04 March, 2008

The Green Miles

I spent the weekend at a conference near the mountains. The conference was a mixed experience for me. I'll write about that under different head, though.

Here, I'm jonesing to write about 4 days in a Toyota Prius.

Driving a Prius is almost like driving a car, but enough little habits were different to throw me off. The cliches of driving failed me often enough in the Prius, especially at the beginning, to keep me unsettled and happy. It was like having that new-car smell in my brain. It kept reminding me that I was playing with a new toy.

You know how to start driving. We all do. You get in, turn the key, and go. Well, not so with the Prius. There is no key. And there's no real shift lever, either. There's a funky little joystick like an old arcade game, and a button like you'd expect to find on a senior citizen's TV with the big word, "Power."

I've still never owned a car with a remote locking system, so it's all odd to me. I pulled the fob out and clicked it to unlock the car - just like all my rentals. Then everything changed. There's no key, but the fob plugs in to the dash. You plug the unlocky-fobby-thingy into the dash, and hit the senior citizen power button to "start" the car. You can tell the car is started because the dash lights up and the computer screen in the center of the dash boots up. There are no sounds or sensations to go along with the lights.

Sometimes the dash did not light up. I have no idea what that was about. Sometimes, I had to hit power twice, and when I did it would turn yellow instead of green. Whatever. I've been an IT geek too long to try to figure everything out about a rental car, and not long enough to just automatically know.

I'm also one of the last 3 people in the world who uses the park break every time he parks. The Prius park break was odd to me, but only because all my cars are 15 years old or older. Push the brake to set it. Push it again to release it. No big.

So, joystick "up" to go into reverse and back out of your parking spot.

At this point, the dash shows R so you know you're in reverse, and the disgusting engineers' built-in reverse beeper starts bleeping in your ear. The morons put a backup beeper on the inside of the car so that I would know I was going backwards! I wonder how many people really, truly don't know that they're moving backwards after they've put the car in reverse? Pffft. Worst design decision ever.

At this point, the only noise the car has made is that infernal beeping. The engine has not started, the transmission has not dropped into gear, the starter motor has not whirred itself to silence. You are simply rolling backwards, seemingly propelled by your mere desire to be headed backwards. It's a sweet, sweet feeling. After you get used to it, it's what driving was meant to feel like. You let off the brake, and just start going where you wanted to go. If only I could have driven an ice-pick through the cold heart of the backup beeper.

Going forward was just like going backward, except there were no noises to make me want to kill anything. Eventually, of course, the motor does start and it begins to feel like a car again. The motor dies again as you approach a stop sign, or shortly after arriving, which is way too cool. It even dies when driving normally downhill, but that's harder to hear. It seemed early on like the engine dying at stop signs was a transparent affair. After a while, I began to distinctly notice the engine dying with a sad little cough. I don't know whether the poor car was feeling its miles, or whether I was getting more used to it's noises. Either way, it made it back to the rental place, and we all know that's what really matters.

Then we get to the real experience of driving a Prius. I promise I did watch the road from time to time, but watching the little bugger interpret it's own feelings about my driving was irresistible. They put a computer screen the size of a small paperback right where the heater controls go in older cars, and it gives you constant feedback about how deeply the Prius is feeling your fuel-saving love. If it approves of your degree of haste, the little lines will go green, and if you're making it drink too fast, the lines will be be yellow or amber.

Sometimes it would give me a little peck on the cheek by regenerating electricity from the tires to the battery for later conspicuous consumption, and sometimes it would wag its finger at me when I was consuming a gallon of gas in a mere 8 miles. I watched as the little power lines went green and yellow and amber, and the battery filled in drained. I also watched the road mock me. The road would rise above me in some gravity empowering display of mountainousness then chuckle in the sadistic knowledge that I could never climb it at better than 20mpg. Each dotted line giggled as I passed, knowing my Prius would blame me when it was all gravity's fault!

Cursed gravity.

Going up into the mountains, I would average - average, mind you - some ridiculously low mileage like 35 mpg. Falling back down down the mountain, I had one 5 minute stretch (the Prius bundles its feelings about you into nice, little 5 minute averages) in which I averaged 100mpg, and the 20 minute segment of which that was a part never averaged less than 65 mpg.

