Drive Green, He Said
Veteran Car Expert John Voelcker Maps Out the Road Ahead for Hybrid Drivers
By Jay Blotcher
John Voelcker in the Tesla Roadster, the all-electric high-performance car. Photo by John Quilter
John Voelcker with the Ford Fusion. Photo by Brook Garrett
When John Voelcker drives around the steep, winding roads of West Saugerties—where he has maintained a second home since 1992—people tend to stare. The issue is not the quality of his driving, but his mode of conveyance.
For instance, today he is drawing quizzical looks for driving a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. The sleek model has been on dealer lots for less than three months. “Most people haven’t seen one yet.”
Voelcker, 50, is a test-driver of new cars, notably hybrids and fuel-alternative vehicles, which he evaluates for two new blogs: Green Car Reports and All About Prius. Voelcker edits and contributes to both Web sites, which were launched by the West Coast-based HighGear Media this past February.
A journalist for half his life, the Manhattan-based Voelcker has been a car aficionado even longer. Growing up in London, Voelcker recalls that by age seven he was able to identify the make and model of every car that passed on the street. By age 14 he wrote a lengthy piece on the quirky, well-loved British car the Morris Minor—his parents had purchased a Morris Minor Traveler in 1961 and brought it back to their native America—and popped the essay into the mail to the publication Old Cars Weekly. Within a month, the piece had been published and young Voelcker received a check for $15. “Wow,” he remembers thinking at the time, “people get paid to do this? Cool!”
Voelcker’s love for vintage cars only grew from there. At California’s Stanford University, he was buying and selling pedigree models and co-Founded the Palo Alto All-British Car Meet, now in its third decade. Voelcker still owns the family Morris Minor Traveler, which he uses for errands in Saugerties and Woodstock. He also maintains a 1969 Riley One-Point-Five, a four-door sporty British model no longer made and, for everyday use, a 2000 Subaru Outback Wagon, bought second-hand on eBay.
Since the mid-80s, Voelcker has been writing regularly about technology, but it was not until 2001 when he was able to wed his love of automobiles to his science-focused métier. Four years ago, Voelcker checked out of a job as product manager for Yahoo and officially became a full-time freelancer who specialized in auto technology. His specific focus was power trains. Translation: the components that make a car move. The complex make-up of the emerging series of hybrid cars (using gasoline and electricity) intrigued him, as did electric and diesel models.
His initial interest was purely scientific; Voelcker was not a crusading environmentalist. But the public resistance to these new cars was so strong that he delved deeper into the subject.
“There is definitely a lot of contempt for green cars and hybrids,” Voelcker said, “because they’re seen as wussy and left-wing and not having good driving qualities.”
As the blog editor and contributor for both blogs, Voelcker monitors the fast-growing market. Several times a month, he is asked to test-drive new cars—often before they’ve appeared in showrooms—and write his impressions. For a car lover and a technology geek, this is nothing short of a dream job.
Voelcker, who teaches a class in cars at New York University, is an autodidact who can talk for hours on his passion. But first, he imparts some basic definitions. A hybrid car is a combination of gasoline engine, battery pack and electric motor which work together to move the wheels. Conversely, an electric car features a much larger battery pack and an electric motor.
The first hybrid car, the Toyota Prius, was sold in Japan between 1997 and 1999 before coming to the United States in 2000. Voelcker had he chance to drive one and recalls how small it was and “quite low-powered.” More distinctively, getting behind the wheel of this pioneering model was “a little bit like driving a video game,” he said, thanks to electric power steering. “It’s hard to replicate road feel if you are turning a wheel which sends a signal to a machine to turn your front wheels instead of having a mechanical connection.”
But the glitches only interested Voelcker the engineering student (and self-confessed techno-geek) even more so. His was a mild skepticism, coupled with a growing fascination in hybrids. At the time, he considered the Prius “a complex and expensive solution” to the American goal of reducing gasoline consumption—“but a very elegant technical solution.”
