Why aren’t AWD cars half electric?

We’re still shopping for a new car to supplement the (awesome) 2018 Honda Odyssey. As we mull the options (waiting to test-drive the Mazda CX-30, for example), one thing that jumps out at me is that AWD (four-wheel drive) continues to be implemented via mechanical driveshafts, differentials, gears, etc. We’re about 12 years into the modern electric car era (Tesla Roadster was launched in 2008). Given the volumes of all-electric cars currently being produced by multiple manufacturers, shouldn’t it be cheaper to implement AWD via low-horsepower electric motors at the back wheels to supplement a conventional FWD system?

A car at highway speeds uses only about 20 hp (source). Thus, even for providing a certain amount of improved handling in slippery conditions, wouldn’t a 10 hp motor on each rear wheel be sufficient for escaping an icy driveway and touching up handling dynamics on the road? Acura announced this for high-performance cars in 2011 with 27 hp per rear wheel (Car and Driver), but the typical consumer just wants to overcome fear of getting stuck (FOGS). It seems that Acura is currently shipping this system in their MDX vehicle, using 36 hp per rear wheel (source). The MDX weighs over 4,000 lbs. For a lighter vehicle with fewer aspirations to greatness, shouldn’t 10 hp per rear wheel be enough? Why isn’t that cheaper than all of the mechanical parts to transmit power from the engine to the back of the car and then distribute between the wheels? A bit of searching on Alibaba shows that a 10 hp electric motor costs about $150 in small quantities. Presumably a car manufacturer would pay much less.

Plainly it actually is cheaper to do it the 1970s mechanical way. But why?


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When cars drive themselves, luxury will be cars that don’t drive themselves and a track on which to relive the 20th century?

It would be fun to own a new mid-engine Corvette, but for the fact that the average daytime speed on Boston-area highways is now down around 25 mph. A 1957 Fiat 500 with 13 hp offers ample performance for commuting.

Aside from the chronic traffic jams of a country of 330 million trying to use roads built for 150 million, what is the point of a high-performance car when human drivers may soon be outlawed on public roads? Six young people died in “school shootings” in 2019 (NYT; but one seems to have been more of a personal dispute that ended up being fatally settled on school grounds) and that is enough carnage to prompt roughly half of Americans to demand that the government take away their Second Amendment rights. The carnage due to human drivers is roughly 8,000X worse: about 40,000 people killed per year here in the U.S. Especially given that it is not a Constitutionally-protected right, do we really want to take the risk of 17-year-olds in 6,000 lb. SUVs?

Taking a rare break from its all-impeachment-all-the-time format, the NYT gives us a story about residential clubs built around a race track: “Country Clubs Where Drives Can Hit 150 M.P.H.” Get up in the morning, zip around the track in the Corvette, then let the robot take you to work.

Some excerpts:

But the Concours Club and its ilk do not come cheap, with six-figure initiation fees and five-figure dues that make private golf clubs look reasonably priced.

The idea for Concours was born of escaping the winter up north. “Five years ago, I’m sitting down in Miami in our condo in South Beach and there’s every kind of car outside,” said Neil Gehani, a real estate investor and the club’s founder. “I thought, there has to be a club down here.”

After a call to his club outside Chicago, the Autobahn Country Club, where he raced Ferraris and got hooked on country club racing, he found there wasn’t one in South Florida. “I was told the land was too expensive,” he said. “That wasn’t acceptable to me. I wanted to be in Miami and I needed a private auto country club.”

The club, which is within Miami’s Opa Locka private airport, 14 miles west of Miami Beach, has cost $70 million to build so far. Mr. Gehani said 40 founding members were invited to join, paying a one-time $350,000 initiation fee with no annual dues. The club just released 100 additional spots, with an initiation fee of $150,000 and annual dues of $35,000. It plans to limit those memberships to 200.

Other tracks helped inspire the Miami club. The Thermal Club, outside Palm Springs, Calif., has four tracks over 450 acres, two restaurants and a BMW performance driving school. The club has 48 bungalows for overnight stays, as well as 268 home sites overlooking the racetracks. The initiation is $85,000, with monthly dues of $1,200.

Members at the Thermal Club are obligated to buy a lot and build a house within five years, said Tim Rogers, the club’s founder. The lots cost from $750,000 to $900,000, with the finished 8,000-square-foot homes running about $3 million.

Good fodder for politicians stirring up envy with talk of inequality?

