Going Electric: Part 3 Bolt EV 3000 Mile Review

My 2019 Chevy Bolt EV

I’ve been driving an electric car since December of 2018. I’ve driven more than 3000 miles in about four months and it’s time for a proper review of the car. If you’re curious why I chose an electric car and how I selected the Chevy Bolt EV, check out Going Electric Part 1. If you’re curious about the trials and tribulations of ordering an electric car from a traditional car manufacturer like GM, read Going Electric Part 2. If you just want to know how I like my Bolt after 3000 miles of driving, read on.

I’ll start by saying that I love the Bolt and would happily buy it again even though the Tesla Model 3 is now close to being in the same price range. I don’t miss weekly trips to the gas station. The Bolt is quiet, non-polluting, and fun to drive. I’m not someone who usually names my cars but I couldn’t resist naming this one Jolteon, after the powerful little electric Pokémon. The Bolt shares the generational difference that makes all electric cars feel futuristic compared to older gas cars. It’s hard to describe that difference to someone who hasn’t tried driving an electric car but if you imagine the change from driving from a wooden, horse-drawn wagon to a Ferrari, you’ll have an idea. Top Gear’s James May was a skeptic of electric cars but, after driving a Tesla, he’s a fan and was quoted as saying they seem to be “propelled by magic”. Joe Rogan, a podcaster and well-known electric car skeptic was also converted after test driving a Tesla. He described the feeling as the car “punching its way out of a wormhole using alien technology”.

Jolteon the Pokémon beside Jolteon the Bolt EV

I’ve read that cars are not very interesting or important to the current generation but if you grew up in my generation, getting your driver’s license and first car was one of the most important events in your life, signaling you’d reached adulthood. And you probably loved that first car (no matter how much of a beat up, second-hand wreck it really was). You loved driving it, tinkering with it, even washing and waxing it. You might look for any excuse to go for a drive just for the sheer joy of it. Getting an electric car, whether it’s a Chevy Bolt EV, BWM i3, or the ubiquitous Tesla, is a bit like reliving that teenage first-car experience.

My Chevy Bolt EV parked next to a Tesla Model 3 for comparison

I’m not a professional car reviewer and can’t hope to cover all the usual car review points in a way more interesting than the dozens of well-done reviews already out there. So, instead, I thought I’d do two things. First, I’ll give you an idea of my daily driving routine. And, second, I’ll address some of the common questions I get asked by people when they find out I drive an electric car. If you have a question I haven’t answered, feel free to leave it in a comment and maybe I can give you an answer.

My daily commute on weekdays is minimal. I live a few miles from work and usually drive a few more miles each day for a meal or an errand. Weekends are busier and can involve far more miles than weekdays but seldom more than 200 unless we’re taking a trip down to Austin or Houston. I typically charge my Bolt twice a week; once on Sunday night to get me through the work week and once on Friday night to get me through the weekend. Most weeks, I could easily get by on one charge if I wanted but I like having the extra range in case I need it. I also top off the battery occasionally when I’m at one of the growing number of locations that offer free EV charging. Most Whole Foods locations, for example, have a free Level 2 charger, so you can pick up another 20 miles or so of range while you shop or have a coffee. Our local Half Price Books also has a free charger and we love to browse in the bookstore. Quite a few franchise restaurants are in the process of deploying similar free or low cost charging stations.

Jolteon getting a free charge at the local Whole Foods

The Chevy Bolt has the typical GM shifter used in most of their new models but the L and D have slightly different meanings than in an ICE car since EVs don’t have the concept of Low vs Drive gears. I think of them as “Logical” and “Dumb” mode. If you put the shifter in D, the computer turns off regenerative braking, except when you’re actually stepping on the brake pedal. So it emulates the driving characteristics of a gas powered car with an automatic transmission – it coasts when you take your foot off the “gas” pedal at speed, slows down when you step on the brake pedal, and rolls forward at about 1mph on its own if you take your foot off the brake after stopping. It would be dumb to use D most of the time because it’s much less efficient, with a couple of exceptions. D can be handy if you’re letting someone drive your vehicle and they have no experience driving an EV. Putting it in D will make them feel right at home. The other time D can be useful is if you’re driving on an icy road and actually need to coast with no regen (you could also shift into neutral but D is probably easier).

The Bolt’s typical GM shifter with repurposed D and L positions

The logical thing to do, most of the time, is to put the shifter into L for everyday driving. This is often referred to as “one pedal driving” mode and lets the “gas” pedal combine acceleration and deceleration. Electric cars use regenerative braking instead of friction braking. In a gas car, you use friction brakes to convert excess speed into waste heat. In an electric car, you use regeneration to convert excess speed into electricity that’s stored in the battery. With one pedal controlling both acceleration and deceleration, you have to pick up the knack of knowing where the zero-point is – the point where the pedal movement passes from acceleration to maintaining constant speed to decelerating. If you’ve ever driven a gas car with a standard transmission, this is exactly like learning the zero-point on the clutch – the point in the pedal motion where the clutch engages. I found one pedal driving very intuitive within a few minutes, I think because it reuses my old standard transmission skills. Even in L mode, the traditional disc brakes are still there if you need them for an emergency stop or station keeping at a stop light. The added bonus of driving in L mode is that your brake pads will likely last so long that they’ll never need replacement.

The car can accelerate like crazy of course, as all electric vehicles can. The Bolt doesn’t have anything approaching Tesla’s “ludicrous” mode but it does have a “sport” mode that changes the acceleration curve for quicker starts. I almost never use sport mode as it’s not really needed and just makes it harder to avoid spinning the wheels when the light turns green.

