Monday, September 18, 2017

#7 - Why you can’t Win a Formula One Race without an Electric Engine

The answer, as always, is technology.

My first cars were 4-cylinder 1.6 Litre engines. These were naturally aspirated except for a 1971 Volkswagen Type III (Fastback) that actually had fuel injection instead of a carburetor. Didn’t help much but unlike modern cars controlled by a number of chips and systems, that car was easy to fix, tune up and repair.

Today, cars are far more efficient, and sophisticated as a result. Some of the advancements are technology for the sake of it or for the benefit of the creatures inside, but the more recent developments in drivetrain technology are truly incredible. Since the arrival of the Prius, I have been fascinated by the way that hybrid gas/electric motor increases fuel efficiency in part by recapturing energy while braking –regenerative braking as it is called. It works even better in my Tesla. So well, in fact, that I hardly touch the brakes during city driving and Tesla themselves have guided to 150,000 km before your first brake job.

But the pinnacle of all things motorsport is of course, Formula 1. For several years now Formula 1 cars have been Hybrids. However, the real shocker is what those development teams have done to squeeze more horsepower out of an ever smaller gas-powered engine. Today, it is just a 1.6 Litre V6 engine that rockets a Formula 1 car to over 300 kph.

How do they do that?

Well, first of all they combine the low-speed torque of an electric motor to boost the car out of corners and up to a speed where the gasoline engine delivers its max torque and high top speed. Then, as the car hurtles toward the next corner the electric motor re-captures as much kinetic energy as it can while assisting in braking. That energy gets stored in a battery but only for a few seconds before it dumps it out again pulling the car out of that same corner. Granted, in high school physics my teacher would have called that a capacitor not a battery because it is basically just holding a high-voltage charge for a short time and then blasting it out as quickly as possible.

The demand to transfer that much electricity (energy) from a battery to a drivetrain creates a whole host of problems to solve similar to what the engineers at Tesla faced when getting the Model S and X from 0-60 mph in less than three seconds. The first time they tried it at Tesla, all that energy going from the battery to the electric motors so quickly simply melted all the cables.

The hybrid system makes such a difference to the performance of a Formula 1 car that past generations of race cars without it, even with much larger gas-powered engines, couldn’t hope to compete. A good example of this was three years ago in Abu Dhabi when Lewis Hamilton won his second F1 Championship his team mate Nico Rosberg had a failure of his electric motor. This was in the early days of the hybrid system, but even still Rosberg went from second place to ninth place in a matter of a couple of laps simply because his car did not have the advantage of regenerative braking.

Of course Formula 1 has taken this concept of energy recovery way beyond simple regenerative brakes. After tuning the system to recapture as much of the kinetic energy as possible in the braking phase (through a unit called an MKU-K) they then turned to the turbo charger. Here, hot exhaust is run through a turbine that is connected to a compressor such that the rising pressure of exhaust from an accelerating car is used to create pressure for the fuel intake that boosts horsepower.

But there is a lag –”Turbo Lag”- in motor-speak. To eliminate the lag and make the whole system more efficient those geniuses at Formula 1 created a system to recapture the kinetic energy stored in the turbine the same way it is recaptured under braking. It is called the MKU-H. As the exhaust fumes spin up the turbo, electricity is produced and stored that is then used to spin up the compressor in those early stages during turbo lag. Now, no lag. And more energy recaptured to make the car faster and more efficient at the same time. This system is starting to show up in production cars and is called an eTurbo.

Formula 1 cars leave no doubt they are on the bleeding edge of motorsport technology, and are in fact the testing ground for brilliant new developments in future production cars. But the fact remains they are creations that seem to defy logic. A 1.6 litre V-6 engine that produces 1,000 horsepower is in the same vehicle that weighs 1,500 lbs fully loaded but produces over 2,500 lbs of downforce at speed. So, theoretically, these cars can drive upside down.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

#6 - No One Buys a Tesla to Save on Gas…

Let’s be clear, no one buys a $100,000 car solely to save on the cost of fuel.  In my case, it was the fifth of five reasons I cited here when I bought my Tesla.  But I wanted to figure out how much electricity my Tesla was using and if that was a measurable savings on the gas I would have been paying for to run my old car.

