My Journey From Gas Guzzlers To Hybrids To Photon Powered Transportation

I’m not a writer by profession, but was asked to give my story as one who has transitioned my home, business, and the cars my wife Donna and I drive into the most environmentally sound choices possible (also see video below).

Actually, I was trained as a mechanical engineer and retired from the Navy after teaching nuclear power, driving and repairing ships and submarines.

Post-retirement, I taught myself database development, business management, tax accounting and computer programming, then created a computer-based dental practice management company, Teleo Practice Services, Inc.

I find that when people give you the “green” moniker, to some, that’s akin to saying you’re a fringe nut job. However, I tell people that if you like being efficient and hate waste, you are half way to being “green” whether you realize it or not.

Loving efficiency and hating waste are more a matter of practicality and wisdom than they are about a specific philosophy – like “environmentalism.” I realized I was green long before I’d heard the term used by anyone other than Kermit the Frog.

Shedding The Guzzlers; Discovering Hybrids

It all started in 2006 when I was still driving a 1993 Buick Roadmaster. I loved that car for how useful it was, if not its fuel efficiency. It could haul my 20-foot cuddy cabin boat, got relatively respectable mileage and comfortably seated six. I could even deflate my 10-foot dinghy and throw it and its 6-horsepower motor in the trunk. But closing in on 140,000 miles, it was showing its age.

I lamented as I looked for alternatives. I’d eyed SUVs with disdain given their truck-like rides and mediocre mileage. And a minivan was never an option. By accident or divine intervention, I stumbled upon the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It could carry all my stuff, tow 3,500 pounds and get 30 mpg in the city and on the highway. WOW! My beloved Roadmaster had its replacement.

2007-toyota-highlander-hybrid

Once you start driving a hybrid, the practical aspects dawn on you even more. You look around at traffic lights and wonder why everyone else’s engine is still running. You tool around a parking lot, enjoying the silence of electric drive. If stuck in rush hour traffic you can still feel serenity because your engine is not wasting gas. I found myself wanting to roll down my window and shout to drivers creeping along at 5 mph, “Buy a Hybrid!” Of course I resisted the urge but it makes so much sense; all cars should be that efficient.

That 2006 Highlander Hybrid became my wife’s daily driver and she left her beloved 2001 Oldsmobile Aurora in the garage to collect dust. The hybrid was hard to argue against. She went from averaging 19 mpg with eight cylinders to 30 mpg with no real downside.

On to the Prius

At some point, it struck me to try and convince Donna to ditch the Aurora altogether and buy a 2008 Prius. It was a hard sell because she was still emotionally attached, but I promised her we could upgrade with a better stereo, or whatever she wanted. She eventually went for it.

While the 50 mpg Prius was homely, it had no competitor, and gasoline expense became an afterthought. And, it so happened our purchase was made a few months before gas prices went through the roof, further validating our decision.

I wish I could remember what Web search started the move toward plug-in cars, but somewhere along the way, I found myself reading about people converting their Prii into plug-ins. This made so much sense. The vehicle was largely electric already. Why not take the next step?

2008_toyota_Prius

So, I talked to the dealer. I wrote Toyota Corporate. I made the case for a plug-in. … (crickets chirping) … silence. The apathy for the concept irritated the heck out of me. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but it seemed like the same arrogance that had contaminated the Detroit big three in the ‘70s and ‘80s had found its way into Toyota. They had the whole hybrid thing down pat; why mess with perfection?

Meanwhile, I kept reading. Then a company called A123 announced a Prius lithium battery add-on kit. Cool! I contemplated purchasing one, but my waste-hating sensibility prevented me from doing it. Because it was an add-on, no regenerative braking energy found its way into that lithium battery. I decided to wait until an automaker offered a fully engineered plug-in.

On To Solar

Not insignificantly, I was also undergoing a philosophical transformation. For the second time, a Category 4 Hurricane struck my home leaving us without power for weeks. Four Hurricanes had struck my home state of Florida in just six weeks.

My solar office roof.

My solar office roof.

A year later we had Katrina and Wilma. Maybe this whole global warming thing had some merit? It took a while, but I wised up. I got photovoltaic panels installed. I was going to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And then the synergy of photons on the roof replacing hydrocarbons in the cylinders became a vision of purity that just couldn’t be matched. I was going to drive around on sunshine … now who was going to help me do it?

Discovering a Viable Plug-in Car

Enter the Chevy Volt. At first it was just a concept. But GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz and his team kept their development efforts out there in public view. I wasn’t a diehard GM fan, but when I looked at what other automakers were doing, it was basically nothing. This is when I truly got disgusted with Toyota. At the beginning of 2008 they made an announcement that they were test driving plug-in Prii in California. Then, for a couple years remained essentially silent on the matter. I tried to learn of any specific results from those Prius plug-in tests and all Web searches yielded old headlines and surface detail.

