Friday, November 18, 2011

Losing my gasoline virginity

There comes a time in every Volt's life when it takes that irrevocable step and takes up the filthy habit of smoking... er, using gasoline. And after over 1000 miles of tooling around town on pure electric power, the Ampeater set out on an epic journey from North Carolina to Cape Kennedy.

At least this sacrifice was for a good cause. I was able to get a ticket to ride on a Zero-G Experimental Flight, and the Volt was just the right size to fit all of the equipment I had built to take high-speed videos of water globe interactions in microgravity.

Goodbye, Infinite Miles Per Gallon! Sob!

On the bright side, the Volt was an extremely comfortable long-distance touring car, and quite frankly, the only time I even heard the gas engine in operation was when I did some really hard acceleration on an I-95 onramp; it kicked up to max RPM. Cruising at 70mph I got about 37MPG on gasoline.

A welcome surprise was that the Holiday Inn in Titusville, FL was extremely EV-friendly. Not only did they have no problem with me plugging in the Ampeater, but the manager showed me the best place to do so. He also noted that they are thinking of putting 120VAC outlets on many of the light poles in the parking lot, not just for EV's like the Volt, but also so that boaters can recharge their batteries.

Seems to me he's got a good idea there, and that if a chain like Holiday Inn made it a policy to have some simple outlets installed (one pole could handle 8 cars!) in all of their locations, that would be an amenity that would attract business. I remember a few years back that when driving I would always stay at a Holiday Inn Express when possible, because I knew that they would have free WiFi. If I knew they would all have free recharging, it would be similarly attractive.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Charging into Confusion

Like many Volt owners, I buy my electricity on a Time-of-Use basis as opposed to a flat rate. This means that as long as I charge during off-peak hours, I only pay $0.05/KwH, and a full charge on the Volt is just 60 cents.

The key to making this work is telling the Volt what times are peak and what are off-peak, and to their credit, the Volt engineers have made this pretty easy. You can set individual schedules for each day of the week, specify peak, mid-peak, and off-peak hours, and even input different schedules for Summer and Winter.

On October 1st, Progress Energy Winter hours began. During winter weekdays, in addition to the evening off-peak hours, there is also a 3 hour period in the afternoon (1-4pm) that is off-peak.

And thus my confusion began -- for I noticed that even after driving the car in the morning, it would wait until the evening to charge the car, and not take advantage of the afternoon off-peak period to top off the battery.

The Volt has 3 charging settings; Immediate (Feed me now!), Delayed Departure Time (Fill me up by a certain time), and Delayed Rate and Departure Time (Fill me up by a certain time, but try to do it during the cheap rate periods). I was using the third choice, obviously. I inquired on the GM-Volt forums, and it was suggested I change my departure time to just after the evening cheap rates started, in the hopes that this would force the car to take advantage of the afternoon off-peak.

I did this and the Volt immediately updated and said it would start during the afternoon off-peak. But it said it would end just after evening off-peak started, and so it appeared as if it would be charging right through the early evening peak period -- which was exactly what I didn't want it to do.

So I changed the time of departure back to the morning, and here is where it got doubly confusing, because the Volt still appeared to be saying it would charge through the evening peak period.

At this point, I really had to do some testing. So I unplugged the Volt until the evening to avoid any issues, and then waited a few days until I had to do some morning driving. While doing so, I watched the charge scheduling display, and as soon as I started driving, it started indicating that it would charge during the afternoon off-peak.

As I drove further, the estimated charge end time crept closer and closer to the end of afternoon off-peak, and when it finally reached the limit, it immediately jumped to the start of evening off-peak.

Aha! This meant that the Volt was only charging during off-peak, which was what I wanted and expected in the first place. And indeed, I monitored the car when I got it home and it did exactly that; it broke up the charging into two segments.

The end result of all this testing is that there are some issues that the Volt engineers ought to think about:

* There may be a bug in the way the Volt figures out when to charge immediately after a Summer/Winter change in schedule. It appears (though I am not 100% sure on this) that you need to make a change (as I did with departure time) to get things to "stick".