Another thing most EVs have in common is that they are very heavy due to the batteries. This is a problem for decelerating because there’s a lot more inertia than an ICE vehicle. Trying to stop in a very short distance feels similar to an emergency stop in a loaded down pickup truck. But the weight actually seems to improve some handling characteristics. Going around curves feels pretty good in the Bolt. The electric power steering feels much better to me than the usual steering slop found in most American-made cars. There’s a bit of torque-steer at high acceleration, which can be a surprise the first time you experience it, but it isn’t too bad and you can keep it under control easily as long you know it’s coming.

Like other electric vehicles, the Bolt has more space in the cabin and the trunk than you’d expect. Most people who get into the back seat of my Bolt are surprised at the leg room. And there have been a few times I folded the rear seats down and used the resulting cargo space to load big stuff in through hatchback.

This big box was 44 x 46 x 54 inches, 200lbs and fit with no problem

And speaking of seats… I’ve read persistent complaints that the Bolt has “uncomfortable” seats. All I can say is that the seats feel great to me and are as comfortable as the seats in previous cars I’ve owned like the Acura RSX, Acura Integra, and various Hondas. Maybe the seats don’t work for drivers who are extra tall, extra wide, or extra large? Maybe some people are just pickier about their seats than I am? Maybe it was just the first generation 2017 Bolts with this problem? All I can say is that the seats in my 2019 Bolt Premier are quite comfortable. I recommend you do a test drive to try them out for yourself before buying.

The Bolt’s 10 inch touch screen and dashboard

So that’s about it for the review. I love the car and think you ought to test drive a Bolt today. GM is finally beginning to catch up with demand, which means you’ve got a pretty good chance of finding Bolts in stock at the dealers. Last I checked, Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine has around 20 in stock. What follows are my attempts to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked since I got there car.

