Outlander PHEV update #6. One year with an electric car

This month is my one year anniversary with the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. My intention in purchasing the car was to answer some key questions;

  • Do Electric Vehicle's (EV's) and hybrids perform as advertised?
  • How reliant are we on fossil fuels and is it possible to switch to pure EV?
  • Can we supply EV power from rooftop solar?
  • What does this mean for the vehicle market?

With a year's experience, has the plug-in hybrid EV met expectations?

Since my last update I've done another 7,000km in the car. In the last two weeks I've had an opportunity to perform another test, long distance commuting with a 160km daily round trip from the northern beaches in Sydney to Penrith. The Outlander PHEV has a 50km EV range, so this was a real test of the efficiency of the car driving long distances in hybrid mode.

I've figured out the most efficient way to manage the car is stay in EV while below 70kph, typically on local roads or in heavy traffic. Above 70kph it's better to place the vehicle in battery saver mode (which forces the car into non-EV mode) and use the petrol engine to do the heavy lifting through direct drive of the front wheels. In this mode, there is also some energy recovery to the battery, meaning that when you exit freeway driving and return to local roads there is a modest increase in battery power for EV mode.

Over 900km driven in long distance commuting, I averaged 3.6L/100km fuel efficiency. By any measure, that is outstanding for a large SUV, even against non plug-in hybrids like the Camry or Prius. In one full year with 17,500km on the vehicle, I have used 311 litres of petrol for a fuel efficiency of 1.8L/100km. That is very close to the vehicles claimed 1.9L/100km.

Yes, it performs as advertised.

The question then is the technology ready to replace the vehicles we have on the road and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?

Yes. Nearly. Sort of. Maybe.

With the exception of Tesla, most of the pure EV's on the road today have a rated range of 130 - 160km. While that would cover most city driving scenarios, it doesn't cover most people's range needs over time, because at some point you need to drive further than that, and cannot rely on destination charging. My long range commuting this week is a case in point. At 160km it is technically within the outer range limits of today's pure EV's. However, add some hills, air conditioning and freeways speeds and you will not get the rated maximum range. You should take 20 - 30% off the rated range with all those factors. So I'd be calling a tow truck each day to get me home. Nope.

That scenario was the exact reason I decided to opt for a plug-in hybrid. The trade-off was a shorter EV only range, but effectively unlimited total range by having fossil fuel as the fallback.
My key observation from this is that plug-in hybrid is almost certain to achieve fairly rapid market penetration over the next 5 years or so. It gives you the range of a fossil car with significantly lower reliance on fossil fuel. it's the best of both worlds.

The answer for EV's then lies in the next generation of long range vehicles. Tesla bet on this from the start with it's existing models and the upcoming Model 3. General Motors has the Bolt announced with a 300km+ range and Nissan has announced upgrades to the Leaf. At 300km of rated range, which should translate into 250km of effective range with hill climbs, air conditioning and high speed factored in. I think an EV can replace 99% of day to day fossil car use cases. I make that assessment based on daily commuting times and distances.

The only remaining issue is road trips, where you are not returning to home base to refuel with electrons. Assuming zero roll out of public charging infrastructure (which is highly unlikely as EV's gain popularity) you can justify either a rental car for rare use cases, or people with longer range needs will use hybrid vehicles. As EV's gain popularity, charging stations are appearing. Tesla is already building a supercharger network in Australia and public charging is becoming available. But it will be possible to own an EV and never charge outside your home.

Is it possible to charge your car at home from solar power?

Yes. Nearly. Sort of. Maybe.

EV's consume a lot of power. A lot. Probably more than your whole house. Yes, you read that right. My house with 5 people uses on average 12kwh (kilowatt hours) per day. We use gas for hot water and cooking, so you could probably double that for houses that use electricity for cooking and heating. Most current EV's have a 24-30kwh battery, but to achieve the range I outlined above, they need at least 60kwh batteries, and Tesla Model S has up to 95kwh to get 450km range.