And that was what I suspected and found. The Prius does not like mountains. It's a lowlander's rig. If you're stopping and going in rush hour, the Prius is right at home. If you're ascending a half-mile vertically over fifty horizontal miles, the Prius is going to be baffled. It doesn't know how to cope with the kind of flagrant waste of energy it takes to ascend a purple mountain majesty, and it's even less at home with falling back off that mountain. Within 30 seconds, it's filled it's batteries back up to "warm and fuzzy" and has to waste the gravitational energy it's being handed just like any other merely mortal gas hog.

Driving within the mountains reveals the Prius's weakness most completely. The Prius is afraid to let its batteries go below 75% full, and therefore it cannot slurp down the kind of energy a typical mountain valley has to offer. It's too bad, but it's optimized for city driving. Such is life.

One more random thing to mention is its constant velocity transmission. Entering a freeway at 70% throttle from a dead stop and continuing to 70 mph results in the engine singing exactly one song for 20-30 seconds (I did not time its acceleration). There is no pleasant shifting of gears, no rise of the engine speed with the passing seconds, and no settling in just at a given rpm when you hit 70.

The Prius says, "Hmmm. 70% throttle. That means 4500 rpm and 80% gas." at 5 mph and 35 mph and 55 mph and 75 mph, the engine smoothly turns 4500 rpm. The gears never shift, and the engine never goes faster. It's a very smooth, nice feeling; again, almost exactly what driving should feel like. It takes almost no time to get used to. The only problem is that you cannot check your speed by listening to the engine. The engine is going exactly as fast as you tell it to go with your foot, with utter disregard for how fast the car is going. If it takes 30% throttle to maintain your speed, and you are holding 35% throttle, your Prius will steadily gain speed without any audible clue. You'll look down to see you're doing 75, but the engine is singing the same song it sang at 65. Or just as easily, you can find yourself doing 55, and still hear the same song as at 65. It's not such a big deal to me, because I use the cruise control religiously, but it's noticable.

Anyway, it was a fun four days.

My final fillup summed up the story. In 240 miles, I consumed 6.13 gallons of gas. $21 was mighty reasonable for all the driving I'd done. I guess that's 39 or so mpg. The Prius told me I averaged 44 mpg. Not a bad estimate considering how I'd made a mountain goat of a city turtle, even if it was a "But, you said!" moment.

I got over it. :-)

I made it home, and turned the key on my '91 Mercedes diesel. It fired to life and took me home, weird noises, abrupt shifts, rain dripping onto my thigh, and all. It made me happy to be back in my car. In the end, I'm too Scottish to spend $20k+ plus interest to save $15 on every tank of gas, but I'm spend-thrift enough to try it out for a weekend. I'm glad I did, and now I'm sure I won't be leveraging any credit to shoehorn myself into one any time soon.


eclexia said...

Oh, this is hilarious writing/story telling. They should pay you to write this up in a magazine review somewhere.

"watching the little bugger interpret it's own feelings about my driving was irresistible"--I'm sure I'd wreck one if I tried to drive it for that very reason. And as much as I like to connect with people and listen to their feelings, I'm not sure if I'm quite ready for my car to be so emotionally transparent with me :)

Not being one who has ever been able to even think about buying a new car, I had not bothered to learn much about they hybrids. But your story sent me straight to (cough) Wikipedia. What I learned was interesting (but not nearly as fun to read as what you wrote here).

"regenerating electricity from the tires to the battery for later conspicuous consumption" That would give me incredible joy--the act of driving creating its own energy. I mean the energy is there, already being created, but to harness it--how great. I get a similar rush (for a lot less money) when I hang clothes on the line. It's like all that heat energy is there, and it's doing its thing, but so much is going to waste, and borrowing some of it, almost incidentally, well...What can I say. I'm easily entertained.

Glad you had so much fun with the car. It's amazing that the car could curse you for doing something so energy inefficient as driving up mountains and STILL get you, on average, 39 mpg. It makes me want to go outside and give my Taurus a lecture and call it a few names.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know you could rent a Prius, that's cool. A guy here at work has one. Not my kind of car, but I appreciate the technology.

I wonder if all the constant MPG tracking isn't leading to hybrid owners creeping along impeding traffic flow trying to squeeze another MPG out. I've come across more than one hybrid driver very leisurely accelerating or poking along much slower than the flow. Of course, it may just be the madman driver in me. I'm not the most patient on the road, unfortunately.

I wonder if that backup thing was added by the rental company. Doesn't sound very Toyota. If I think of it, I'll ask the guy here.

