision to make - that comes from his or her civilian leaders, which is a different discussion entirely. Once a warrior is under orders, she or he has two choices - obey or be punished. Some do choose punsihment over obeying an order they feel is invalid or immoral (a very special kind of bravery to be sure), but we do not expect this, nor do we ask it.
What we are memorializing today is their willingness to serve and possibly be injured or die on our behalf, whether we ask them to or not. As far as I'm concerned, today we could as well honor ALL civil servants who put themselves in harm's way for us: police, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, et. al.
Hopefully, one day, our leaders will get over themselves, see the middle east for what it is, and walk away from it. They just want to be left alone. Just like (most of) us.

Our armed services are made up of volunteers from our communites. Whatever our thoughts about the morality of war, we should at least be grateful for their willingness to serve. We should keep them in our thoughts and prayers and wish them a safe and happy homecoming as soon as possible.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Fuel Prices...


I feel that I am more than qualified to speak on this topic as I'm one of the unfortunate many who must commute to work and do not have a mass transit option. This means I drive. A lot. I live in Yorktown, Indiana, near Muncie (cue the Close Encounters theme) and work in Indianapolis. My daily commute is 108 miles. At one time I drove a hand-me-down Buick Park Avenue (not my first choice but I can't argue with FREE CAR) that got a respectable-for-its-size 27mpg. One of my coworkers questioned my green cred for 1) driving a gas hog and 2) not living closer to work in the first place. After some defensive behaviour and rationalization, I realized he did have a good point, but there was only so much I could do to address it.

Here's what we did: In the summer of 2009 we sold the Park Avenue and traded in our other hand-me-down dog-hauler 1987 Chevy Astro under the "Cash for Clunkers" program for a 2010 Toyota Prius. I drive moderately and do as little extra driving as possible. I've halved my fuel use.

There is a lot of discussion about the price of fuel now. I'm not sure why the trigger was $4.00 a gallon. There's nothing magic about it. It's tied directly to the price of crude oil and the price of gasoline in the global market. Supply, demand and futures traders all impact it.

Proposed energy legislation would initiate a cap and trade program that would raise the price of carbon-based fuels to help offset the environmental impacts of their use. While the impact on households of such a tax would be fairly limited, there is an outcry that it would be an undue burden at a time of economic uncertainty, falling wages and increasing energy market prices.

Based on what I see in driving behavior, I can argue that gas prices are not high enough! On my daily commute to Indy and back, I still see solo drivers in SUVs and pickup trucks speeding (75mph on I-69 is pretty common), racing from one red light to the next (Binford Boulevard), jack-rabbit starts followed by slamming on brakes (downtown).

I see engines idling at the ATM and driveup bank, while pumping gas (not only ironic but unsafe) and while the cars' owners are inside the C-store stocking up on smokes and lottery tickets. And this is in spring and fall, not the dead of winter with a baby on board to keep warm.

While working in my yard at the entrance of our housing addition, over the course of several hours, I'll watch some of my neighbors make three or four trips of short duration. They almost are invariably driving an SUV or minivan.

This behavior not only wastes increasingly precious and costly resources - not only oil but money!, but also adds to pollution. There are no shortage of online resources sharing ways to reduce gas consumption and none of them represent a sacrifice of any kind. There is no reason to not do it.

Before we complain too much about the price of gas, we should first stop, observe our behavior and ask what we can do to reduce our consumption. We can't all buy the latest hybrid, or move closer to work, or take public transportation, but if we're not doing all we can do, we've no right to complain.



Gas Mileage Tips
Waxman-Markey Clean Energy Act

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Ehh...what're you gonna do?"

Well, the Republican House acted true to its word and voted to not fund the EPA's new CO2 regulation effort (along with a whole raft of other things that benefit just about everyone except the big money interests that keep them in office - I hope I'm not being too cynical here).

Shortly before the vote, I wrote the following email to our representative Mike Pence (R - IN6):
Mike, I am extremely disappointed that you have co-sponsored legislation that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from reducing global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

Over the last 40 years, the CAA has prevented more than 400,000 premature deaths and hundreds of millions of cases of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. To ensure we continue to be protected, we need the EPA to retain its authority to identify and address new threats to public health. After conducting an exhaustive scientific review, the EPA concluded that CO2 emissions threaten public health and welfare and the agency is therefore required by law to regulate them.

