Monday, January 17, 2022

Noodling Electric Vehicles

I'm in the middle of Wallet Activism right now and it's changing the way I think about things. How we spend our money, sure. But also how we think about things. How do we make decisions, even with things that are free (or "free"). 

When I click on the free shipping option to save a couple bucks, what else happens before that package arrives at my door? What happened in a factory or sweatshop overseas a few months earlier?

When we spend airline points to get on a flight to Europe, and maybe write a blog post bragging about our fancy ass travel, we didn't spend any money. But what costs are still borne by...someone?

Along those lines, Mrs. Done by Forty and I are starting to think about ways we can lessen our negative impacts. Something we're talking about now is looking at our vehicles, both of which are non-hybrid, gasoline cars, a 2015 Lexus RX 350 (3.5L naturally aspirated V6) and a 2006 Saab wagon (2.0 L turbocharged inline 4).

Here's what an EPA article estimates the environmental cost of our current cars: 
"How much tailpipe carbon dioxide (CO2) is created from burning one gallon of fuel?
    • CO2 Emissions from a gallon of gasoline: 8,887 grams CO2/ gallon
    • CO2 Emissions from a gallon of diesel: 10,180 grams CO2/ gallon"
Each vehicle goes about two months between fill ups, so as a household we're buying about 14 gallons of gasoline and lighting it on fire every month. 

According to the EPA, this means our cars emit about 124.4 kilograms (or 274.3 pounds) of carbon dioxide every month, working out to 1,493 kilograms (or 1.4 metric tons) of carbon dioxide per year for our two cars combined (or 0.7 metric tons per car per year. There are other gases released by burning gasoline but we'll focus on CO2 for the sake of this post. 

The EPA estimates that the average American vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year so we're somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% of that average per car. Still, we're contributing to the problem and we'd like to improve that. As the twelve steppers say, progress, not perfection.

So we're looking at different vehicles (namely, to replace my beloved Saab wagon, with a stick, a thing I'll probably never have in another car again and I'm sad about it) for an EV.

In order of most ridiculous to most frugal, here are some options we're considering for making our passenger vehicles more electric.

Porsche Taycan GTS Sport Turismo

Cost: A preposterous $133,000 (or 57.8 Saabs), and that's just the starting cost. Options push that higher. We wouldn't gain any tax benefits from an EV credit so I won't factor that in to juice the numbers in our favor.
Breakeven point from gasoline savings*: 648.3 years
Environmental break even point**: 4.9 years.
Initial thoughts: My heart wants this ridiculous super wagon. It's fast, it looks good, and it has all the wagon goodness that my dad soul cries out for. Just think of what you can fit in the back when you fold the seats down. But the price is pure nonsense. Our first house didn't cost that much. It's a no. My heart will go on.

Tesla Model 3, RWD
Cost: $45,000 (or 19.6 Saabs)
Breakeven point with gas savings: 211.8 years
Environmental break even point: 4.9 years. 
Initial thoughts: While Teslas are very fast, very nice cars, I've never been a huge fan. The Model 3's styling just doesn't do anything for me, the cars have terrible build quality, fit, and finish, and Elon Musk is a jackass of the highest order who runs a company that has been accused of a range of misdeeds, from worker safety and anti-union efforts to racism & worker harassment. The idea of handing this guy money just doesn't sit right at all. But this is about having less of an impact on the environment, not about keeping money out of the hands of terrible people or trying to look cool via a car. When you're faced with imperfect choices, you just pick the least bad one, right?

Used Tesla Model S 85
Cost: $28,800 (or 12.5 Saabs)
Breakeven point with gas savings: 131.4 years
Environmental break even point: Immediate. Since this is a used car, the costs of producing the car are sunk (as are those for the Saab). We'd see an immediate environmental benefit by switching.
Initial thoughts: This was the cheapest, non-salvage Tesla within 500 miles at the time of this post. It's a 2014 model though, which means the build quality would be even worse than with new models and, of course, it's now eight years old. Reliability issues aside, it's obviously cheaper than a new car (though not as cheap as they were in 2019 and not as depreciated as I think they ought to be). And there are some other benefits of buying used: no additional environmental impacts from mining more lithium or steel & transporting parts all around the world, and no additional money given to Elon. Still, would we buy thirty thousand dollar eight year old Tesla for those savings & benefits?

Used Nissan Leaf

Cost: $5,495 (or 2.4 Saabs)
Breakeven point with gas savings: 15.8 years
Environmental break even point: Same as with the used Tesla, the break even point for environmental impacts is immediate.
Initial thoughts: From a financial perspective, this one makes a lot of sense. Almost 100% of the driving we do is within the 50ish miles of range a 10 year old Leaf has at this point. And this EV makes a lot of sense as a second car, since we could hypothetically use our other vehicle for the once or twice a year road trip to see family in Southern California.

The rub is that I don't really love the car. It's slow and small and, you know, not cool. But as I need to remind myself, what's the goal here? To seem cool or reduce impacts? Once the whole family is vaxxed, maybe a test drive is in order. Who knows, maybe I'll like the little thing.