On the CVT - Nissan found that the constant droning unsettled some folks, so they built shift points into theirs complete with paddle shifters so you can 'shift' it yourself. If you understand the mechanics of a CVT, you realize how goofy that is.

Anonymous said...

eclexia - You don't magically make energy, you recover a little bit of what you spent. The gas has energy stored in it (potential energy), you convert that energy into motion (move the car), either directly or by charging the batteries and then using them to power the car. When coasting or braking, a hybrid recovers some of that energy from the motion (inertia) back into the battery by recharging it. You don't get it all back (some goes to heat from friction), but you get some back which is more than regular cars do. In regular cars all that inertia goes into heat when you stop.

eclexia said...

technicalities, technicalities... :)

Actually, seriously, Salguod, I appreciate your correcting my vocabulary. I do know energy doesn't magically appear, but I'm not very good at talking about it properly. The way you put it in words is helpful.

What I had in mind when I was erroneously talking about "creating" energy was something similar we had wanted to do in Africa--set up a stationary bike for our kids hooked up to the batteries for our house. In my mind I thought of that as "generating" (except I said "creating") energy, when, I'm guessing from your description and codepoke's original wording, what we would have been doing was converting our kids' potential energy to another form of energy, which we would be storing as potential energy in the batteries, and then using as electrical (?) energy to power our lights?

I suppose the real proof that I'm more of a feeler than a thinker is that I "feel" what's going on when I read about energy or think about it/picture it, but I get confused when I try to think about it in concrete, precise words... Anyway, the similarity in the bike-generator and recovering the energy off the motion of the tires is what I was thinking of at the time I read it. I do think it is cool that the car intentionally recovers some of the "leftover" energy (is that a correct way of saying it, or am I still missing the point with my words?) from the motion.

(And I hope I'm not making a fool of myself trying to talk about this more :) I do like learning about the whole energy thing and trying to understand it (and the vocabulary that describes it) more precisely and accurately.

Milly said...

I’ll stick to my Eclipse Momcar. I love the ability to start it from across the parking lot. I love having the remote to lock it or unlock it. I love the sun roof, leather heated seats, and On Star.
My sis was looking at a Prius so I printed this post for her. Oops I think I killed a tree. I copied it in larger print because of the head banger.

Milly said...

>rain dripping onto my thigh

Sup wit dat?

codepoke said...

Thank you, Eclexia for laughing. It was the only way I could treat a subject so "important" to me. :-)

Maybe I could start writing the car reviews for the The Onion.

codepoke said...


Yeah. Watching the little lines definitely kept me slow, but it's nothing new. All the old rules are just verified. Accelerate slowly. Decelerate as little as possible. Use hills, instead of fighting against them. The feedback just informs you how right the rules are.

One thing I found interesting was how wrong I was about the slope on some hills. In some places, it looked like straight downhill and the engine was engaged, while other places seemed uphill and I was actually regenerating. I doubt the computer was wrong, because I was actually maintaining my desired speed. It was fun to see how subject to illusions I am.

On the CVT, you're right. Nissan's idea is putting cards in the tire spokes. It's just dumb. And, it completely ruins the whole point of CVT in the first place - keeping the engine in its "sweet spot."

Have you seen the ball bearing-based CVT solution they've rolled out for bicycles? Really cool.

codepoke said...

Sorry about the migraine, Milly. I hope your sister gets a laugh. I doubt it will help her with her decision much.

My merc was $500 short of being totalled after a T-bone in 2001. Insurance rebuilt the car, but the lady who owned it never "bonded" with it again after the accident so her husband sold it to me for exact book. Anyway, the hit seems to have allowed the windshield frame to rust, and the rust allows water to drip in, sometimes right into my thigh.


I keep thinking I'm going to ask some mechanic what it would cost to fix it, but I keep "forgetting".

Lynne said...

That was fun! I must admit I never realised how different those things were to drive! Ah well, I won't be looking for a new car for a few more years .. my 6 yo Rav 4 and I are very bonded!

Missy said...

Again, CP, you need a book deal - or like eclexia said, magazine reviews or such. You have the most entertaining way of telling stories!

1) I always put the em. brake on when I park, too.

2) I once stopped at a light, put it in park, and then in reverse when the light turned green. I did a bit of damage to a Suburban behind me. I needed that annoying beep.

I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the conference. Glad you made it home safely!

Bill said...

Definitely some of your best writing! A grinner all the way thru. :)

Kansas Bob said...

I'm with eclexia.. Car and Driver needs you CP! That backup beeper would drive me crazy!