Road Trip Time Lapse Video

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

400 miles, 4 states, 182 photos:

The images in the video are all from my trip from Pennsylvania to Virginia to visit my brother, by way of Shenandoah National Park. With this in-car camera rig, I used a radio remote to trigger the shutter when there was an interesting scene. Post-production was done in Aperture, Quicktime, and iMovie HD.

How I Beat Big Oil

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

With gas prices holding at $4 a gallon, I’m averaging $60 a tank to fill my Maxima with cheap gas. Yet last month, I actually made a net profit on the machinations of Big Oil. Here comes the math:

RustGas: -$120

Discover Gas Card Cashback: +$5

Energy Stocks ETF (XLE) Gain: +$134

Total: +$19

So this month I beat Big Oil! :D My fortunes will probably change next month, though; I usually average 3 tanks.

Premium Gas Showdown

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Wear and tearSustained $4 a gallon gas is one of the new signs of the apocalypse, meaning it’s time to question the ancient Japanese wisdom of my Maxima’s owner’s manual: “Premium fuel recommended”.

My now vestigial mechanical engineering degree had been able to follow the logic: a high compression engine needs purer fuel to run at peak efficiency, otherwise the engine electronics would just dial it back to a less efficient level. Cheaper gas would just be offset by fewer miles per gallon.

As much as love watching my holdings in energy stocks go up, I decided it was time to put this to the test: would I really get fewer miles out of non-premium gas? My admittedly loose testing methodology: two tanks of typical driving measuring cumulative miles per gallon on a ScanGauge.

The results: 22 mpg on premium, 21 mpg on regular. That 1 mpg is well within my margin of error, particularly given that I did more highway driving on the premium tank. I’ll keep watching the numbers to see if there’s a longer-term decline, but for now regular fill-ups are going to ease the pain at the pump a bit. How does your mileage vary?

422 Construction Begins

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

A scant 3 months after it stopped being part of my daily commute, 422 is undergoing construction to add a third westbound lane leaving King of Prussia and crossing the Schuylkill River:

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation PennDOT will begin work this month on a $5.5 million project to reduce onerous congestion on westbound Route 422 during weekday evening rush hours by adding a third westbound lane between the Route 23 Valley Forge Road and Route 363 Trooper Road interchanges. Construction is scheduled to finish in November.

PennDOT District Executive Lester C. Toaso said “Motorists entering westbound Route 422 from Route 23 will be able to use the extra lane to travel directly to the Route 363 exit, thereby not impacting mainline traffic flow, or they can travel over a half-mile west on the new lane before merging into traffic.” Toaso said building this direct-connection lane between the two interchanges was critical because half of the approximately 2,000 vehicles an hour that enter westbound Route 422 from Route 23 on weekday evenings exit the highway at Route 363.

In conjunction with adding the additional lane, modifications will be made at the two interchanges. The westbound Route 422 off-ramp to Route 23 West will be closed permanently and all traffic will use the existing off-ramp to Route 23 East, which will be widened and a traffic signal installed at the end of the ramp for motorists turning left onto Route 23 West. The Route 422 West off-ramp to Route 363 also will be widened to two exit lanes. This upcoming project is the first phase of the River Crossing Complex Program, which consists of several projects to improve travel on Route 422 between the Route 202 and Route 363 interchanges.

The River Crossing Complex Program is quite extensive, as is the linked PDF of the plans. Given the time it’ll take to complete, I don’t think I’ll regret changing my commute for a while!

Revisting Electric Cars

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

I made three short trips in my car today, and again got to thinking how 90% of my driving could be easily accomplished with a Plug-In Hybrid Car or Electric Car and no gas.

One of the ideas I had been kicking around was doing a gas to electric conversion, though lacking a garage and the automotive experience to strip out a gas engine and wire up an electric one dissuaded me. Building a kit car with an electric powertrain would cut out the effort and waste of removing a gas engine, in exchange for the complexity of assembling the rest of a car. Also, most kits tend towards high-end supercars; $20,000 is a great deal to get the same look as a $250,000 Lamborghini, but not so for a electric car budget. Sterling, though, does have a teaser on their site about offering an electric drive kit in the future.

That leaves a conversion with advantages in both overall complexity and selection. There are also ready made kits for some cars, to the tune of $9,000 for a simpler approach. A decent Chevy S10 pickup that isn’t too old would run about $10,000, plus batteries and incidentals. That puts the total in the low $20,000 range for a modest range conversion.

Of course, that much puts you in range of some new hybrids, particularly considering the conversion labor and the premium for a new vehicle that’s been professionally engineered bumper-to-bumper. My current favorite, the Nissan Altima Hybrid, is $27,000 with some meager options to get 40 mpg highway and perhaps convert to a plug-in later.