* There really ought to be a 4th charging option, "Charge whenever needed, during off-peak only". This would be particularly useful to those of us on Time-of-Use/Demand plans, where we really, really don't want to add extra load during peak hours (since we get hit for an extra peak demand charge).

* There is a driver confusion issue in the charge scheduling display, because it only shows charge start and end time, but does not show any periods where charging has been suspended. Part of the issue here is that the display is trying to show too much information; it shows start and stop times for both 120v and 240v, but 99.44% of the time, the driver knows what his next charge rate is going to be (and it's almost always the same as the last one).

So this display should be restructured, defaulting to show only one voltage (the last one used), with a button to select the other one. And the space freed up could be used to display a table showing start time, stop time, and estimated range for each planned charging segment.

* Special Bonus Suggestion: The Volt should automatically wait an extra 5 minutes before starting to charge during off-peak, and stop charging 5 minutes before peak rates start again. The point of this is to avoid accidentally starting during peak because of slight differences in the clocks of the power company and the Volt, and thus getting hit with a demand charge. Right now, I have my off-peak schedule set to start 15 minutes late and end 15 minutes early to avoid this issue.

At the very least, the manual should mention this issue and suggest programming in a buffer period.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tight Fitting Pockets

The Volt has two nice-looking pockets on the back of the front seats. Unfortunately, nice-looking does not equate to useful.

The problem is that the pockets are so tight that you can barely fit anything in them. While they are the perfect size to stow an iPad, the fit is snug that I'd be concerned that any flexing of the seat would damage the tablet. And it takes two hands to worm and iPad back out of the pocket.

This latter is a concern because a major use I'd have for the pockets would be to reach over from the driver's seat and slot my iPad into the pocket on the passenger-side seat when I want to get it out of sight (such as when I pop into a store). As things stand, I can't do that.

The pockets would be much more useful if they had a fanfold that let them expand a bit, as well as some velcro (maybe on a top flap) to keep them tight when needed.

The optional stowage bag (recommended!) that goes between the two rear seats is big enough to hold an iPad if you put it in on an angle, but it's out of reach from the driver's seat. Pity.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Volt Cover Charge

Time for a little nitpick.

About half the time, when I remove the charging plug, I forget to close the cover. Then I get in the Volt and drive away, and get at least half a mile before I notice the little message on the driver's console that tells me it's open. And then I have to pull over and close it.

IMHO when the cover is open and you power up the Volt, that warning message (and probably others) should be significantly more prominent. Best of all would be a spoken audio alert.

I humbly suggest giving Volt owners several choices for audio chastisement. For example:

Hal 9000: You need to close the charge bay doors, Dave.

Bender: Hey meatbag, guess which moron forgot to do something? That's right, it's you! And don't expect me to tell you what it was, either!

The Terminator: You'll be back... after you close the charge door.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I hate my full tank of gas

When you buy a new car, it's common for the dealer to fill it up with gas, and this is what happened when I bought my Volt.

But when you think about it, this was a mistake. If you're driving a Volt around town in electric mode, all you need in the tank is a gallon or two to either get you home or get you to a gas station if you run out of juice. Any extra is just dead weight you're lugging around, reducing your efficiency.

A quick calculation shows that that extra gasoline probably reduces the range of the car by about 1%. That's a whole 2500 feet of range I'm missing out on! And because I'm serious about not using gas, I'll be lugging the damn stuff around forever!

Bitch, moan, bitch, moan!

But seriously, Chevy dealers should offer to deliver the Volt with a couple of gallons of gas + a gift card for the difference, and explain why. It's just another way to emphasize the difference between the Volt and regular cars.