Where I live in Canada electricity costs have been rising steadily for the last few years, and that will continue.  The incremental (or highest) cost I pay is $0.124 per KWh.  That was the easy part.  Figuring out how many Kilowatt Hours of electricity my cars uses was a little tougher.  I checked a number of Tesla forums (there are way too many of them) and found other owners were trying to figure out the same thing.  Everyone, it seemed, was coming at the problem from a different angle but eventually I figured out an equation that gave me an answer.  I don’t keep a log of how many KWh of electricity I use every time I drive the car and if I started doing that it wouldn’t help me with the first 18 months I have owned the car so I needed my own approach.
Happily, Tesla’s capture plenty of data on energy consumption including the average Watt Hours per Kilometer driven over the last 10km, 25km or 50km.  With that number (an average of approximately 200 Watt Hours of electricity per km) at $0.124 per Kilowatt Hour over the 26,000Km the car has logged since purchase works out to:

I tend to own cars for long periods of time (10 yrs is not unusual and to that end I still own the car I bought in 2001) so that will work out to around $25,000 over the 10 yrs I expect to own my Tesla which is much more than I expected.

Now, if you are considering buying an electric vehicle (and “EV”) a few other options exist that are considerably cheaper than a Tesla Model S or X.  The highly anticipated Tesla Model 3 is rumoured to be in Beta production currently with a few cars expected to roll off the assembly line later this year.  And at a starting price of US$35,000 (around $50,000 in Canada) it will fit many more car-buying budgets.  The Chevy Bolt is getting rave reviews, even from an existing Tesla Model S driver and is priced the same as the Model 3.  However, since the Bolt is available in some US states today and the Model 3 is still a news release rather than a reality most consumers are left to choose amongst the Prius Highbrid or one of the existing EVs like the Nissan Leaf or the Honda Insight.  The Nissan Leaf is the clear leader in that category and despite its limited range I see many of them on the road (as well as parked at local EV Charging stations).

Until recently I hadn’t thought of the economics of owning an EV, and even when I looked at it in detail before buying my Tesla I found it was more about the savings in maintenance that really made the difference in my decision (partly because the alternative to a Tesla Model S for me was a used Porsche 911 – not exactly comparable cars but that was all part of my decision making process).  The other day I met a young man who works several jobs and just bought a new Nissan Leaf.  One of those jobs was as a Pizza delivery guy (I did this job in my youth as a direct means to pay for the gas, insurance and maintenance on my first used cars).  This guy told me he previously drove a used Chevy Geo (a 3-cylinder sub-compact car from the 90’s that any objective observer would describe as a crappy car) and where this was primarily (but not entirely) used for his job delivering pizza it cost him $400/month in gas to run.  Plus maintenance.  He proudly pointed out that the all-in lease cost on his new Nissan Leaf was $400/month.  And his gas costs were now zero (with essentially no maintenance).

 Now, electricity is not free as I calculated above, but this guy lives in an apartment so has to park his car at the grocery store across the street where they have a couple of spots with an EV charger.  In my province the monopoly provider of electricity cost is the only entity permitted to do that so others can charge for parking but not for the electricity.  In this case, where the parking is free so is are the electrons.  And the simple matter of smoothing over relations with the night manager who say this same car parked every night was expertly managed with a couple of large pizzas.  Not a bad little story especially when he added that in addition to the $5,000 incentive he got from the government to buy an EV he also got $6,000 from another government program designed to provide an incentive to get old cars off the road.  He paid $500 for his old piece of crap and got $6,000 to take it off the road…

What both the Model 3 and the Bolt have that sets them apart from any other affordable EV available today is a substantially larger battery pack.  That helps with “range anxiety” and makes feasible longer trips or linking together several short trips that don’t revolve around chargers.  The chargers themselves are getting better as well, such as the growing presence of CHAdeMO chargers that can fill an EV with 120km of range in less than half an hour.  One of the main problems I can see with the proliferation of smaller “economy” EVs is how to charge them.  I have a garage and installed a 220V connection to charge my Tesla but I grew up in a house with no garage where we parked on the street out front.  Houses without garages where the occupants park on the street and apartments or condos make up a large proportion of the living situations for much of Tesla’s Model 3 market or most people in the market for smaller “economy” EVs.  To charge an EV parked on the street in front of a house would mean running a long extension cord out across the lawn which is totally impractical.  And many apartment buildings only install one or two EV charging stations in their garages so even if you can charge your car you still have to move it to your regular parking space after an allotted amount of time.

