“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The law of dimishing returns, the Chevy Volt, gas mileage, and hot air

The Chevy Volt, expected to hit the market in 2010 is claimed to achieve 230 m.p.g. in city driving. Is this possible? If so, how significant is it? Over at one of my favorite haunts, Ecomodder.com, Benjamin posted a blog entry about the Volt and the claims for it.

As is my nature, I was compelled to dig into the numbers. I commented there that it sounds suspicious. The claims for the Volt are that it will achieve "up to 40 miles" on electricity only and that it will achieve an efficiency on electricity only of 25 kilowatt hours per 100 miles on the EPA city cycle. This is stated to cost between $0.75 and$2.50 depending on electric rates. Interesting.

This is saying that, when using only electricity, the vehicle will have an energy cost of $.0075 and$.025 per mile. That is, between three quarters of a cent and 2 and a half cents per mile. Now, I'm currently getting 21 m.p.g. and spending about \$0.15, i.e., fifteen cents per mile on energy. Comparing to the low end of the electrical cost, I'm spending 20 times as much on energy. At the high end, it's six times as much. So multiplying 21 m.p.g. by 6 and by 20, you'd infer that the Volt is achieving something from 126 m.p.g. to 420 m.p.g. just on a cost of energy basis. 230 m.p.g. is in this range, but this isn't very enlightening. Let's try something else.

We'll work with the 25 kilowatt hours (25 kWH) per 100 miles. A kilowatt hour of electricity is 3.6 megajoules, so 25 kWH is 90 megajoules. Since a gallon of gasoline will release about 125 megajoules of thermal energy upon oxidation, we can say that the Volt will go 100 miles on the energy contained in (90/125) or 0.72 gallons of gasoline, thus getting roughly the equivalent of 100/0.72 or about 139 m.p.g. (or, as Doug Pelmear would say, 139 MPGe).

So where did 230 m.p.g. come from? I'm not sure. One possibility is that they look at, say, a 50 mile trip, figure 40 miles on the electric motor and don't count that energy expenditure, then travel the remaining 10 miles on a gasoline engine that gets 46 m.p.g. while powering a generator to propel the car and recharge the battery. Conveniently, that would indicate travelling 50 miles on 10/46=0.217 gallons, or 230 m.p.g. At this point, I don't know.

In any case, suppose that we do have such a vehicle. What would it mean? In an earlier post I went into some detail on the fact that, the worse the gas mileage being achieved, that is, the lower the m.p.g. the more fuel is saved by relatively small improvements in that number. This result is surprising to some because miles per gallon is really not the best way to directly look at efficiency. The better way is gallons per mile, the inverse.* The Volt will illustrate the other end of the spectrum from that described in my previous post.

Let's say I trade a Toyota Yaris, where I was getting 30 m.p.g. driving mostly in the city for a Chevy Volt where I now get "the equivalent of" 230 m.p.g. Suppose I drive 10,000 miles per year. I'll go from burning 333 gallons of fuel to the equivalent of 43.5 gallons, saving 290 gallons.

Meanwhile, my DoppelgĂ¤nger is driving his LR3 HSE, mostly in the city, and getting 15 m.p.g. He uses 667 gallons to drive 10,000 miles. He trades it in on a MINI Cooper and gets 30 m.p.g., using 333 gallons in the course of his 10,000 miles of driving. He saves 333 gallons, 43 more than I did by going from 30 m.p.g. to 230 m.p.g. This is the law of diminishing returns in action.

From a person who coasts to the cross street from his driveway before turning on the car to save a milliliter or two of fuel, it might seem odd to read something apparently dismissive of such extraordinarily good fuel economy. But I'm not dismissing it, only attempting to put it into perspective as to what's being achieved and where the big savings lie. In fact, my hat's off to Chevy for bringing this ultra-efficient vehicle to market but they need to be clear with their claims.

* In the Great White North, where civilized people use the SI ("metric") system, fuel economy is rated in liters per 100 kilometers (though "liter" isn't strictly a SI unit). My 21 m.p.g. rating turns to 11.2 liters per 100 kilometers. The Volt's stated 230 m.p.g. would be 1.02 liters per 100 kilometers.

Update: Rhett, over at DOT PHYSICS, has made a very thorough analysis of the Volt. Take a look!

Update 2: A better debunking than mine of the Chevy Volt m.p.g. claim is at Good Math, Bad Math. I've added this great blog to my blog roll. You're welcome.

By the way, I found Good Math, Bad Math by typing the conversion from 230 m.p.g. into the Google calculator. It made the conversion AND came up with the blog site. You have to love the Google folks. Even if you equate them to the Borg.

Update 3: Apparently, from reading the comments to the Good Math, Bad Math post linked above, Chevy is "just following orders," i.e., they're going by the tentative rules promulgated by the EPA for the fuel economy ratings of plug-in hybrids. I still think Chevy should be clear. As Rhett shows on his Dot Physics site (also linked above) if you pull out of your driveway and drive 230 miles, you'll use way more than a gallon of gas.