Saab EV Conversion

Cost: $5k (or 2.2 Saabs) if I stick to a strict budget & buy everything used, ala Rich Rebuild's MiniCooper budget build
Breakeven point with gas savings: 24.8 years.
Environmental break even point: Again, immediate since all the components would be used.
Initial thoughts: This is kind of what I want to do because I would not only get to keep the Saab wagon goodness, but also get to keep the manual transmission (even if shifting becomes pretty rare once converted), and I'd get a ridiculously cool project.

But I'd also get a ridiculously hard project, one involving pulling the engine & transmission, fabricating a transmission plate & motor mounts, welding (which I don't know how to do yet), and an ungodly amount of wiring. This is like a year of work and the sad reality is that the vast majority of EV conversions don't get finished. The smart money says that once the engine is pulled and I'm staring at a big empty space in the engine bay, the project may die. Am I one of the fortunate few who takes a fully functional car, tears it apart & ends up with a mostly functioning car at the end of it?

Probably not.

Converting a Bike to EV
Cost: $150 (or 0.07 Saabs) using Jehu Garcia's YouTube explainer.
Breakeven point with gas savings: Immediately if I actually sold the Saab & replaced it with a bike; 9 months if I kept the Saab & just put all its miles on the bike.
Environmental break even point: Nearly immediate, since the bike would be converted with mostly used parts.
Initial thoughts: This project may be more in line with my level of handiness. And before the pandemic, I would run errands & get groceries with my bike more often than not. At least for half the year.

And there's the rub. Because our little city in Arizona tries to kill us with weather for about half the year from May to September. And I have had some close calls riding my bike with drivers on their phones, or pulling a rolling stop at an intersection. So while this is the most frugal option by far, I'm not sure I'm down with the other potential costs.

So what to make out of all this? None of the options jumps out as a perfect fit. My heart sings out for the Porsche but maybe the kids should go to college, you know? 

The Tesla seems cheap by comparison but fifty grand is a lot for a car that I don't even like that much. Maybe when they come out with that $25k hatchback I'll feel differently. I love a hot hatch.

The used options make a lot more sense financially, especially the Leaf. But I just kind of assumed the EV would be faster than my old Toyota Matrix, you know? 

Still, once we can get everyone in the house vaccinated, maybe it's time for some test drives. I bet a Tesla looks a lot cooler, and the instant torque of a Leaf feels faster, once I'm behind the wheel.

And yet, I wonder if we're barking up the wrong tree. We really don't drive much at all, so the environmental impacts of a brand new car take a little while to offset, even with an all electric vehicle. Maybe we should be looking at the other big driver of carbon in our lives: all the energy we use in our house. 

Would the money we'd use for a new EV have a better impact if we spent it on solar panels? We'll take a look at that next week. As always, thanks for reading.

*Gas breakeven point assumes 84 gallons of 91 octane purchased for the Saab per year at $4.00/gallon, and cost of electricity for those miles traveled to be 40% of that annual cost. Working out to $201.60 of gas saved per year, which is added to the $2,300 assumed to be gained by selling the Saab (in all scenarios except the Saab EV conversion). Maintenance costs excluded due to uncertainty: current cars are maintained DIY and it's unclear whether a new/used EV would decrease or increase those costs.
**Environmental breakeven uses a Reuters' analysis, that a new Tesla Model 3 would need to be driven 13,500 miles before it would do less harm to the environment than a Toyota Corolla. Assuming the Corolla is 24% more efficient than the Saab (31 mpg city vs 24 mpg) then the Tesla would only need to be driven 10,260 miles to do less harm than the Saab. Current miles driven per year are approximately 2,100.
***One caveat to mention is that I'm way outside my lane and all these figures should be taken with a big grain of salt. All of this is meant to be generally illustrative on which options would have positive environmental impacts, but the smart money says I will have made several errors, and they are great.


  1. Enjoyed the article. I think one thing to consider too is embedded carbon. Esp in re to buying a new vehicle, like a Tesla, vs keeping current gas-powered vehicle.

    1. Absolutely! The calculations above include that, which is why the new EVs have such a long breakeven point from an environmental perspective, vs a used EV or EV conversion. It's a huge point that many consumers don't consider: the amount of environmental damage required to build a new car w/ new batteries is not nothing.

      Thanks for reading, keaste.

    2. Oh duh! My bad. You are on it!

    3. No worries at all! I didn't explicitly call it out in the post.

  2. Interesting comparison. Have you thought about something like the Hyundai Ioniq 5? It actually charges at higher speeds for longer than a Tesla does, thanks to the 800V battery pack. As a fellow dad I also appreciate the hatchback style. Hyundai's EVs are also rated well by Consumer Reports, unlike Tesla's offerings. If only they weren't so crazy expensive as we're not yet FI... I'm thinking in maybe 5 years I'd like to pick up a used Ioniq 5 if the reliability holds up.

    For now, I'll keep driving (or rather, mostly not-driving) my 2010 Prius....

    1. I do like the Ioniq 5, for sure. I was trying to limit the options a bit in the post and I think the cost of a new one threw me off: at that cost new, I'd probably be looking at the faster Tesla. But like you said, when they're used & depreciated, that's a totally different story.

      But yeah, CR is very harsh on the Teslas. I think the Model X is the least reliable car they've ever rated?

      The Prius is one of the most reliable, too: great choice there. We looked at the Prius V as a wagon but my love of a manual nudged me towards the Saab.

  3. Thanks for sharing this informative content.