February 04, 2014

OT: Electric cars that get you HOV lane access

Now that I’ll have a >2mi commute for the first time in a decade, I’m considering cars that qualify for single-occupant use of California’s carpool (HOV) lanes. In case you’re in the market, here are some quick impressions:

  • Chevy Volt. It was like driving a $40,000 bowl of oatmeal (and it seats just four). Its unique powertrain apparently sucks energy right out of my soul.*
  • Toyota Plug-In Prius: “It drives about like it looks,” a Prius-owning friend once told me. Yep. “Can I pass this right-lane car on the freeway?” I asked myself during the test drive. Nope. But at $31,000, the price is reasonable.
  • Toyota RAV4 EV: $50,000, and I couldn’t drive to SF and back without planning my trip around a recharge in the middle. Pass.
  • Nissan Leaf: Same range problem, but at $29,000, it’s much more reasonable. I haven’t driven it, but my friend seems happy with his.
  • Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid: Attractive, but $45,000 for a cloth-seat Accord? Cripes. (Also, on our 7mi test drive it somehow managed 16.7mpg. Soooo…)
  • Ford Fusion Plug-in Hybrid: Same as above, but $42k. Really? Didn’t bother to drive it.

…which of course brings us to that baddest of boys, the Tesla Model S. “Don’t drive it if you don’t want to buy it,” cautioned a Tesla-owning friend. He’s right: We tried it yesterday, and the power & smoothness are as terrific as you’d hope. Ay, but there—along with the (to me) eye-watering price—may lie the rub: It would make me want to drive a lot, when I really should try to use mass transit (specifically the Google bus).

Thus the smart call (ecologically, financially, and in terms of productivity) is likely to sit tight for now & to try the bus. Meanwhile we’ll keep enjoying the VW** TDI Sportwagen we bought last year. It’s fun to drive & gets 45mpg highway (but no HOV access). I just wish VW’s plug-in TDI CrossBlue (89 MPGe, seats six) were shipping today.

By the way, people here sometimes debate the wisdom of “Lexus lanes” that would let people pay extra to use carpool lanes. We are of course doing this already: pay a huge premium on an unremarkable car specifically for that privilege. It’s just a question of where we direct the funds—to private companies or to the government.

* I kept thinking of There’s Something About Mary: “You said she was a real spark plug!!” “No, I said…”

** I with other companies gave half the damn VW/Audi does about interior details. My little design shibboleth is the window controls: Give me one-touch down and up all around and you’re good; fail that & you show you don’t care. Tesla of course gets this right.

Posted by John Nack at 6:30 AM on February 04, 2014


  • Stephen Walker — 6:44 AM on February 04, 2014

    I was just admiring (and by admiring I mean I was drooling) the Tesla web site on the weekend.
    Sitting here in South Africa the possibility of owning one is a very distant and impossible dream.
    I’m considering moving to the USA just to touch one !!

  • jlua — 7:12 AM on February 04, 2014

    I have been using a Prius (not plug-in) since 2007, and it may be the best car I have ever had. Not a single problem, lot´s of interior and luggage space, and -for me- few complaints. Except, perhaps, the GPS built-in navigation unit, which I wished it could be updated wirelessly, instead of via -expensive- DVD´s. Other than that, I may repeat car model the next time I need a new car.

  • Andrew Yang — 7:17 AM on February 04, 2014

    Smart Electric?

    It’s tiny but cheap. Giving it serious consideration strictly as a commuter car. HOV lanes + preferential parking at many places (including work).


  • John Metzger — 7:30 AM on February 04, 2014

    Hold out for a few years. There’s a slew of electric and plug in hybrids coming at the 35-50k price range from companies like Audi, BMW, Lexus and Acura. My problem is that most are still butt ugly. Why does efficiency have to equal ugly other than tesla?

  • J. Peterson — 8:05 AM on February 04, 2014

    The HOV lane is really solving a problem of rush hour. Perhaps there are other solutions besides buying a car for that lane? I’d definitely wait a year or so on that; you may find a schedule/working arrangement that makes the problem go away.

    RE: Tesla: I find moving traditional physical controls (climate, audio, etc) to a touch screen requiring your eyes off the road a bit disturbing.

  • Keith — 8:20 AM on February 04, 2014

    I pedal my way around town, for longer jaunts 2 tacos keeps my battery charged.