(Fake News alert: the Opa Locka airport is, in fact, publicly owned (by Miami-Dade County) and “open to the public” (airnav), not “private” as the NYT says. Google Maps shows a track under construction next to KOPF, but not obviously “within” (usually tough given that the FAA can be strict about non-aviation uses of airport facilities; this might be county-owned land that was outside the airport fence? Google Maps shows a public street separating the track from the airport proper).)

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2020 Hyundai Sonata is as quiet as a Camry or Accord…

… at least as measured objectively.

The 2020 Hyundai Sonata is rolling out of the Alabama factory now (Korean brains and American brawn?).

A candid media presentation shows that “road noise” (unclear what speed) was 63.5 dBA for the new Sonata versus 63 for the Camry and 64 for the Accord. Hyundai has pulled out the same technical stops as Toyota and Honda, i.e., using windshield glass laminated with a sound-absorbing layer of plastic (“acoustic glass”). All but the lowest trim levels also get acoustic glass for the front side windows.

(Car and Driver did a comparison test in which the Sonata was rated 2 out of 5 and objectively measured 1 dBA noisier than the Accord (and 2 dBA noisier than the Camry). The authors noted that “A small tornado’s worth of wind noise makes its way into the cabin, which is surprising because the Sonata is the only car here with dual-pane glass in the front doors.”)

Hyundai is pushing hard with smartphone integration. Their “digital key” (Android-only, perhaps due to Apple restrictions on using near field communication?) lets people open, start, and drive the car without a key. At the SEL trim level and above, the car can be remote-started from an app that works on iPhone or Android.

Now that we live in a USB-C world, of course the car, like every other car, is crammed with USB-A charging ports.

Even the lowest trim level includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It looks like the next step up, SEL, is the minimum for the “Blue Link” remote start, heated seats, automatic temperature control, blind spot assistance, rear cross-traffic assistance, etc. This is priced at $25,500. It is an extra $1,200 to get the digital key and some other goodies via a “convenience” package. It looks as though the comparable Honda Accord is the EX, at $27,770. (But the proper way to compare car costs, I think, is to look at the monthly lease payment since that encapsulates the market’s belief regarding likely resale value. See this example with a Tesla 3.)

Readers: Since the prices are similar, maybe it comes down to looks and style? Here’s the Sonata, the Accord, and the Camry. Which one looks the best?

(In other car news: The much-anticipated 2020 Subaru Legacy turned out to be a flop, losing a Car and Driver comparison test to the Nissan Altima AWD version and coming in last in the 5-car test cited above.)

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Who will buy the Tesla Cybertruck?

While I was in China, Tesla introduced its 6-seat Cybertruck. At $40,000 for the 2WD version, it does not seem overpriced (and the 4WD version at $50k with 16″ of ground clearance would have the potential for good off-road performance, right?). Operating cost here in Massachusetts (22 cents/kwh electricity) should be about the same as a gas-powered mid-sized car, maybe 7 cents per mile? Practicality with the locking bed cover (standard?) should be good, except for parking.

There is the image question. With today’s Teslas, one expects the driver to emerge and deliver a lecture on climate change, the merits of Elizabeth Warren, unions (except at Tesla itself), and a larger government, etc. What would the image be of someone who drives what looks like a high school kid’s first SolidWorks project?

How did they pick the name? This is for people who used to say “I’m using the Interweb”?

How are they going to deliver this car at $40-50k profitably? Isn’t stainless steel expensive?


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Tesla Road Trip

Our plan to fly to Washington, D.C. on a recent Friday was thwarted by 40-knot wind gusts and a SIGMET for “severe turbulence.” The goal was to attend a 7:30 pm concert so we couldn’t simply wait out the weather. We didn’t see a way to have reasonably comfortable passengers and arrive at the hall before 8:00 pm.

The Google said that it would take 7 hours and 20 minutes to drive from our Boston suburb, so my friend picked me up in his Tesla X at 10:40 am. Not only would we make it to the concert on time, but we’d save the Earth in the process. Generations from now, this would be remembered as the moment that the oceans began to recede and the planet began to heal.

The car had not been been plugged in overnight so we had only about 100 miles of range at the beginning. The Tesla owner said that this wouldn’t make a lot of difference to our total time because the superchargers work much faster when the car is down to below 50 or 100 miles of range.

There are no supercharger stations at the rest stops on the Mass Pike, so we left the highway near Worcester to charge at the Auburn Mall. As we wandered among the half-derelict retail, my friend checked his app and found that the charge rate had slowed. When we got back out to the car we found that someone had pulled into the adjacent bay. “The charging points share a feed,” my friend said. “So you only get full power if there is nobody on either side.”