Unfortunately, that leads me to the same conclusion as before and one of the reasons you don’t see more electrics and hybrids: going green costs you a healthy premium. For me, it would offer a certain technical cache and sense of social & environmental responsibility, but there are cheaper ways to get both at the moment. I’ll put this idea back on the shelf until it’s time to get serious about replacing the Maxima or the itch strikes again…

I Just Saved a Bunch of Money on My Car Insurance

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

… by doing nothing. This is actually a multi-part story, going back a couple of months:

One of my “benefits” at work is discounted car insurance, the provider of which sends out mailings every six months or so urging you to get a quote and save money. The first two times, their website crashed on me. The last time, I actually called, gave them the particulars for a quote, and found it to be several hundred dollars higher that what I was paying at State Farm. Their home insurance actually was a better deal, until you figured in the combination discount I was already getting. So no sale.

Yesterday, I got two exciting pieces of mail from State Farm. The first was a $20 dividend, essentially a refund of my premium since they had a good year. The second was my car insurance bill for the next six months, which has dropped by over $100! More reason to keep driving an old car, and to stick with my existing, traditional insurer.

One final note: the reason I started out with State Farm to begin with was that their quote seven years ago was much more reasonable than any of the TV-hyped, web-based discount providers. Go figure.

How to Pay Too Much Money for a Car

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

When a $38,000 Car Costs $44,000 is a bit of a scary article. Not only are people paying more money for cars with more gadgets and lousy fuel mileage, now they’re financing them with 9 year loans and paying tons of interest. These must be the same people who whined about having to learn math in school.

It comes at a good time for me, though. I’ve had my Maxima for almost 7 years now after I bought it slightly used, and just hit 90,000 miles. I’m sure it’ll run for plenty more, but 100,000 miles is something of a psychological threshold after which you expect more problems and repairs.

Looking around, though, any new car would be a mostly cosmetic upgrade; I’d probably get something with similar size, power, and unfortunately gas mileage. For $20,000, driving an out of date car isn’t such a bad deal.

Stagnant fuel economy isn’t much of an incentive, either. Foreign and domestic automakers and Congress have given people exactly what the people want: more weight, more horsepower, same gas mileage. You didn’t even see an ad mention miles per gallon until those gallons hit $3.

That makes a hybrid tempting (but still expensive), along with a pure electric. There’s a trade off there, too: decent range will cost you, or you take on the work of building your own.

Given all that, it seems like the best solution is just to drive what you’ve already paid off.

Fuel-Efficient Cars Dent States’ Road Budgets

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

Stagnant fuel efficiencyAs if taxes and gas prices weren’t high enough already, The Wall Street Journal reports in Fuel-Efficient Cars Dent States’ Road Budgets that your friendly highway department is now looking for a way to get their hands on the money you thought you saved by buying a more fuel efficient car. They also have a nice graph (right), that shows why we’re still so dependent on foreign oil.

Hidden Costs of Gas Engines

Friday, January 12th, 2007

One of the interesting and less-considered points Who Killed the Electric Car? raised was how much you spend - and the automotive industry profits - from repair and maintenance of the gas engine in your car. This year was a particularly expensive one for me when it came to car expenses: over $2200. My Maxima, while generally reliable, is 9 years and 87,000 miles old, and parts are simply wearing out.

What’s amazing is that all but $65 of those parts and expenses are directly related to the gas engine, its fuel system, and the exhaust system that keeps it from completely destroying the environment. This year was more expensive than most, but the pattern holds that the majority of expenses are engine tune-ups, fluid changes, and obscenely expensive electronic exhaust sensors.

Compared to $2000-3000 every five years for a battery pack, an electric car could easily break ahead of a gas one in terms of maintenance expenses. Hybrids will likely offer a middle ground, with a smaller and less-used gas engine or generator costing less to maintain than a large, primary engine.

Plug-In Hybrid Cars

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

The film Who Killed the Electric Car? takes a hard look at the demise of GM’s EV-1 electric car. It concludes car and oil companies, with some help from the federal government, pushed it aside in favor of a more status-quo friendly hydrogen car further in the future. I generally agree with that conclusion; these entities have already proven themselves capable of some pretty amazing feats when they choose to do so. More positively, it touched on the concept of a plug-in hybrid that allows pure electric power to be used for shorter trips, boosting gas mileage over 100 mpg.

It’s a solution that solves the range problem of pure electric cars, which ranges from 50 miles for a do-it-yourself conversion with lead acid batteries to 250 miles for a Tesla with expensive lithium-ion batteries. In contrast, gas cars typically have no problem meeting consumer demand for a 300 mile range. In my previous Electric Cars post, my personal interest was aimed more at a second car for local driving that makes up 90+% of my mileage, which is typical for many people.

Once again, you can’t drive a plugin-in hybrid off the lot, but conversion kits are available for the Prius. At $10,000 for reasonable weight and range, it’s a hefty premium on top of the existing $3,000 premium you pay for a hybrid. That said, there’s already been demonstrated consumer demand for the EV-1 and Prius, and car buyers routinely spend thousands more than the base price of a new car in accessories.

The costs are largely due to batteries and electronics, which recent history has shown are quickly lowered with economies of scale. Even a limited production run on a Tesla or Prius scale would start this process. At the same time, growing demand for other battery-dependent consumer products including laptops, iPods, and digital cameras will also drive battery technology and lower prices.

It really comes down to a matter of time and effort; if the government gave large companies the right incentives to start developing production plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars, economies of scale would make them a viable option within years instead of decades.