PS: My wife points out that another way for me to get more range out of the car is to go on a stricter diet, but I think that's going a bit overboard, don't you?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

OnStar is On-target

I must admit that the last time I was in the market for a new car (almost a decade ago), OnStar wasn't really on my radar. I didn't see the value proposition of having a car-only cellphone with easy access to an operator. And quite frankly, the fact that the Volt comes with a free 3-year subscription to OnStar was "That's nice, but I've got an iPhone with GPS and Google Maps."

But since OnStar is free for me, I activated it (paying $5.00 for 60 minutes of calling time just in case) and started playing around. And I must admit, OnStar has evolved significantly. The one-touch access to a human advisor (or 911) and the automatic crash alert functions are nice, but the real value for me is that OnStar is really a 2-way data link to the car.

From the OnStar website, or from their RemoteLink smartphone app, you can get all sorts of status information about the car, you can lock and unlock the doors, and you can remote-start it so it's nice and cool when you get to it.

However, the real killer feature of OnStar in the Volt is the turn-by-turn navigation. Forget about paying for the expensive Navigation package option, you don't need it.

All you do is find your destination using MapQuest or Google Maps, then send it to OnStar using cunningly-hidden options. You can have up to 5 destinations stored (MapQuest, btw, lets you delete destinations when you add a new one, but Google apparently does not -- and you can't manage the destinations on the OnStar site as far as I can tell). You can also add destinations using the RemoteLink app, and that even does voice recognition, or you can hit the blue button and get a human to help you -- but no self-respecting techno-nerd like myself would ever stoop that low!

Then when you're in the car, you hit the hands-free button on the steering wheel, say "Virtual Advisor", and a voice-recognition system at OnStar runs you through the options; you select which destination you want to go to, and turn-by-turn directions are sent to the car. You get both visual and audio prompts as needed.

I won't be using this feature all that much, to be honest; most of my driving is along familiar routes, and I have very good map-memory. But I can see how there will be times when it will be very handy.

It's one of those things that, until you actually use it a bit, you don't see the value proposition. If I were a Chevy salesman, I'd have the dealership location pre-loaded into the demo Volt, and demo it as part of every test-drive.

Another feature that fits into this category is the rear-view camera. We got sold on these when we bought a Nissan Cube for my oldest son (a college freshman), and we have one in the Volt as well.

However, the Volt rear-view camera is the source of my first major bitch about the car.

One of the features the rear-view camera is supposed to have are backup guidelines -- the manual clearly states they are part of the camera functionality. The manual, alas, is wrong. Apparently, you only get the guidelines if you have the Nav package! Another related issue are the ultrasonic obstacle sensors, which give you a lot of beeps when you're close to hitting something. But there is no display showing you which sensors are being triggered, all you get are two different tones for front and back, and a big caution symbol on the dash display.

Both of these are epic fails on the part of Chevrolet, in my opinion. Let's hope they fix them in a software update.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Going down on the Volt

Get your minds out of the gutter, I'm talking about Low gear.

While the Volt does have a gearbox, it doesn't really have gears -- at least, not in the way a typical car does. If you're interested, go read this article to get an overview of all the bizarre things that the Volt is actually doing under the hood, it's quite ingenious.

However, from a practical standpoint, the only difference between Drive and Low "gear" on the Volt is in how the onboard computer interprets the desires of the meatbag it is hauling around town.

The basic difference between the two modes is what happens when you take your foot off the gas. When in Drive, it pretends to be just like a normal car -- the Volt will coast and very slowly decelerate, and you use the brake pedal to come to a stop. Light brake application engages regenerative braking mode, where the electric motor acts as a generator, converts some of the kinetic energy of the car back in to electricity, and stuffs it back into the battery. Step harder on the brakes, and the regular disc brakes engage, and all that lovely Ke gets turned into heat.

"Drive" is the Volt's training wheels. To really feel like you're in an electric car, shift to Low. Now as soon as you take your foot off the gas, the Volt goes into smooth regenerative braking. It feels like a parachute just popped out of the trunk, and is very different from a normal car. It takes a little getting used to -- I've only had the car for a few days, and I'm still getting the knack -- but it lets you do these silky smooth approaches to stop signs and turns; you'll only touch the brake pedal right at the very end.