Then along came announcements of an all-electric car, the Nissan Leaf. That was OK, but I needed something I did not have to worry about being stranded with because of a depleted battery. By this point, I had two homes 1,400 miles apart.

GM really seemed to nail the concept – all-electric, all the time, until you needed gas. I had a personalized plate picked long before a vehicle arrived, “SUN FUEL” would be my ride and my message.

Towing one of our Volts with our two-mode hybrid Tahoe.

Towing one of our Volts with our two-mode hybrid Tahoe.

Eventually it became clear that GM and Nissan would have wheels on the ground while everyone else was still floating hot air. The Volt was going to be it, barring any catastrophes.

In September 2011 we ordered one sight unseen. Part of my confidence in taking this plunge was because for the previous two years, I’d been participating in the GM-Volt forum. Lots of folks were already driving Volts and raving about them, which is a good thing, given the dealer I went to was no help.

We test drove a Volt October 2011 at a New York dealer who proved the car had better sell itself, because like most dealers I’d contacted, they were oblivious. This dealer had only one salesman with some knowledge of the Volt, and he was off that day. Next stop, however, was driving bliss.

My wife, who had never truly forgiven me for making her give up that Aurora, again instantly found nirvana during that test drive. It felt nice. It felt natural. It was quiet luxury. Our first Volt was delivered in December 2011.

Still Sun Powered Today

Fast forward a year and half and nirvana still exists and we have two Volts now. It’s still a blast to floor the accelerator from a stop light and silently watch cars falling behind in the rear-view mirror. Knowing I am burning nothing but photons, I can enjoy driving for its own sake, like I never have in my life. I can be frugal and maximize my range. Or I can zip around when I know I will make it back to my plug without igniting a spark plug.

As for the long waited-for Prius plug-in, well Toyota finally launched one last March. All I can say is you’ve got to be kidding me. They took years, had the electrified vehicle mass market potential all to themselves but their smugness is obvious to me. They completely took the lazy way out in my opinion, and their efforts amount to replacing the old nickel metal hydride batteries with a little bit larger li-ion pack and that’s about it. The vehicle gets a measly 11 miles on electricity, and only if you are gentle with the accelerator.

solar office window annotated

Like a number of other manufacturers, including Ford which at least offers maybe 21 miles electric range for its C-MAX Energi and Fusion Energi, electricity basically remains a helper technology.

After experiencing real electric, with full torque off the line, its hard not to scoff at “lite” versions of electric/gas utility.

With the Volt, GM hit a moonshot. They put in a battery thermal management system that was shunned by Nissan, who thought air cooling was enough. Now Leaf owners in hot climates are seeing the battery degradation that GM avoided.

Politically motivated tactics aside, there have been no recalls and no other vehicle has a higher satisfaction percentage- for two years now. It was won many awards, including European Car of the Year, something especially noteworthy for an American car.

Holding Pattern For Now

My journey from the Roadmaster through the hybrids and finally to the Volt has been meteoric, but has now hit a plateau. I bought two 2012 Volts, expecting to keep them for the long haul. With regenerative brakes that will probably last the life of the car, a rarely used internal combustion engine and a battery warranted for eight years, these cars have significant life expectancy. Nor do I see vehicles on the horizon that will supersede the Volt’s ability to provide most of my transport duties propelled by sunlight.

In time new vehicles are expected to come along that will interact with the grid to provide power back-up. Those of us who have lost power for weeks at a time understand the value of generating power when needed, and working with a smart grid scenario looks like a great idea.

Newt Gingrich may have said you can't mount a gun rack to the Volt, but I mounted a rack to carry the deer I bagged while hunting with mine.

Newt Gingrich may have said you can’t mount a gun rack to the Volt, but I mounted a rack to carry the deer I bagged while hunting with mine.

More likely than not, I’ll wait for grid interaction potential before my next vehicle purchase. If GM is still the leader, with its Voltec technology, I’ll be happy to jump on board with them. But I am not brand specific on my journey to ultimately rid my life of fossil fuels. And, like it or not, that future awaits all of us within a few decades, or less.

Maybe the Voltec generator is shifted to bio fuels. Maybe we even get inductance charging built into the roadbeds. Regardless, when you see the Saudis rushing to embrace solar power, because their oil is too valuable to burn for power generation, the writing is on the wall that your still-new gas burner could be just a museum piece before you know it.

Mark graduated summa cum laude with his BS in Mechanical Engineering SUNY Buffalo (1984). He and Donna (nee Dixon) have been married 29 years. They have one son, one daughter, and two grandchildren.