Mike, please understand this: the consensus of the scientific community is clear: increasing carbon dioxide emissions are a direct contributor to global climate change. There is no valid peer-reviewed science that legitimately claims otherwise. To discount climate science is to discount all science - the very science that has brought us the many benefits we enjoy every day.

You can't have it both ways, Mike. The scientific method either works or it does not. Science can get it wrong sometimes, but science is self-correcting - the near-perfect "free market of ideas" not unlike that on which we Americans place such high value. Climatology is one of the most rapidly evolving sciences; that evolution has seen the continual refinement of our understanding of the interactions of pollutants and climate. That refinement has only shown that the science is fundamentally correct and the situation serious.
I received the following reply from Pence's office:
Thank you for contacting me regarding your support for clean air, safe water, and land preservation. It was a pleasure to hear from you.
Our earth is a wonderful resource, and I believe that each of us has the serious responsibility to care for it. I rely on sound science as I consider legislation impacting the environment, weighing various aspects. 
I support responsible efforts that put America on a path towards becoming healthier, cleaner, and safer, so that future generations may enjoy it as well. However, while the federal government must be mindful of our surroundings, it must also be responsive to the realities of our way of life. 
As environmental legislation comes before the 112th Congress, I will keep your thoughts in mind.
Again, thank you for contacting me. It is an honor to serve in the United States House of Representatives and have the benefit of your advice. If you would like more information on this or any other issue, please visit my website...and sign up to receive regular e-newsletters.
It took me a little while to process Pence's letter. I believe he was telling me that we have to take care of the environment, but our overly consumptive lifestyle takes precedence, as though it was a zero-sum game. This is sadly a recurring theme in the debate over the proper response to global climate change and fossil fuel dependency. In discussion after discussion, I almost never hear the benefits and lowest cost of energy efficiency - only the need for alternative energy development.

The basic assumption appears to be - and this is borne out in my experience - that you can't have efficiency without sacrifice. I think these people believe that energy efficiency technology ended at Jimmy Carter's sweater worn in cold, dark rooms.

If Pence and the other Republicans really relied on sound science, they would be ending oil and gas development tax breaks rather than defunding science and technology, energy efficiency programs and carbon regulation.

Miscellaneous Verse...

A walk

The morning's respite
From chore and errand
A walk through woods and
Over bogs
On the trail that
Once was rails
Now mostly silent
The trains long gone elsewhere

Starting in
The rolling field that
Once was overworked but now
Lies quiet more in tune with its

A mile north
My only companions are
Creatures heard but unseen and
Footfalls steady, hard, fast and
The breath from my chest and
The streams of former snow and
The songs in my head

A mile south
My companions remain
Creatures heard but unseen and
Footfalls steady, hard, fast and
The breath from my chest and
The streams of former snow and
The songs in my head

Return to
The rolling prairie that
Once was overworked but now
Lies quiet building our better

Standing at a Grave...

Is this what it comes down to?
No; this is only where it ends
Or perhaps begins.

What it comes down to
I've learned is everything
That's been before.

That's been done before,
Done with Love.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Diversion...

I came here intending to extend my thoughts about civility and reasoned debate within the context of yesterday's tragic shooting in Arizona. I was going to make a reasoned, rational argument for decorum and decency in public life. I was going to make some fancy references to Buddhist philosophy and the teachings of the Dalai Lama about how compassion and loving-kindness should be the essence of our interaction with the sentient beings with whom we share the planet.

But when I got to the blog dashboard, I saw my brother had updated his blog, so I took a minute to read it. It actually took several minutes because he did a very thorough job of expressing himself - for better or worse, it's a trait we share: brevity in writing is not our strength.

Steve's thoughts about his year, and what he learned, saw, felt and experienced were very humbling, and I came to realize in those few minutes that he is a truly incredible person. He is going through so much yet concentrates not on his burden but on those he loves and their welfare.

I would do well to follow him at least as much as I do the Dalai Lama for his example is here in my DNA and made clear by being wrapped not in esoteric beliefs but in the experiences we've shared.

Thank you, Steve. You're an awesome brother and an incredible young (I can say that) man.

I love you!