  • Don’t you get “range anxiety” with an electric car? – “Range anxiety” is the media’s name for the fear that you’ll run out power while driving. It’s basically the same as the fear you’ll run out of gas and get stuck in a gas-powered car. The short answer is no, I’ve never experienced range anxiety. Prior to my Bolt EV, I drove a 2009 Pontiac G6. With a full tank of gas, I could drive about 300 miles. With my Bolt EV and a full charge, I can drive 238 miles according to the EPA rating, and typically 285 miles or more in the real world (“hyper-milers” have driven Bolt EVs well over 400 miles on a charge but that’s driving at low speeds with no radio, no AC, and other hardships I’m not willing to endure). My daily commute is seldom over 100 miles even on my busiest day running errands all over the Dallas / Fort Worth area. It’s very unlikely that I would ever run out of gas or power in either car; there’s just no difference. If anything, I have less range anxiety with the Bolt because I don’t have to worry about trips to the gas station. I can leave the house every morning with a full battery if I want. On very rare occasions, I travel as far as Austin or Houston and in those cases I may need to “fill up” along the way, which means stopping at a fast-charger for a half-hour while I eat lunch. Again, for me, this isn’t a problem or source of anxiety. If my driving habits were different and I had a commute that was on the edge of my range, like 250 miles, I could see how this might be an issue and I’d recommend getting a car with a greater daily range.
  • What are the maintenance costs like? An electric car has no gas engine, no oil pump or oil, no spark plugs, no transmission or transmission fluid. There’s no camshaft, no head gaskets, no catalytic converter, no exhaust system, no alternator, no starter, no fuel pump, no timing belt. Think about all the stuff that used to break on your gas car. Most of those components don’t even exist on an electric car. I’ve read that where typical ICE vehicles have over 10,000 moving parts, the average EV only has about 20 moving parts. There are still traditional disc brakes, but they’re really just for backup and you’ll almost never use them due to regenerative braking, so you may never have to replace the brake pads. There are still tires that need rotation and replacement. And you’ll need to top off the wiper fluid and replace wiper blades eventually. There’s also a battery coolant system that will someday need to be flushed and refilled if you keep the car long enough. The Bolt EV’s official maintenance schedule for the first 100,000 miles consists of nothing but tire rotation and changing the cabin air filter. At 150,000 miles you’ll have the first check on the battery coolant and a flush or top off as needed.
  • But what about the battery, isn’t that super expensive to replace? Yes, it is but it’s covered for 8 years or 100,000 miles. It’s monitored remotely by GM and in the rare case that it suffers unexpected degradation, you’ll likely just get an email asking you to bring it in for a free replacement. That’s very rare but has happened to a few Bolt owners. No one really knows what the full lifespan of auto battery packs will be but there are lots of examples of Bolt EVs and Teslas well into the multi-hundred-thousand mile range with no more than 10% degradation in range. The older Chevy Volts, which have similar battery technology, have reached over 400,000 miles driven with no significant battery degradation. I’d compare it to having to replace the engine in a gasoline car; sure it’s expensive but I’ve never had to do that even once with all the gasoline cars I’ve owned during my lifetime, so I’m not really worried about it.
  • I’ve read that it’s actually worse for the environment to drive an electric car, is that true? No it’s not true. Even considering the ecological impact of building the car AND of the power generation used over the lifetime of the car (electricity vs oil), AND even if you charge it using electricity generated from coal, the most polluting energy source available, an electric car still produces only half the pollution of a gas car over their respective lifetimes. If you’re in a state with the freedom to choose your electric provider, you likely have one that uses 100% renewable sources like wind or solar and, in that case, you’re doing way better than just half the pollution of a gas car. Plus that difference is increasing fast as the energy density of batteries improves and more of our power generation infrastructure switches to non-polluting sources. If you look closely at the origin of those stories about electric cars harming the environment, you’ll find that many are funded by fossil-fuel proponents with political and economic motivation for pulling the wool over your eyes. It’s a bit like all the reports the tobacco industry used to fund claiming smoking was healthy for you. So consider the source and don’t be fooled by that sort of propaganda! Other studies are well-meaning but flawed. The most common flaw is that they will take into account the costs and CO2 of producing the electricity used by an electric car over its lifetime but forget to do the same for the gas car (i.e. take into account the cost and CO2 of prospecting, drilling, extracting, shipping, refining, and then burning all that oil).
  • The Bolt EV doesn’t have all the self-driving technology like the Teslas does it? No, it doesn’t but it does have similar underlying sensor technology. It has follow distance sensing with auto-braking, closing distance alarm, lane departure detection and auto-correction, pedestrian sensing with auto-braking, 360 degree imaging in the form of a “drone view” of the car as well as traditional front and rear camera views for parking. It has a video-based rear view mirror, allowing the rear view mirror to work even when your back seat is full of stuff and blocking the view. And it has a lot of other automation like automatically applying the parking break on inclines and automatically disengaging it if you forget. But it doesn’t do autonomous driving. It’s worth noting that the Teslas in the Bolt EV’s price range can not do autonomous driving either. If you get a Tesla Model 3, adding autopilot for autonomous driving ups the price by $5000 or more. Without autopilot, the Bolt EV actually has more and better automation than the Tesla Model 3 for the same price. But if you want a fully autonomous driving mode, you want the Tesla, not the Bolt.
  • Doesn’t charging take forever compared to a fill-up at the gas station? That’s the wrong comparison. With a gas car, you have to stand there and monitor the fill up. A better analogy would be your phone. Doesn’t it take you forever to charge your phone, as you stand over the phone waiting for it to finish charging from 0% to 100%? Of course not, that’s silly because you don’t do that. You probably just plug the phone in when you’re not using it, like during the night when you’re sleeping or at your desk while you’re working. Same thing with an electric car. I get home in the evening and it takes just a few seconds to plug it in and that’s it. When I leave in the morning it’s fully charged and ready to go. You can leave every morning with a full “tank” and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds of your time. The one exception is if you’re traveling a long distance and need to stop midway to charge. In this case, it actually is more like filling a gas tank because you’re stuck until it’s ready to go again. It takes about 30 minutes at a fast charger and you’ll add around 90 miles of range. If you plan ahead and time it to coincide with lunch or a rest stop it’s not a big deal. This issue will diminish over time as battery energy density improves. For me it’s no problem now but if it’s a problem for you, wait another year or two for the next generation of EVs that will go 400 miles, 600 miles, or even futher on a charge
  • Does the car include GPS navigation? No, it includes something better. It interfaces with the GPS navigation on your smartphone via Android Auto (or whatever the equivalent Apple thing is for iPhone users). So you can continue using Google Maps without having to learn a sub-standard auto navigation app that probably doesn’t have up-to-date map data anyway. I wish all cars did this. Android Auto basically puts your phone’s display on the Bolt’s big 10“ touch screen and uses the Bolt’s sound system too. So you can say “Ok, Google, navigate to the nearest Starbucks” or you can use the touch screen to drag the maps around and find what you want. Just make sure you have a good USB cable, Android Auto uses a lot of bandwidth and some cables aren’t up to it.
  • Why a boring color like white? Cars only come in a limited number of colors these days. I’ve owned two blue cars, three red ones, and a silver one. I’ve always wanted a yellow one but the car I want to buy has never been available in yellow the year I bought it. The Bolt came close with that tennis ball yellow/green “shock” color but it wasn’t close enough to true yellow to suit me. Eliminating all those colors left black and white. Black cars are intolerably hot in the Texas summer. So it was white by default. On the upside, statistically, white cars have the highest resale value and the lowest accident rate of any color.
  • Is there a spare tire? No, like a growing number of new cars, the Bolt EV includes self-healing / run-flat tires only. There is no spare of any kind. I built my own kit with a donut spare from a Chevy Cruze and a jack from a Chevy Blazer. Works great for me and I like having the backup even though I haven’t needed it so far. If you go the DIY route, just be aware that you’ll need a heavy duty jack from something like a Blazer or some other Chevy truck that can lift the weight of an EV (check the Bolt EV forums to find lists of compatible jacks).
  • Anything unexpected or surprising about owning a Bolt?
    • The silence makes ambient sounds like rain and nearby birds more noticeable. It also means people in the parking lot can’t hear you and tend walk right in front of the car, so you have to pay extra attention to pedestrians.
    • Even though you know the torque and acceleration are amazing compared to ICE vehicles because it’s mentioned in every review, it still takes you by surprise.
    • Within weeks, the complete absence of emissions makes you strangely aware of the exhaust smell from ICE cars.
    • Between the huge windshield and all the video, the visibility is amazing, maybe the best of any car I’ve owned since my 1984 Honda CRX.
    • Free public chargers. I didn’t realize there were free chargers available anywhere when I bought it. Imagine getting a free gallon of gas every time you go the grocery store, the book store, or the coffee shop!
    • Unlike a Tesla, the Bolt isn’t instantly recognizable as an electric vehicle. Many people mistake the Bolt for a typical compact hatchback. But it’s distinctive and rare enough you’ll still get the occasional “what kind of car is that” questions.
Jolteon parked on a Dallas street

Memories of my Brother

My brother, William Randy Rainwater, died 8 Feb 2019 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. His death resulted in a lot of reminiscing about him and I thought I’d write down a few memories while they were on my mind.

I grew up in a family with five children. Randy was the oldest and I was youngest, so there was quite an age gap between us. In my early years, I just thought he was another adult who lived in the house. And I think he, as an early teen, didn’t really want to hang out with a pre-schooler, so we barely knew each other. Randy started college in Illinois around the time my family moved to Irving, Texas. I started first grade that year. At the end of Randy’s freshman year, he also moved to Irving and lived at home again while completing his education at UTA in Arlington. My Dad converted our garage into an additional bedroom for Randy, complete with the cheesy fake wood paneling that was popular in the 1970s. In the early days in Irving, my only distinct memories of Randy are from Christmas and other holidays. But by the time I started middle school, Randy and I began to get to know each for the first time. I suppose the age difference seemed less significant as I got older.

