Friday, October 28, 2011

Honolulu Vehicle Registrations -- Taken for a Ride

The increase in the cost for vehicle registrations in Hawaii has been staggering. Although the consumer price index would justify roughly a 40% increase, the cost of registration has increased by 140%!

Councilman Tom Berg has listed all the recent state laws and city ordinances that caused all the increases in vehicle registration fees but it's hard to assess the cumulative effect of them by reading the legalese and the corresponding vehicle weights.

Thankfully, my 1999 Mazda Miata is still around so I can use past receipts for an annual accounting of the changes. The Miata is one of the lightest light duty vehicles out there so it basically represents the minimum registration fee in Hawaii. While we are at it, let's compare the registration increases in 11 years with the corresponding insurance coverage which has remained constant. Of course the value of the Miata has dropped substantially in 11 years, but the biggest portion of car insurance is liability. Despite its age, the Miata can cause the same liability in 2011 as it could in 1999.

Here are the numbers for my car along with Honolulu's Consumer Price Index, or CPI. CPI is an approximation of inflation and it basically says that something that cost $100 in Honolulu in 2000, it would cost $136 in 2011.

I write these while the Occupy movement is in full swing… Occupy gives a perspective of the "poor little guy" versus the "insatiable corporate interests."

Interestingly, the multinational corporate insurance gave little guy me a net 68 percent break in insurance cost in the past 11 years. This despite two claims totaling about $8,000 in damages due to other motorist errors.

On the other hand, the government (that typically proclaims to take care of the little guy) gave me a net 100 percent higher cost for car registration. And thousands of potholes that these fees are supposed to fix.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Did Commuting Patterns Change in the First Decade of the Millenium? Only a Little.

A New Geography article summarized the commuting data and results revealed by the 2010 Census. The winner was Telecommuting and the loser was Carpooling. Despite higher prices and huge media hype over shifts to public transit, the big surprise was the continued growth over the last decade in driving alone to work.

In summary,there has been no major change in commuting, even with the huge gas price increases. As the shift to personal mobility continues, the largest increases will like take place in telecommuting, which is the most energy-efficient form of transportation. Gains in transit have been minimal and should be expected to stay at around 5% on the mainland and around 7% in Honolulu.

Clearly these numbers indicate that a city like Honolulu with 950,000 people investing on a $6,000,000,000 heavy rail system is nothing short of ridiculous.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

International Award on Sustainability Research

I am very pleased to have received this international award along with my research collaborators.

Out of 2,000 scientific papers submitted for the 2011 international conference of the World Road Association (also known as PIARC), 620 were selected to be presented at the conference and 8 received awards. One of the 8 was ours!

Lambros Mitropoulos is one of my doctorate students; he will be graduating at the end of 2011. Professor Teti Nathanail of Thessaly University spent summers 2009 and 2010 at UH-Manoa.
Another paper with Dr. Nathanail was published the U.S. Transportation Research Board: "Risk Assessment for the Transportation of Hazardous Materials through Tunnels." (Transportation Research Record, No. 2162: 98-106, 2010.)


Monday, October 10, 2011

Honolulu Heavy Rail Is an Energy Black Hole

Energy and Honolulu rail is an angle that I did not have time to look at in detail, until last week when my students did some energy analysis of Honolulu’s proposed rail. They discovered this June 2008 article by Sean Hao: Rail's use of energy subject of debate in the Honolulu Advertiser.

Of note is that the rail will consume about 20 MW of energy which is about 20% of the capacity of HECO’s new palm oil plant. Unfortunately peak rail travel coincides with peak demand for electricity around 6 PM, which means that rail will stress HECO’s generators.

Now if you believe the city’s numbers which are based on incredible ridership projections and substantial bus route eliminations, Table 4-21 of the Final EIS shows that the rail project will save 2,440 million British thermal units (BTU) of energy each day, or about 610,000 million BTU per year.

Hao correctly added that: “Any evaluation of the energy savings generated by rail also needs to consider the massive amount of energy required during construction. For example, construction of the fixed guideway will require between 3.7 trillion and 4.9 trillion BTU of energy, according to Parsons Brinckerhoff.”

This quote reveals two startling facts:

First the unnamed Parsons Brinkerhoff source clearly lied to Hao by stating roughly half the correct amount of BTU. The 2008 Draft EIS, Table 4-34 on page 4-159, shows that the rail’s Airport alignment will require 7,480,000 MBTU. That’s 7.5 trillion BTU, not 3.7 trillion.

Second, by dividing 7,480,000 by 610,000 we get 12.2. That’s how many years it will take to make up the construction energy loss by the purported energy savings. But in reality these 12 years are an understatement because Hawaii's vehicle fleet is much smaller in engine size (more economical) than mainland fleet and the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles is vastly bigger on Oahu. In addition the national averages are based on low vehicle occupancy, whereas Oahu has among the highest transit and carpooling rates, so BTU per passenger mile is way lower than mainland.