The charging issues are a small hurdle to EV ownership and likely less of a concern for the drivers as long as the benefits of owning that type of car outweigh the costs by a significant enough margin.  With 400,000 Tesla Model 3s on pre-order, the reduced cost of fuel and maintenance appear to be outweighing the hassle factor.  At least in theory…

Sunday, January 8, 2017

#5 - Buying a Car from a Dinosaur

How Tesla has improved the process of buying any car

I bought my Tesla in 2015 and I only half-joke that it is my largest online purchase ever.  I did everything other than take delivery of the car online.  While I did get on the phone and ask a series of technical questions, like “How long will the battery last?” and I did meet with Tesla sales people in their showroom, that was nothing but research.  I did also complete a well documented test drive (here), but the final decisions regarding options, color and purchase vs. lease were all done online, not to mention putting down a deposit and frankly, managing my ownership of that same car through my profile on the website ever since taking delivery.  No visit to a dealership required.  You cannot do that with any other vehicle that I am aware of.

This comparison arises because my wife and I just went through the process of buying her a new car.  A GMC truck. It seems, however, the experience we had, and have repeated a few times with other new car purchases in the past, is virtually the same regardless of the make of car.  These days, all automakers (in North America at least) have a website where you can “Build your vehicle”.  It is straightforward; pick the model, color, drivetrain, interior, wheels, options, etc.  When you have done all that, you get handed over to a Dealer.  Why?  Because consumers never actually buy a car from GM, Ford or any other automaker.  By law, we can only purchase cars from dealerships.  That is what Tesla has eliminated with their new sales model and why you could not buy a Tesla in New Jersey, Arizona, Michigan, Maryland and Texas initially because those states maintained laws that prohibited consumers from buying cars direct from automakers. 

It seems a little crazy that consumers are prohibited by law from buying a car direct from the automaker but it is not nearly as bizarre as the arcane system dealerships have trapped themselves and their customers in for the purchase of a vehicle.  While it may start on a website these days, it always ends in a dealership and with a multi-step process that is so inefficient, painful and disjointed that it makes Soviet era Russia seem modern.  

First, we start with the salesperson.  The smile, the pitch, the useful information about each model, perhaps even the white shoes with white belt.  All of it designed to hone in on the “right car for you”.  You may already have done that on the website so next is the Test Drive. 

The test drive is an obligatory process and one even purchasers in Tesla’s new sales model of car buying want to do.  Some dealers will even bring the car to your home at an appointed time, as Tesla will do, to make this second step as seamless and as fun as it should be. 

The third step is the price negotiation; options, color, interior, etc.  Didn’t we already do this on the website?  Perhaps, and that may speed things along except for the fact that in the dealership model the cars in inventory are the ones the dealer wants to sell you.  As a result, the sales person engages in this annoying process of matching what they have to sell you with what you actually want.  Okay, but why can’t you just make what I want like Tesla does?

The fourth step (or is it step 3b) where the sales person searches for the car you are looking for.  Where Tesla simply builds the car you have designed, dealers actually own the cars on their lots so the salesperson will direct you to a vehicle as similar as possible to the one you want on their lot or on another dealer’s lot elsewhere.  If you choose a factory order, it seems that all price negotiation goes out the window.  The “customization” within the dealership model appears to be the salesperson selling final add-ons like undercoating (famous for being something that provides un-needed protection at some cost to the consumer and a tidy profit for the dealer), theft protection, Sirius XM radio or other after-market products and services.