Randy, my dad, and I at the first Christmas in the Irving, Texas house.

I remember being fascinated by, and a little envious of, Randy’s garage bedroom. It was on the other side of the house from my parents’ bedroom and had a lock on the door. The idea of locking the door and keeping the parents at bay while talking to friends on the phone or doing whatever you wanted seemed very utopian to me. Randy’s room was always a mess but it was interesting mess.

Randy goofing off in his room with a plastic bubble wrap bag on his head

One day when I visited his garage room, he had dozens of two foot long wooden dowels and was cutting plastic tubing into little 3 or 4 inch sections. He was going to build a geodesic dome, he said. He was using the plastic tubing to connect dowels together two at time. Then he took three pairs of dowels and put a bolt through the plastic tubes in the center, forming the vertices of the six triangles that make up a hexagon. His plan was to then assemble all the hexagons into a dome. I don’t think he ever got that far though. Eventually all the components vanished from his room (years later I rediscovered the partially assembled dome pieces in our attic).

Another time, there were electronics parts scattered all over the carpeted floor of his room: discrete LEDs in red, yellow, orange, and green, some 7 segment LED numeric displays, ICs, and a 45 degree angle joint of 4 inch PVC pipe. Randy said he was going to build a digital clock and use the pipe joint as the case. He was going to cut a red plastic bezel to fit one of end of the pipe. We sat around on the floor lighting up LEDs with batteries and I was thoroughly fascinated by it all. The clock never got finished and the parts remained lying in piles in his room for several years; a fate that has met many an electronic hobbyist’s project. I shared his interest in electronics; maybe even picked it up from seeing him work on projects like this.

Not all his projects were abandoned but those two stand out for me because I found both particularly fascinating. Randy was also interested in hi-fi audio equipment and built his own three way speakers in hand-made, stained wood cabinets. He used them with his tube amplifier (this was not a retro thing; at that time tube amps were actually the conventional type of high end audio amplifier). He had some sort of DIY 8-Track tape deck that looked like he’d taken a car 8-Track player and bolted it to a piece of wood with a connected 12V power supply. I enjoyed watching it because you could see all the mechanics of the tape head changing tracks as it played. He also had a reel-to-reel tape deck for recording. And he was particularly proud of a new hi-fi stereo cassette recorder deck that was the latest technology.

He had a pair of microphones for the cassette deck and we spent a lot of time playing with it, recording ourselves or other family members doing dumb things, the sort of things kids today would record as video on their phones and post to YouTube. Back then we thought it was funny to hear your own voice on a recording saying stupid things because it was so novel. He was always looking for unusual sounds to record. Once, when we were having plumbing problems and a plumber had dug up the sewer line in the back yard, he stuck the microphone through a vent hole in one of the pipes and had me flush the upstairs toilet a few times. The result sounded like a recording of a roaring tsunami and we had a lot of fun playing it for people and having them guess what it was.

I remember Randy in those years listened to an eclectic assortment of vinyl records: Al Hirt, The Doors, Henry Mancini, The Moody Blues, any record with soundtrack music from spy movies or tv shows. He was a huge fan of “I Spy” as well as the older James Bond and Matt Helm movies. He also listened to an obscure comedic radio program called Chicken Man about an unlikely super-hero. I and occasionally some other friend or family member would join Randy in his garage bedroom to hear the latest weekly adventure of Chicken Man. Many years later, I ran across someone online who had worked at the radio station where Chicken Man was recorded and I was able to buy a complete set of episodes on cassette tapes that I gave to Randy as a birthday gift.

Randy moved to his own home in Irving after he was out of college but I still saw him fairly regularly. He worked for a succession of computer-related companies and by the time I was a Junior in high school, he was working with a company that made custom energy management systems for large buildings. They had a contract to do an energy management system to control HVAC at the Loews Anatole Hotel that was going to be constructed near downtown Dallas. During the summer of (I think) 1978, Randy talked his company into hiring me to help with the project. It was my first real job and I spent most of that summer on the Anatole construction site wire-wrapping relay control boards (wire-wrapping was an older technology that’s an alternative to soldering). I had a growing interest in photography at that time and, thanks to Randy’s help getting that job, I saved enough money over the summer to buy my first camera; the newly released Canon A1 SLR, and a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens.

Randy then began traveling a lot with the energy management company, to places like San Juan and Germany to work on other hotel energy systems. He stayed for months at a time living in hotels. He mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he thought living in hotels was the perfect lifestyle because his room was always clean when he got home in the evening and someone else took care of cleaning his clothes. I think he would have lived in hotels the rest of his life if that had been an option. He had to leave behind his beloved red Honda Civic CVCC during his travels and he generously allow me to drive it while he was gone. So I learned to drive a standard thanks to Randy’s red Honda. Every car Randy owned or leased after that little red car was a Honda Civic or Honda Accord. And he always loved telling people about his latest Honda and its gas mileage.

Randy’s First Honda

The other thing that came from Randy’s travels was his own interest in photography. He bought an inexpensive Fujica SLR so he could photograph his travels. That gave us a shared interest, and when he came back to Dallas periodically, we would go out on photo expeditions to take time exposures at night or find new locations from which to shoot the Dallas skyline. He also came along with me to photograph model rocket launches with my geeky high school friends. Our father had been interested in photography in his younger days and once we even talked him into coming along with us on a photo outing; one of the only times I remember any sort of outing with dad and both sons. Randy’s interest in photography waned when his next job didn’t require travel but for several years we had some good adventures.

Randy and myself, posing for a selfie before an evening photo expedition
Randy (standing) and myself (sitting) on a Trinity River levee, shooting the Dallas skyline. Photo was taken by my father
A photo I shot on one of our outings in 1982. Williams Square in Irving under construction

Another thing I remember about Randy is that he would frequently come up with strange phrases and some of them would become “Randyisms” that we heard a dozen times a day for years. For a few years he responded to just about anything you said to him with the phrase “how quaint”. Later it became “what a deal”. Every few years he seemed to replace his stock phrase with a new one.