Of course, people will not use all of that power every day. My PHEV has a 12kwh battery, and my power bill shows that on average, I use 10kwh per day to run the vehicle. Bear in mind, some days I do not drive it (working from home) and some days I completely exhaust the battery so the remaining power is generated by fossil fuel not electricity from the power socket. 90% of the driving I do is EV, meaning 12-15kwh per day should cover most of my commuting needs.

I have a large solar installation on my flat roof with 6.5kw total capacity which produces an actual maximum output of 6kw and an effective average output of around 4.5-5kw. I have 28 panels on my roof all calibrated to face precisely due north. This is much larger than most homes, and most installers will mount flush to a pitched roof, which may not be due north, thus reducing potential output. Standard installations will vary from 2-4kw generation capacity, which given variability including roof pitch, due north angle, shade, grime on the panels exposed to weather and cloudy days will give between 5-10kwh effective daily production.

I can power my house and my car from solar power but this is not typical and is unlikely to hold once I get a pure EV with a larger battery, or a second electric car. Most people will rely on grid power to charge their EV. The good news is that EV's are also giant batteries, so can contribute to making the power grid more resilient. My car has a timer to restrict charging to off peak. By charging off peak, EV's will maximise the efficiency of the power network, and if vehicles can also be used as energy storage devices, could provide emergency power in power outages, or supplement the grid in times of peak demand.

Will electric vehicles replace fossil vehicles any time soon?

Yes. Nearly. Sort of. Maybe.

In the short to medium term, these changes are only going to impact cars we drive, not commercial vehicles. Heavy vehicles will remain diesel powered for some time yet.

There is a bunch of stuff happening in consumer vehicles. Hydrogen is getting a lot of support from Japanese makers, but the fueling infrastructure required is unlikely to see it take off elsewhere. EV's powered by batteries is where the action is at.

Even if the technology for pure EV's were to remain expensive, the move towards hybrid fossil vehicles is unstoppable. From a pure efficiency standpoint, the economics are already starting to add up. The real question about EV's is the batteries, the technology exists but total global capacity is constrained by production, so it remains relatively expensive to power a car purely by electricity and give it 300-400km worth of range to match a fossil car.

That will not remain the status quo. There are too many factors driving battery technology, from portable computing devices and phones to household energy storage. Tesla is building the Gigafactory to massively expand global supply of batteries and reduce the cost per kwh. Market forces will ensure continued research and development and expanding supply to meet demand.

This sends up a red flag for the value of pure fossil vehicles. Resale values are likely to be impacted in round 4-8 years as people will cease to opt for vehicles without some form of hybrid capability. If you buy a pure fossil car today, be very careful about your depreciation and resale strategy. It may be better to consider a lease on a fossil car over the next 5 years to protect yourself from loss of value just when you're planning to sell or trade in. Think back to the introduction of unleaded petrol, a few years later reselling a leaded petrol car became more difficult.

This cascading level of demand shift for EV's and hybrids versus pure fossil cars will be met by manufacturers matching the demand. As more hybrids and EV's hit the road, it's likely we will see fossil vehicle prices decrease further, and quite possibly the cost of fossil fuel will also decrease in line with reducing demand. It's likely that governments will then change policy settings to increase taxes on fossil fuels to maintain a price disincentive, similar to increasing taxes on tobacco products.

I predict in 8-10 years it will be nearly impossible to purchase a new consumer vehicle that is not at least a hybrid. That may not seem like a long time in the car industry but bear in mind the shift is already underway. Car manufacturers are spooked by the PR success of Tesla and multiple manufacturers are reeling from fuel efficiency cheating scandals, including VW and Mitsubishi who makes the Outlander PHEV.

If you doubt this change can happen, think back again to leaded fuel, or the international agreement to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons from aerosols. Once these changes are adopted, they accelerate as sentiment shifts and tend to complete faster than originally anticipated. The time horizon for this change is much, much shorter than the 20-30 years some people predict.