The Tesla software automatically calculates charging stops, but offers no interface to tweak the plan. If there is a supercharger you’d particularly like to visit, you might have to enter it yourself as the destination. The software is also unaware of how many people are at or going to be at a supercharging station so the software does not factor “charging congestion” when choosing a stop.

The next stop was a rest area on the Merritt Parkway. These have a Dunkin Donuts, a Subway, a convenience market, and a handful of interior chairs for scarfing down a Subway sandwich. They seem to have been designed with the idea that people would stop for 5 minutes to tank up the car, use the restroom, and perhaps purchase a coffee. With the Tesla, however, we were there for 40 minutes to bring the car up to 200 miles of range. This does not include our brief wait for planet-destroying cars that identify as planet-saving cars to back out of the Tesla charging spaces:

Traffic in the NY Metro area slowed to a crawl starting at 3 pm. Combined with two additional stops (NJ Turnpike and Chesapeake House on I-95 just over the border into Maryland), we arrived at the concert hall at 9:15 pm, roughly 10.5 hours after departure. The hotel was 2 miles away. We got there with 30 miles of range, but fortunately the parking lot had a $1.50/hour public charging point. This was adding range at the rate of 16 miles per hour (not too different from D.C. traffic!) and at a slightly higher cost than an efficient midsize sedan would consume in gasoline.

Starting with a full battery would have made the trip go faster, but given the charge level at which we started I don’t think we could have done the trip more efficiently. The car was plugged into a supercharger during every minute that we were stopped.

The entire trip was done in 55-60-degree temperatures. My friend says that the range for a given battery charge would have been substantially less in the winter, perhaps 30 percent less.

Traffic jams could occur at any time or any hour. Note the stopped traffic next to the new “American Dream” mall. Soon the American dream will be to have a transportation system as efficient as the one in Mumbai or Delhi?

How about comfort? The Tesla is significantly noisier at highway speeds than our Honda Odyssey, so it is more fatiguing to ride in. The Tesla also does not absorb bumps as well, but fortunately the roads were mostly in great shape.

As someone who loves a good road trip, I notice that the Tesla changes the character of a leisurely journey. In a gasoline-powered vehicle, favorite Connecticut stops are a NY-style deli, an aquarium store, Cabela’s for the taxidermed trophies, etc. Tesla keeps the Climate One Percenters tied to shopping malls and highway rest stops with their national fast food chains. There is no point putting a supercharger on a back road, in the parking lot of a local diner, or next to an obscure tourist attraction.

On the plus side, we did get to see what kind of souvenirs our best business minds can come up with for rest stops on I-95:

Maybe conversations at the superchargers could make up for the lack of local color? It would be like the Turkish Airlines San Francisco flight. Despite the fine weather, however, people did not stand around chatting near their beloved planet-saving vehicles. We did not actually meet any fellow Tesla believers.

(We did catch enough of the performance to make the trip worthwhile and also an after-party in which the conductor referred to “a coloratura soprano”. I gently remonstrated with him: “We don’t say that anymore. It is ‘soprano of coloratura’.”)

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Foot in mouth: Tesla edition

Conversation after a neighborhood tennis game….

  • Dave: Whose Tesla X was that parked in your driveway yesterday?
  • Me: Why it was [John; also part of our tennis circle]’s of course! How many sanctimonious douchebags can there be in one town?
  • Dave: I just bought a Tesla X.

(“John” is not sanctimonious or a douchebag, incidentally. He is rich enough to buy a Tesla for fun/curiosity/novelty and doesn’t have to justify the cost with a planet-saving vision.)

Readers: How is Tesla doing now, both financially and as far as dominating the market is concerned? What are the redesigned 2020 cars that are worth looking at? We still need a new family sedan. The Hyundai Sonata is all new for 2020. Also the Subaru Legacy, which has AWD for our New England winters (NYT predictions of a Florida-style climate for Boston have so far not panned out). We will probably do a three-year lease since cars seem to be advancing at a rapid pace and we don’t want to spend a lot because we don’t have anyone to impress (nobody over the age of 5 anyway).

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Mid-engine Corvette is a supercar for supersized people?

Americans are at the large and heavy end of the spectrum of humanity. Car and Driver says “The 2020 Corvette Is at the Large and Heavy End of the Mid-Engined Crowd”. Coincidence?