Once I moved out on my own, I began to see him less often but we’d still get together a couple of times a month for one reason or another. Then, in 1992 when I started my company, NCC, Randy wanted to get in on it and joined the board of directors. He was between jobs, and for a few years, he officed at NCC and we were hanging out together again almost daily. Eventually he moved on to other full-time work.

At some point along the way, Randy realized he was interested in ballet and began taking dance classes, which eventually led to some local dance performances. It also led to him meeting a lot of young, upcoming dancers including, he told us, Brooke Burns. Brooke eventually dropped out of dance due to an injury and tried modeling and acting, where she made the big time as a Baywatch girl. Years later, I was working on a business project with some New York rock-and-rollers and crossed paths with Brooke. Our NY clients were using Las Vegas as a test site for a video networking project we were developing and I was onsite regularly. They had somehow convinced Michael Berk, the creator of Baywatch, to invest in their company. My monthly Vegas trips occasionally involved me hanging out on the fringes of the rich-and-famous crowd with Hollywood and music people. At one such event, where Michael was doing a Baywatch promotion, David Hasselhoff and Brooke Burns turned up. I managed to introduce myself to Brooke and said, “so my brother Randy is always claiming that he knows you from his dance school days in Dallas. Is that true?” She confirmed it, said lots of nice things about Randy, and borrowed my mobile phone to call Randy (he wasn’t home at the time but she left him a long voice mail, which I gather he was very happy about).

Sometime around 2005 or 2006, I don’t recall exactly when, Randy began to notice his hands shaking. It continued for several years and seemed to get worse. Everyone encouraged him to see a doctor but he was afraid of what he’d find out and didn’t want to go. Eventually, as the shaking began to affect his arms and his feet, a business associate insisted he see a doctor. Randy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Because he had waited so long, it was fairly advanced and continued to progress rapidly despite treatment. We later learned he was also suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, which made things worse. He died in February of 2019 and donated his body to UT Southwestern to further research on Parkinson’s Disease and other neural degenerative conditions.

Going Electric: Part 2

Bolt EV Tail Light and Badge

In my previous post, Going Electric: Part 1, I covered how I decided to buy a Chevy Bolt EV and followed the process through signing the order and making the deposit on August 4, 2018. I was told to expect the car in 6 to 8 weeks.

If you order anything these days, it’s trivial to track it. Even the smallest order at Amazon, for example, includes more tracking information than you could need. You can find out whether it’s in stock, packed, shipped, and even see maps of the current location or find out how many stops away the UPS truck is. You can get automated texts and emails at every state of the process. Well, not so when you order a car, at least from GM. They have very limited tracking information. You can contact the dealer and ask them. You can go to the chevy.com website, start a support chat session and after providing phone name, number, email, and street address, you can chat with a person who might be able to get a scrap of information.

Buzz Smith at Classic has partially overcome this problem with a homegrown web page that tracks Bolt EV orders at the dealership. The information comes from their internal dealer connection to the GM network. So starting on August 4, I was checking that page daily for status updates and at first things looked great. The order entered the system on August 6 and my vehicle was assigned a build date of September 3 at GM’s Orion Assembly Plant. Surprisingly, things moved fast at this point and they got started early. The order entered production control on August 16, was “scheduled” on August 21, and the build process started on August 23. By August 31, the car was finished.

One of Several Parking Lots at the Toledo, Ohio Intermodal Facility

On September 1, my Bolt was listed as “in transit to Ohio” and I started getting excited that it was going to arrive sooner than expected. It seems to have arrived in Ohio on September 6. We’re talking here about the intermodal facility in Toledo, Ohio where vehicles from car manufacturers in Detroit are staged for CSX rail shipment all over the country. They arrive on trucks and move through huge parking lot queues to get onto railcars for shipment.

A week later, the status was “Awaiting shipment in Ohio”. Another week later, it was still awaiting shipment. And another week later the same. At the beginning of October, I began to get a little worried and started doing some research. I ran across a news article that said there is an on-going shortage of Autorack railcars for automotive transportation. This article talked about the growing backlogs of cars building up in intermodal facilities and had a chart listing the average time between ordering and arrival at the dealer for a variety of car models. The Bolt EV is on the list at 72-130 days, almost all of which is spent sitting in a parking lot in Ohio.

You may recall around this same time that Elon Musk tweeted several times about going from “production hell” to “delivery logistics hell” on the Tesla Model 3. This was due to the same sort of car carrier shortages afflicting GM’s deliveries of the Bolt EV.

What’s telling here is comparing the response of GM to Telsa. GM did nothing. Telsa, as indicated in the tweets, began putting together their own delivery system including building carriers, buying trucking companies, and securing long-term contracts with other shipping companies. So Tesla Model 3s kept reaching customers and by November were arriving in weeks rather than months. Meanwhile, I continued to check my Bolt EV’s status and it continued to say “Awaiting shipment in Ohio”.

When November arrived, GM kicked off a 0% interest loan deal on Bolt EVs, which was an incentive I had hoped would be available by the time my car arrived. But now I was worried the deal would expire before I could take delivery. I was also working against the clock for the Texas $2500 incentive, which comes from a fixed amount of state funding. Once they’ve used it up there are no more incentive checks. And, of course, the Federal $7500 incentive is not a check but a tax credit, so if I didn’t get the car before Dec 31, it would be another year before I could claim the tax credit. Making my budget work depended on all those incentives.