  • Arno Neemers — 9:08 AM on February 04, 2014

    I’d add one more to your list, personally — the Fiat 500e. Heck, I’d be interested in one myself, if I lived in Cali.


    It starts at $32k before incentives, it’s reasonably stylish, Road & Track says it drives “just like” the gas version and called it their electric car of 2013, it’s right at the top of the pack for city and highway MPGe economy, and it’s on your list of eligible single-occupant carpool vehicles.

    But yes, it only has auto down on the windows, not auto up. Such is life…

  • Philip Hutchison — 9:50 AM on February 04, 2014

    First off, congrats on the new job. Hope you’ll keep blogging somewhere.

    I commute from SF to the south bay and have been looking at EVs, too. (Believe me, the HOV lane has a HUGE impact on how long you’ll be sitting in traffic, esp on 101.)

    FWIW, I’ve noticed that leases for electric vehicles are currently much cheaper than outright purchase. Most models are about $600/mo if you purchase, but closer to $250/mo if you lease. Since EVs will have a low resale value — the technology is always improving, no one wants an old EV — you might be better off leasing.

    But since you’re at Google, their bus is pretty nice, too! I pass their busses all the time, and often think I’d rather be relaxing with WiFi on a slow bus than driving my car and getting stressed out. It’s amazing how many people are texting and reading email on their phones while driving on 280/101.

  • Enrique de la Huelga — 10:32 AM on February 04, 2014

    When I’m not riding the company bus to Cupertino, I drive an older Honda Accord Hybrid… which I can’t seriously recommend. Although an otherwise perfectly fine car, the MPG for the peninsula commute is poor. Since we started offering free charging stations on campus, the number of Leafs, Volts, and… yes… Teslas have started multiplying like rabbits.

  • Alex — 10:46 AM on February 04, 2014

    No, No, No, etc. Car is not the answer John. A tryke,(the kids can learn early) is the ticket John. I saw an Indian tryke last week and it was love. Up and coming google execs make and create trends, not follow them.

  • Dick Kenny — 11:03 AM on February 04, 2014

    They should give you a Spyder 918 in recognition of deeds past and present. You could then overtake everything on the way to your new job. I would. All the best.

  • tm Surratt — 12:01 PM on February 04, 2014

    Hey John, good luck and happiness to you and the family my friend. Thanks for all the enjoyment and knowledge you’ve pass along to us all with your blog here.

  • James Darknell — 12:58 PM on February 04, 2014

    Car manufacturers don’t do the ‘auto up’ windows because its too much of a liability, its too easy for stupid people to get hurt sticking their head out the window and accidentally triggering the up action. Would be death for a small child, so while I’m annoyed by the minor inconvenience, I can see the other side and think I agree with the existing functionality.

    • Imajez — 5:43 PM on February 04, 2014

      Strange you say that as as our Citroen C4 does auto up/down.
      It also does 64+mpg and that’s on a hilly cross country route and through a congested city. And that’s with my girlfriend driving, who’s heavy footed on the accelerator (that’s the gas pedal for those who speak American).
      I also tried a Prius and it was the least efficient car I tested by far. That design is simply awful in hilly places. In fact I couldn’t see any point to it. Seemed like a vehicle designed to appease the green conscience without actually being useful in that regard. I

  • james — 1:57 AM on February 05, 2014

    I dont justify whether it is expensive or cheap. But providing an access of HOV lanes very helpful to during the peak hours.

  • Jonathan — 4:05 AM on February 05, 2014

    “>2mi commute”
    Did you mean “<2mi commute"?

    [I don’t think so. (Did I?) My commute now is 1.8 miles, and soon it’ll be 16. –J.]

    And if so, why not a bike?

  • Lorsen — 11:28 AM on February 05, 2014

    Like someone said, if you really want EV, go with a $200/month lease on a Spark EV (cheaper than gas) and it’s the only mini car that got IIHS safety pick. Everything else in the category was not even recommended including the Fiat 500. By the time the lease is over, there will be better EVs on the market and maybe then you can get your auto-up window ;)

  • Jeffrey Tranberry — 9:33 AM on February 06, 2014

    My buddy Greg lives two blocks from you and works at Google, too. Hit him up. He uses the bus/shuttle – and drives some days. He probably has an opinion and might be a good car-pooling option.

  • steve — 11:15 AM on February 07, 2014

    John, think outside the box (or car for this case):

    Creek to the bay. QED ;-)

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