Chevy recommends Low for stop-and-go city driving, and Drive for highway, but the general consensus is that you can stay in Low whenever you're just using the battery.

If you decide to test drive a Volt, do half the drive in Drive, and the rest in Low. It's really a notable difference.

PS: I'm told that in Low mode, the brake lights don't go on until you actually touch the brake pedal. There is some concern this may confuse unwary tailgaters. Perhaps Chevy should consider a software upgrade that flashes the brake lights every couple of seconds when regeneratively braking.

Charge Scheduling

One nice thing about the Volt is all the different charging options.

If you pay a flat rate for electricity, you can charge your Volt at any time. Just set it to charge when you plug it in, and plug it in when you get home. Actually, you should always have your Volt plugged in whenever possible, as under certain circumstances it may need to turn itself on to cool the battery!

However, if you're really into saving money and energy efficiency, you'll be on a Time-Of-Use (TOU) electricity plan, where you get charged different rates for peak and off-peak usage, and the peak hours are different in summer and winter. You can save a considerable amount of money by moving to such a plan as long as you make an effort to shift some of your big appliance usage (the washer, the dryer, the dishwasher, etc) to those off-peak hours.

For example, here in North Carolina, you can pay 10.153 cents per kWh flat rate, or you can pay 16.65 cents per kWh peak and 5.003 cents per kWh off-peak.

If you decide to go to an TOU plan, the Volt has you covered. You can program in the peak and off-peak schedules for weekdays and weekends (generally all off-peak) and for summer and winter, and the Volt will try its hardest to only suck amps during off-peak hours. I use a 15-minute buffer; if off-peak actually starts at 9pm, the Volt thinks it starts at 9:15.

So far, so good. However, there is another rate plan that may be available that you'll want to consider -- Time-Of-Use Demand (TOU-D). In a TOU-D plan, you get charged lower peak and off-peak rates, but there is an additional charge based on your maximum peak-time demand.

I'm on TOU-D because I have a solar array (which you can monitor online) that feeds power back into the grid when possible (the Volt is just part of our household energy efficiency plan, admittedly the coolest part however). I pay 6.377 cents per kWh peak, 5.003 cents per kWh off-peak, but in addition there is a $5.02 per kW max peak-time demand charge during the summer (less in the winter). What this means is that Progress Energy looks for the 15 minute period during peak hours (but not during off-peak!) where we are drawing the most energy from the grid, and charges us based on that peak usage. So if we max out at 10 kW of demand, we get billed an extra $50.20. But remember, we're paying 10 cents per kWh less during peak time and there are 330 peak time hours per month in the summer, so it's hard not to come out ahead.

The end result is that TOU-D really encourages you to even out the demands you place on the electrical grid, by shifting big appliance use to off-peak hours or by staggering their use. Electric companies really like nice even demand, because it reduces their costs.

One other interesting thing: the Volt lets you define time periods as peak, mid-peak, or off-peak; you can tell it to use both mid- and off-peak charging, and it'll try and minimize the cost. I'm sure there are areas of the country where the power company uses mid-peak billing (all the different local energy costs are their version of "your mileage may vary"), but my power company doesn't.

However, I may still have a use for the mid-peak setting. Keep in mind that under a TOU-D plan, there isn't that much different between peak and off-peak rates, it's the peak demand that you want to avoid. My summer off-peak hours are 9pm through 10am, which is plenty of time to recharge the car on 110 volts, but the winter off-peak hours are more scattered -- 1pm  through 4pm and 9pm through 6am. I may want to set some of the winter peak hours to be mid-peak, as long as I'm reasonably sure those hours are relatively low demand, so the extra 1 kW or so that Volt will suck down won't increase the demand charge.

However, before I do that, I need to get a better feel for the daily power usage fluctuations of the house, as well as what my typical Volt driving patterns are.