Large exterior dimensions portend generous passenger and cargo space; the latter has been a long-running Corvette strong suit. That remains true in the C8. Its head- and legroom figures nearly match the C7’s (legroom is down by 0.2 inch), which is above the mid-engined-supercar average. From the driver’s seat, it feels more spacious than the C7, although the Cayman, R8, and NSX have more headroom.

But generous dimensions also mean mass, especially at the Corvette’s aggressive price that doesn’t allow engineers to throw endless expensive lightweight materials at it. Chevy is being coy on weight by only divulging a dry-weight figure of 3366 pounds. That implies a curb weight of roughly 3600 pounds, which is about 150 pounds heavier than the C7 (which itself gained 100 pounds over the C6). That makes it far heavier than the mid-engined cadre, more than 400 pounds above the lightest, such as the Cayman and the McLarens. Only the Audi R8 and the Acura NSX, which is laden with electric motors and a battery pack, weigh more.

Given that we won’t trust distracted humans to drive soon enough and our roads are generally too traffic-clogged and/or police-patrolled to use more than 10 percent of this car’s capability, does it make sense to spend $60,000 on a mid-engine C8 Corvette? (not “rational sense” of course, in that a Toyota Camry will handle any transportation task better, but “fun and way cheaper than most things in aviation sense”).

One interesting aspect to a two-seat car is that I think it becomes legal to drive with a child in the front seat (the otherwise dangerous airbag is automatically disabled via a weight sensor, right?).

A few snapshots from the Conrad Hotel in Washington, D.C.:


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Is it true that the electric car companies can’t agree on a connector?

We need to have an electrician do some work at our house and I thought it might be fun to have an electric car charger installed. Of course, we don’t have an electric car, but maybe one day we will? We can’t fit a car into our garage (packed with junk due to brilliant architect’s 1960s decision to build this house with no basement) so the charger needs to be outdoors.

At first I was thinking “Shouldn’t this just be an outdoor 240V outlet?” Then I discovered that there are “charging stations” for sale. Is there anything more to them than an extension cord on a reel? It is the car that decides when to start and stop charging, right, not the charger?

Finally, even if we wanted to buy one of these cord reels, which one should we get? Some web pages imply that there has been a VHS v. Betamax situation. Is that all sorted out now by the Combined Charging System?

(Despite the fact that it is fun to ridicule the Tesla fan club, I think that if we did get an electric car it probably would be a Tesla due to the “dog mode”. See“Car/Kennel” for what I wrote about this in 2003.)

[Update based on comments below and further research: A hard-wired system seems to be required for reliability. J1772 is the standard connector except for Tesla, which requires a dongle adapter (i.e., there is no standard connector in the U.S., since the volume leader uses a different connector from everyone else). Total “Charlie-Foxtrot” as we say in aviation! Progress means that, unless you want to have huge amounts of power going through a dongle that is exposed to rain, every time you buy a new car you have to hire an electrician. If the family has two electric cars, it may need to have two different charging stations installed.]

Small parking lot in our suburb during lunch today included three levels of sanctimony: basic, plug-in, complete.


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Tesla free supercharging for the life of the car will discourage upgrades?

A friend owns a Tesla X (see my review) that came with “free supercharging for life.” The company periodically pings him to try to get him to trade in the current car on a new and improved Tesla X. He can easily afford this, but if he does it he says that he loses the free supercharging, which is attached to the “life of the car,” not the “life of the buyer.” Having purchased the car for its novelty value, he enjoys the experience of getting free electricity.

I wonder if Tesla has made a huge strategic mistake. Doesn’t the typical car company make much of its profits off loyal repeat buyers who trade up every 2-4 years? How can it be smart to set up a structure in which the earliest and most enthusiastic buyers are discouraged from trading in and buying a new car?

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Tesla 3 is cheaper than a Honda Accord …

… but Uber and their drivers are too stupid to realize this.

“Tesla Model 3 vs. Honda Accord — 7 Scenarios” (CleanTechnica) is kind of fascinating. The author figures out that it is cheaper to drive a Tesla 3 than a similar-size Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, or Nissan Altima. Yet he never questions why it is that people for whom driving is a business haven’t figured this out.

He finds some sky-high residual value estimates for Tesla 3s and never asks “If the resale value is so great, why isn’t it cheap to lease one of these?”

Is this additional evidence that, as a reader commented on an earlier post, Tesla is a religion, not a car company?

[Separately, my most recent Uber ride was in the back of a late-model Honda Accord. It was significantly louder on the highway compared to the middle seat of our 2018 Honda Odyssey EX-L. Maybe nobody can build a better car than an Odyssey!]


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