CSX Train Pulling Autoracks Through Kansas
CC-BY photo credit: Flickr user Tyler Silvest

The first, second, and third weeks of November passed with no change in status. My Bolt was still parked in Toledo. I really didn’t want to miss the 0% financing deal, so I decided to talk to the dealer about making the final purchase before taking delivery. It turned out several of their other Bolt EV buyers were getting a bit desperate too, so Classic had decided to do what GM wouldn’t and hire a transport service. They paid for a conventional auto carrier truck to pick up the Bolt EVs in Toledo and drive them down to Classic Chevrolet. So I visited the dealer on Saturday, Nov 24, signed the contract, made a down payment and traded in my old car. I got the 0% financing deal with a few days to spare. The truck was supposed to arrive in Dallas Tuesday, so I would only need rides to work for a couple of days.

Murphy’s Law was not done with me yet though. Classic confirmed the truck left Toledo loaded with Bolts. They confirmed my Bolt EV’s status was now “In transit to TX”. A few days later the truck arrived but my Bolt was not on it! It took several days to find it. Apparently a rail car to Dallas became available the same day the truck was picking up the Bolts. My Bolt got put on the train rather than the truck. Ohio to Dallas by train takes about two weeks vs two days on a truck. My Bolt was passing through Salem, Il that Saturday, Dec 1. My wife patiently drove me to and from work the next week as we waited on my car’s slow progress along the rail line.

A Section of the Mesquite, TX Intermodal Facility

Saturday, Dec 8, it arrived at the intermodal facility in Mesquite, TX. Rather than wait another week for GM to get it from Mesquite to Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, the dealer scheduled their own truck to pick it up. It took another couple of days to prep the car at the dealer because I had options like black bowties and window tinting. I finally got the call to come pick it up on Thursday, Dec 13, which was coincidentally my birthday. So a grand total of 129 days passed from the day I placed the order until the day I drove it off the lot (one day less than the worst-case prediction in the news article I mentioned earlier).

Susan’s photo of the new Bolt EV the night we picked it up at Classic Chevrolet

I’ve been driving the Bolt EV for a while now, so I’m planning to do one more post on it in the near future; something like a 1000+ mile review. Update: It took a bit longer than planned but now you can read Going Electric: Part 3 – Bolt EV 3000 Mile Review.

Going Electric: Part 1

Spoiler Alert, I ended up with a Chevy Bolt EV

I typically buy a new car once a decade after putting 100,000+ miles on the old car. That process was interrupted in October of 2008, when my blue 2002 Acura RSX was stolen. We used half the insurance money as a down payment on Susan’s new Nissan Versa because her car was just hitting the 10 year cycle. I drove her old car for about a year and finally used the other half of the insurance money to buy a slightly used 2009 Pontiac G6 GT that was intended to be temporary. I stretched it out longer than expected, but this year the G6 began exhibiting steadily increasing maintenance costs. So I started thinking about a new car in May of 2018.

This is a tricky time to buy a car if you’re on a ten year cycle because we’re just entering the adoption curve for electric vehicles. In another ten years, nearly all new cars will be electric, so if I buy another ICE vehicle (that’s short for Internal Combustion Engine vehicle), I’ll be stuck with an outdated technology in ten years. There are also persuasive environmental reasons to get an electric vehicle. EVs create less than half the pollution of gas cars, even when taking manufacturing emissions and batteries into account. But being an early adopter carries the risks and price premium associated with a new technology. So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy a cheaper ICE vehicle, a hybrid, or make the jump to electric.

Summary of a UCS Study on Gas vs EV Car Pollution

By the time July rolled around, I was ready to start test driving some cars. While Pontiac is extinct, the Chevy Malibu shares a common ancestry with my Pontiac G6 and the 2019 Malibu is available in a hybrid version, so that seemed like a good place to start my search. Cabin noise is one of my personal points of concern with cars, so I installed a noise level app on my Pixel 2 phone and brought it along for comparisons of each car I test drove.

During the process of test driving cars, I stumbled onto Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, TX. It’s huge dealership but it’s also THE place to find the GM hybrid and electric vehicles. They have the hybrid Malibu, the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, and the Chevy Bolt EV. They’re one of the few DFW Chevy dealers likely to have at least one or two of each in stock. Also found at Classic Chevrolet is Buzz Smith, the most knowledgeable person around on Chevy’s electric vehicles. I found out later that people come from all over Texas and even from out of state to buy EVs at Classic because of Buzz. He’s very active online with his own website, My Electric Vehicle Journey, and on various Facebook EV groups. I highly recommend paying him a visit if you’re thinking about an EV.

My first test drive was the Malibu hybrid. It was really nice, quieter than my G6, and if the primary goal was a large luxury sedan that gets great gas mileage, it would be the way to go. Next I drove a Volt hybrid but I didn’t care for it at all. It’s much noisier than my G6 and has a cramped interior. It does get good mileage but not good enough to overcome the drawbacks. I returned a few days later to test drive a Bolt EV. The Bolt was completely silent on surface streets but at highway speeds you get some tire and wind noise. I’d say on the highway it was a little noisier than the Malibu but quieter than my G6.

There was no Tesla Model 3 available in Dallas to test drive but I’d already driven a Tesla Model S P100D. The Chevy Bolt offers a similar, if toned down, driving experience. Once you drive an electric vehicle, it’s hard to go back. It’s so obvious that electric vehicles are the future, even aside from environmental concerns. They accelerate faster, are much quieter, need no trips to the gas station, and need almost no maintenance. They’re expensive now because the battery technology is new and manufacturing volumes are low.  Less expensive and more efficient batteries are coming soon and competition is heating up as GM and other manufacturers play catch-up with Tesla, so expect prices to continue declining.

Did I Mention EVs Have Surprising Acceleration Compared to Gas Cars?