Into the fray came more hybrid contenders. And Voelcker found his way behind every wheel. The Honda Insight was a very small car, the size of a Honda Sierra, but its tiny three-cylinder engine was able to yield 70 miles per gallon. What undermined its potential, however, was the fact that it lacked back seats. Americans steer clear of two-seaters; they account for less than 1% of domestic sales, Voelcker pointed out. Over a period of seven years, the Insight racked up global sales of less than 20,000.
America’s interest in hybrids would receive a jolt with the arrival of Toyota’s 2004 Prius stateside. Boasting more power and better gas mileage than its predecessor, this midsize car featured a unique aerodynamic styling which distinguished it on United States roads. “It made the motoring class and American buyers sit back and go ‘whoa,’” Voelcker said.
As gas rates steadily rose, Prius sales grew. Not only were Silicon Valley executives driving them off the lot, but environmentalists also joined in. When Hollywood actor and progressive-cause activist Leonardo DiCaprio drove his Prius to the Oscars, the car was suddenly both a chic status symbol and proof of your green bona fides.
What actually constitutes a green car is a little bit of a fuzzy issue, Voelcker said. Today the word “green” has become a ubiquitous marketing ploy, applied with impunity to everything from detergent to plastic water bottles. Voelcker, too analytical a person to be a tree-hugger, celebrates green cars but insists on observing specific boundaries in their taxonomy.
A green car saves gas thanks to an alternative power train or a hybrid mechanism. Hybrid cars utilize different technology than EV1; they store power from your braking and delivers it back to the electric motor as electricity via a generator rather letting that wasted energy go out into the atmosphere as friction heat.
Diesel cars fall into the green-car category because they use far less fuel than conventional cars. A new generation of Clean Diesels “have earned their name for emissions which lack particulates or smoke. But these German-manufactured models are unlikely to flourish anytime soon in the states, for several reasons: Their small size and the fact that German safety standards and emission levels would not pass muster here.
“So, unfortunately, they would be considered unsafe, dirty, undesirable cars in this country.”
On the subject of electric cars, Voelcker also steers clear of the emotionally-wrought partisanship featured in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, in which legions of stalwart and outraged environmentalists accuse General Motors of corporate evil-doing. Citing the skewed perspective of the film, in which every user is a passionate supporter of the car, Voelcker said that he personally fielded numerous complaints by drivers of the EV-1, the first generation of electric cars.
The EV-1 was “a limited-production science experiment” he said. While it displayed the lowest coefficient of drag of any production vehicle in the world, its death-knell was not caused by “big wicked corporate GM,” Voelcker said, but the sheer challenge of its 1,200-lb. lead-acid battery pack.
Since the EV-1 could only go travel 40-70 miles between juice-ups, it caused a mindset in its drivers known as “range anxiety.” This refers to the anxiety-inducing sense among electric car drivers that their car battery will sputter out in the middle of the road.
While environmentally-inclined drivers would weather such glitches for the sake of Mother Earth, Voelcker acknowledged, they are in the minority. American car drivers generally demand convenience, sometimes unreasonably so, in their vehicles. They want a car that confirms to their lifestyles, not ones that force changes to their daily routines.
“Americans, more perhaps than any other nation in the world, expect their cars to do what they want, when they want, without ever talking back, without ever having to think about maintaining them,” Voelcker said.
Therefore, a hybrid can be great for the environment, but if people balk at the impositions involved, then the model remains a noble failure. But as technology improves, so do the prospects of the electric car. Improvements in the lead-acid battery pack are the nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion battery, the latter capable of storing four times as much energy. Moreover it weighs 300 lbs, as opposed to the lead-acid battery’s 1,200 lbs. Utilizing that improved technology, GM is working on the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car with a battery pack that flips over to a gasoline engine. It is scheduled for showroom floors in limited numbers in November 2010.
“We are going slowly—and this is a change that will happen over the balance of our lifetimes—to cars where the wheels are turned only by electrical engines.”
Over Voelcker’s workbench hangs a sign, “In God we trust; all others please bring data.” This motto reflects Voelcker’s reverence for fact over ideology. While he sees the importance of green cars for today’s environment, he must be convinced by statistics, not propaganda. Until the numbers add up significantly, Voelcker will not celebrate hybrids as the second coming. “I ruffle feathers in the conventional green car community,” Voelcker said with a mix of pride and consternation.