The next step is when the sales manager is brought in to “finalize” the sale.  This always seems to me like the salesperson you have just been dealing with for the last hour is not authorized to close the deal.  Like they are in training or something, so they need to bring in the manager to finish it all off.  That can get a little sticky but once you are through that step you can press on… 

If you are leasing the vehicle you next go to the finance or leasing department, something you would have to do even if you were leasing a Tesla, but it is yet another step, it involves yet another person in another office and it can take an hour itself as you comb through the most confounding mathematical exercise ever conceived.  I have spent my entire 26 year career in finance, and consider myself fairly sophisticated in understand quite complex financing structures, but the leasing department takes the prize for most complicated and opaque.  Even after an hour of checking and re-checking certain figures to ensure I understood roughly how they were being calculated, there remained portions of the calculation I simply had to take their word for how it was being done.  Most consumers, I believe, simply focus on the bottom line which is the monthly payment.  And frankly that is how most cars in North America get sold – it is almost entirely a function of the monthly payment. In our purchase, we were now on to the sixth step but it was dark by now, and I was feeling defeated by the army of dealership soldiers I was working my way through. 

The sixth step was insurance.  On to another office within the dealership, yet another person involved in the process (we are at four so far, not including the receptionist).  Auto insurance is a necessity but now it is approaching 10pm and we are hours into the process.  The sun has long set and I have to leave to pick up one of our kids so my wife presses on with the actual delivery of the car.  Are we at step seven?  I lost track.  A brief explanation of the many features of the new car, a fifth person to affix the license plate, insurance sticker to ensure this hulk is roadworthy and we are finally done.  Any remaining explanation is left for another time because the purchaser has long since run out of interest in the process.  Phew, can I go home now?

As it turns out, the dealerships, and the car companies for that matter, don’t make much money selling cars.  All the profit for the dealer is in the optional extras sold at the end and the follow on service of the vehicle.  And in the lease.  I recall seeing a brilliant comment by a research analyst covering the auto sector that truly captured the essence of the auto business: in this case it was Ford being described a money-losing manufacturer of cars with a profitable bank on the side (referring to the fact that they made all their money leasing cars, not selling them).

How does it work when you buy a Tesla?  Well, when you make the decision a bright light appears, angels sing and and the car appears in your driveway.  Well, not exactly but it sure seemed like a close description compared to buying a car from a dinosaur dealer.  

As I stated above, I consider my Tesla to be my largest ever online purchase.  Once I had configured the car on their website, put down a $2,500 deposit with my credit card, I got a message:  “Thank you for your purchase.  We will hold your deposit for 10 days before starting the build process.  You are able to make any changes to the vehicle whatsoever during these 10 days.  At the end of the 10 days we will send you another email notifying you that we have taken your deposit are about to start building your car to your specifications.  You can still make changes but some changes may result in an additional $500 charge and/or a change in the delivery date.”  Presumably you can change something like the wheels anytime prior to when they are put on the car but changing the color after it has been painted would result in a charge and a change in the delivery time.  A little less than two weeks after the deposit was taken I got a VIN number and a couple of weeks after that the car was made and I was selecting a delivery date.  Now that was simple, transparent and it felt custom made.  But not exactly rocket science, and I still had to take delivery.

When it came time to pick up the car it was such a completely different experience from the GM dealer.  The same obligatory details needed to be completed such as lease details if that is your choice, and insurance, but at Tesla they are all handled by the same person.  One person.  Not multiple departments.  And all while I was seated in the same chair.  The vast majority of time I spent at the dealer receiving the car I had bought was all spent learning how it works, basic features and simple setup (like how to charge it, connecting to Bluetooth or where the windshield wiper fluid is refilled).  All the awkward steps involving multiple people, separate departments and individual offices each run by a specific manager had all been taken care of online.  Why?  Because I was buying the car from Tesla, not from a dinosaur that already had an inventory of cars they needed to move.  My car was factory ordered, made in three weeks and delivered in another three weeks.  The price was the price and the only haggling arises if you are factoring in the value of a trade-in.

The best part is, this way of buying a car is not proprietary to Tesla.  Anyone can do it.  The traditional auto makers, however, would have to unwind their entire dealership network in order to do what Tesla does so it is not likely to happen with them anytime soon.  Hopefully, the moment one auto maker adopts Tesla’s online configuration and the direct purchase model, the others will be forced to follow.  And then, the painful, exhausting and unnecessarily complex process of buying a car will be replaced with something more akin to a purchase on Amazon.