But cheaper cars in the future wouldn’t help me now. I decided I did want to go electric but my choices were fairly limited. Even with state and federal incentives, a new Tesla Model S or X and the BMW i5 or i3 were all out of my price range. I found several used BMW i3s in the $30k ballpark but the limited range and unfavorable reviews convinced me the i3 wasn’t a good idea. There’s the Nissan Leaf but it has a tiny air-cooled battery, very limited range, and didn’t seem at all attractive to me, so it was out. The Tesla Model 3 is awesome but beyond my budget until the fabled $35k version ships. Even stripped of every optional expense, the cheapest Model 3 was around $48k.

That left the Chevy Bolt EV as the only feasible option. It has a 60kWh liquid cooled battery with plenty of range (officially 238 miles but more in the real world). The 2019 model is the third model year, so most of the bugs have been worked out. For example, there were some complaints about the seats being uncomfortable on the 2017 model but the seats in the 2019 that I test drove seemed great. Best of all, I could get the high end “Premier” trim level on the Bolt with leather seats, Bose audio, all the option packages, and still come in $10k less than a stripped-down-to-nothing Tesla Model 3. So, it wasn’t a hard choice. You can find some good reviews of most of the cars I’ve mentioned on YouTube. Here’s one for the Bolt EV.

Review of the Chevy Bolt EV by TheStraightPipes

One downside to buying a Chevy is going through the traditional car-buying process and having to interact with a car salesman, which nobody likes. Tesla has a clear advantage with their simplified, modern approach to buying a car. I’m terrible at negotiating – the haggling process seems arcane and inefficient to me. So when I was ready to get serious about buying the Bolt, I thought I’d start the process with a visit to cars.com. You can configure your desired car and then get some numbers for what cars like that have actually sold for in your area. The MSRP for my Bolt EV as configured was $45k. Cars.com showed them selling at prices as low as $39k. And it gave me three local dealer contacts who were supposed to send quotes.

I share Brian’s negotiation skills when it comes to buying cars

The lowest prices seen on cars.com are almost never attainable by mere mortals; they’re usually friend-of-the-owner deals and things like that. So I figured $41-42k was a realistic goal. That’s more than I’ve ever spent on a car in my life! But remember, there’s a $7500 federal tax credit plus a $2500 state cash incentive in Texas, so that would put my real cost at more like $32k. On top of the dealer discount and incentives, people who follow my blog know I’ve been mining Bitcoin for years. I cashed out some bitcoin during the big bubble and allocated part of it towards my car purchase. So, about 25% of purchase price was paid with Bitcoin I mined myself for a few dollars worth of electricity, which seems like a fitting way to pay for an electric car!

Cars.com promised quotes from Classic Chevrolet (Buzz’s dealership, that made sense), Clay Cooley Chevrolet (located a few miles from my home, so that made sense too), and Graff Chevrolet (not even close, no idea why it picked them as one of my three). Graff contacted me first to say they didn’t have any Bolts in stock and didn’t expect to get any but they’d love to sell me a “fuel efficient” car. Thanks but no thanks.

Next I heard from a salesman at Classic who, surprisingly, said about the same things as Graff – “we don’t have any Bolts, how about a gas vehicle?” Since I knew Buzz, at this point I checked in with him. Better news. They didn’t have any 2018s left in stock but were just about to place orders for 2019 Bolts and they’d be happy to order one for me. However, Buzz said because of demand they couldn’t negotiate on price, it would have to be full MSRP. That was a bummer. I was really hoping to buy from Classic since they’d been so helpful in the selection process. I even tried making an offer in hopes this was just a negotiating tactic but it was turned down with no counter-offer.

While I was thinking about what to do next, I got an email from Clay Cooley Chevrolet with a quote of $39k for my Bolt, as configured. This seemed almost suspiciously good but I drove out and talked to a salesman. They seemed way too happy to sell me the car at a surprisingly low price with no negotiation but given that I only had to pay a $500 deposit and could cancel after the car arrived, it seemed risk free. They needed a day to get a quote on my trade-in so that evening I googled for reviews of other’s buyers experiences at Clay Cooley. I found several reviews of people who had gotten really low quotes on ordering a vehicle only to find that the final price was significantly higher after the car arrived. They could pay it or they could cancel and start the process over somewhere else, so it’s not like they were forced to pay the higher price but it still seemed weird. On top of that, Clay Cooley wasn’t a “certified” Bolt dealer, which meant no trained mechanics in the service department.

I gave Buzz at Classic one more try and told him Clay Cooley offered $39k. I asked if they could match it. No, still MSRP and nothing less. The next day, Saturday, I was about to head out to Clay Cooley to make a deposit when I got a call from Jeff in Classic Chevrolet’s Internet Sales Department wanting to follow up on my cars.com experience. I recounted my adventure so far and told them how helpful Buzz had been and how I’d really love to buy from Classic and was even happy paying a bit more but that I wasn’t going to pay MSRP when I knew other people were buying them for less than that. To my surprise, we ended up exchanging a few offers and counter-offers on the phone and I shortly had an emailed offer of $41k. It was still higher than Clay Cooley but based on my experiences so far and the online reviews, Classic seemed like the better choice.

So I drove out to Classic that day, signed the order, and paid a deposit for a white 2019 Bolt EV Premier with Infotainment Package (Bose audio, Sirius/XM, wireless device charger, front and back high power USB charging ports) and the Driver Confidence Package (all the automation – lane departure, pedestrian sensors/braking, automatic hibeams, follow distance sensors, collision detection). Also got the DC Fast Charge option, a set of black Chevy bowties, and window tint. Expected delivery time: 6 to 8 weeks.

So that’s it, right? Why is this called “Going Electric: Part 1” if I’ve bought the car? Trust me, there’s more than enough left of this story for a part 2.
Read Going Electric: Part 2

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Ecotopia cover art by Mark Harrison

Ecotopia is a utopian novel that’s not as bad as its reputation but not good either.