For all the talk about environmentalism and going green, technology has to make conservation affordable, because Americans are resistant to sacrifice. “Americans rarely buy cars that do socially good things if it costs them anything additional.” When gasoline costs have soared in the past, people rush to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Conversely, when gas prices plummet, people forget their conservation habits and begin shopping again for larger cars that utilize fuel less efficiently. While the prices are coming down, hybrids have historically cost more than other cars of their size and class.
Among today’s hybrid offerings, the cheapest is the Honda Insight 2010, a sub-compact, five-door hatchback selling for $20,400. On the high end, a Cadillac Escalade Platinum Edition SUV hybrid may generate substantial sticker shock at more than $80,000. Hybrids, Voelcker added, have been more popular in the higher-cost brands.
Driving hybrids or electric cars over time will reduce carbon in the air, Voelcker said. “It will, however, be a slow process.”
Instead of sporting the usual array of gauges, the dashboard of the Ford Fusion test model resembles a TV screen. The greenest aspect of the car is a whimsical graphic. When the driver is drawing on electricity, a graphic depicts green leaves blooming on vines.
Thus far, Voelcker has test-driven most of the hybrid cars on the market, including: Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Tahoe, Chevy Silverado Pick-Up truck, Lexus RX, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. He has driven electric cars and fuel-cell vehicles. He has driven German diesels from BMW, Audi and Volkswagen.
In addition, Voelcker has tested and reported on small cars. By dint of their economic gas usage, they can be considered green cars, he said. One recent test-drive was the Chevrolet Aveo, the smallest car made by that company. Voelcker considers it, “a green car, because it’s hard not to get at least 30 miles per gallon.”
Hudson Valley drivers weighing a hybrid should heed one Voelcker caveat: these models perform less effectively in cold regions. The constant use of the car heater in cold climates siphons off electricity from the battery, juice which could be utilized to power the car.
At a trade dinner recently Voelcker was set upon by a colleague who has been covering the motor trade for several years. Referring to the topics that Voelcker covers, the man said with a sneer, “”My readers don’t want any of that shit. They want fumes and noise and squealing tires and power.”
Voelcker gathered his composure and responded, “Well, you have a real business problem barreling down the pike at your forehead, because this is where [the industry] is going, dude.”
Resistance to hybrids persists, Voelcker said, and usually for financial reasons. Potential buyers want to know why they should pay three to five-thousand dollars extra for a car when they do not think they will ever see the payback. That can be assessed by the time you plan to keep the car, as well as how high gas prices soar.
“If you trade in your car every two years, hybrids probably won’t pay back.” The ideal hybrid customer drives high mileages, or finds himself in constant stop-and-go driving. This pace activates the hybrid’s battery and will use electric power for most of the trip. Hybrids are not ideal for people who carry heavy loads at very high speeds on freeways.
For those prepared to make the leap into tomorrow’s cars, Voelcker recommends small hybrids. The subcompact Honda Fifth is “remarkably versatile” he says, and has “a mind-boggling amount of space.” It gets 30-plus miles per gallon. For Americans unable to part with their SUV, Voelcker recommends the Ford Escape, a hybrid that gets 30-plus miles per gallon. He cites the new Honda Insight, which accomplishes “about 80% of what the Prius will do” for a lower cost. Finally, Voelcker declares the Toyota Prius “the quintessential hybrid,” averaging 50 miles per gallon.
When it comes down to which hybrid car is going to save the earth, Voelcker skewers any idealism issue with his signature bluntness: “The number-one thing you can do to help the environment is not burn gasoline. And the way you don’t burn gasoline is by not driving. Because not driving your Tahoe is just as effective as not driving your Prius.”
Read John Voelcker’s articles on hybrids at www.greencarreports.com and www.allaboutprius.com. His work now appears on The Huffington Post. Voelcker is available for speaking engagements on British cars, hybrids and fuel-alternative cars. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.