I’ve read lots of bad reviews of Ecotopia and had several reports from other readers that it’s really awful. As an avid reader of utopian stories, I had to find out for myself. It’s true that Ecotopia is not that good as either a novel or a utopian idea. To be fair, nearly all utopian novels fail to hold up as novels, with the possible exceptions of H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. All of them have the same plot: a character known as the reader’s surrogate winds up in Utopia and wanders around asking “how does this work?” and “how does that work?” Various utopian citizens explain the workings of their society. Eventually the character returns home to deliver the message of how to improve the world. Or, in those novels that want to have an exciting twist ending, the main character may decide to abandon their home and stay in Utopia.

In this story, the reader’s surrogate is Will Weston, a reporter who is the first American allowed to visit Ecotopia, a Utopian nation formed by the secession of Oregon, Washington, and the Northern part of California. The current year is 1999 and the secession happened in 1980. In the intervening 20 years, Ecotopia has turned itself into a 1970’s hippy commune dweller’s idea of Utopia. The main differences I noticed between Ecotopia and other fictional utopias are the amount and variety of sexual activity described and a weird emphasis on the need for random emotional outbursts. Apparently 1970s people thought Americans suffered from a case of pent-up emotions. Ecotopian characters frequently burst into tears or become enraged about seemingly random things, get into fights, and make love with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s the exact opposite of Mr. Spock’s planet, Vulcan, where logic and reason lead to peaceful coexistence.

What holds up well for a 1970s novel:

  • pervasive use of battery powered electric vehicles
  • solar, wind, and geothermal power on a distributed grid system
  • houses and vehicles are individually customized from mass-produced interlocking modules
  • manufactured materials must be either naturally or artificially biodegradable
  • print-on-demand books/newspapers available from vending machines
  • city support systems are stable-state, no build-up of pollutants
  • stable-state agricultural system that balances food production with environment
  • clean air, clean water, natural environment (obvious from the novel’s name!)
  • direct political participation via a nationwide, interactive computer network
  • citizens allowed as much personal and economic freedom as possible
  • universal basic income for all citizens

What doesn’t hold up well

  • emotional outbursts, often leading to violence
  • armed, lethal combat sports (to channel violent tendencies of young males)
  • frequent, unprotected, casual sex with strangers
  • segregated racial “mini-nations” for African-Americans and Asians
  • healthcare system involves lots of sex between patients and providers
  • favorite clothing materials are natural leather and furs – this seems very anachronistic to a modern reader as we’d likely assume California ecological proponents to also be PETA members but back in the 1970s their outlook was more of a Native-American inspired ecological ideal, so the efficient use of animal resources made sense in context.

Young men who take part in the armed combat events shout “It is a good day to die!” when going into battle. This is another Native American inspired element of the book that will likely be lost on modern readers, who are more likely to associate the phrase with Worf, the Klingon character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the end, Ecotopia fails at the most important aspect of a Utopian novel: it doesn’t leave the reader with the feeling that they’d like to visit or even live in the world described. Final verdict: if you’re looking for entertaining novel, you’d be best to avoid the entire genre of Utopian books, that’s not their purpose. If you’re a fan of Utopian novels, this one is readable, moderately entertaining, but unconvincing.

Notes on my Selection of a VPN Provider

Barbed wire fence. Nothing to do with VPNs really but it suggested security to me. I shot this in Deep Ellum with a Canon 40D and Yashica YUS 135mm f2.8 lens. CC by SA 2.0

I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago asking for advice on VPNs after it became clear Net Neutrality rules were likely to be gutted. I’ve been meaning to improve my online security at home anyway and this seemed like a good time. I got a few replies to that post so I thought there might be some interest in which VPN I ended up with…

I narrowed it down to three: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and TorGuard. I realized I really wanted a dedicated IP so that I could run a server (stuff like a bitcoin node or tor node). That eliminated ExpressVPN because they don’t offer dedicated IPs. I also wanted to pay with bitcoin. Both NordVPN and TorGuard accept bitcoin but NordVPN requires the dedicated IP to be a separate purchase, necessitating two bitcoin transactions and with the tx fees still running over $10 that seemed unappealing. Plus NordVPN has some other issues with their ordering/checkout system that annoyed me like requiring you to provide two email addresses.

So I went with TorGuard. I took advantage of a special offer that’s floating around on the deal sites and got two years of service plus the dedicated IP for $90, or about $3.75 a month. The checkout and bitcoin payment were super easy and fast. I selected a dedicated IP located in LA. Besides my dedicated IP location, I can also use any of 3000 other server locations in 50 countries as my apparent location. I can have 5 simultaneous connections (the dedicated IP eats one of those, leaving 4 and that’s two each for myself and Susan), so enough for home and work or desktop and mobile devices.

They support standard VPN stuff like OpenVPN, so setup on GNU/Linux systems and routers is trivial, they even provided an example conf file for OpenVPN. And they have downloadable software you can use if you’re on an OS like Windows or MacOS where VPN tends to be harder for users to figure out; there are also browser plugins and an Android app for smartphones if you need them.

I had it set up and working pretty quickly. It does increase latency a bit. I get about 30 to 40 ms ping times to google.com over the VPN vs 5 to 6 ms on my direct FIOS connection. But upload/download speeds are the same as always.

The biggest downside to TorGuard is that it’s based in the US so there are some security/privacy threats from the government that wouldn’t be there on NordVPN (Panama) or ExpressVPN (British Virgin Islands). But for preventing my ISP from monitoring or interfering with our activity, it should work fine. And FIOS has to allow VPN usage in work-from-home situations, so this should be a reasonable work-around for any user-side abuses that crop up in the near term.

If you don’t need a dedicated IP, you might want to consider ExpressVPN. Otherwise, I highly recommend TorGuard. Also, if you want to help me out (and if your ad-blocker doesn’t hide it!), use this link to visit TorGuard so I’ll get a referral credit: https://torguard.net/aff.php?aff=3811