The City's BTU savings estimate may be wrong by a factor of 3 or larger, so it will take so many years for rail to "make up" its construction energy waste that before break-even is reached, rail will need multiple component replacements, repairs and refurbishments. So an energy black hole it is!

On the other hand, our 2008 simulation estimates using the DEIS traffic numbers show that rail is a net energy loser without even counting the huge energy consumption during construction. In comparison, a properly designed and operated HOT lane system will save energy (motor fuel and oil.)

Fuel Consumption for One Peak Hour (in US gallons)
Change from Base of ~97,000 gallons


Motor Fuel

Motor Fuel plus Diesel at HECO for Rail

Rail: 6.5% traffic reduction



Rail: 3.25% traffic reduction



HOT Lanes and Four



Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Volt, Prius or CRV? Numbers Make the Choice Obvious.

The fully worded question is: How does the extended-range GM Volt Electric Vehicle compare with Toyota’s fourth generation hybrid Prius and Honda’s popular compact SUV the CRV?

I was not inclined to immediately dismiss the GM Volt as an expensive failure, (e.g., Chevy Volt is Automotive Version of Solyndra) and the October 2011 issue of Consumer Reports (CR) encouraged me to look into this different car.

Although CR did not award the Volt its coveted Recommended status, some of its critique is excellent for a compact car with unconventional technology:
  • “Responsive steering makes the Volt feel fairly nimble in turns.”
  • “The Volt was secure at its handling limits.”
  • “The ride feels solid and firm yet compliant.”
  • “Braking distance was very good overall.” And this one:
  • “The Volt is amazingly inexpensive to run on short trips.”
The last one has twice the significance for Honolulu. Because of the compactness of the land, we make many more short trips in Honolulu than motorists in spread out mainland cities with about one million population. But our electricity cost is roughly three times higher than mainland US.

Does a Volt make a good choice? We can arrive at an answer by comparing it to two popular choices in Honolulu like the Toyota Prius and the Honda CRV. (1)

CR compared their $43,000 Volt to a $26,500 Toyota Prius and a $18,500 Hyundai Elantra. It excluded the purchase cost. Based on gasoline and kilowatt-hour costs, CR found that Volt is cheapest for 30 mile trips, is similar to hybrids for 70 mile trips, and loses its advantage as trips get longer.

To get to a better answer I used both Honolulu and US mainland prices for fuel and electricity, 30 mile and 70 mile trips, an 8 year/100,000 mile horizon (that’s when Volt's battery warranty expires), US and Hawaii tax incentives, and resale value at the end of 8 years. One component that remains uncertain in these half life-cycle cost estimations is maintenance.

In 8 years, Prius and CRV will make extensive use of their internal combustion engine. They would need about 20 oil changes and a few component replacements which should cost $1,000 to $2,000. Also both of them may require transmission repairs which are not applicable to the Volt. Both Volt and Prius have regenerative braking so they may not need brake pads before 100,000 miles but the CRV will likely need two sets of front brake pads and rotor resurfacing. Brake costs for the CRV for 8 years and 100,000 miles may come close to $1,000. Maintenance and repairs play a role in life cycle cost.

Insurance, finance charges, license, annual registration and safety inspections were not included because they are similar for all three cars for the same driver at a given location, e.g., registration and insurance rates vary widely by state. (As of this writing I am not certain that Volt is subject to Smog Test where applicable.) These costs do not affect the bottom line choice.

Discounted parking and other perks for EVs were not included. Currently EV perks in Hawaii are as follows:
  • Special electric vehicle license plates.
  • Free parking at State and County facilities including meters.
  • Free parking at UH parking structure.
  • Exemptions from high occupancy vehicle lanes.
For some users these perks may amount to more than $1,000 per year, at taxpayer expense (e.g., a stall occupied by an EV cannot be occupied by a fee-paying vehicle, so EV user gains amount X and taxpayer loses parking revenue X.)

A big unknown is the durability and replacement cost of Volt's battery. GM's warranty is for 8 years and 100,000 miles. Note that California requires 10 years/150,000 miles. As a result, Volt buyers will not receive California's $5,000 incentive. This limitation is not applicable to Hawaii.

The Prius' entire hybrid system (which includes the hybrid battery pack) is warranted for 8 years/100,000 miles. A battery replacement with a new one at a dealership costs roughly $4,000. There are lower cost options such as Re-Involt Technologies in North Carolina: “...batteries for the Prius 2001-2010 are $1675.00 plus shipping and your old battery.”

The table above details my estimates for the usage of these three cars in Honolulu using monthly gasoline prices and my own electricity bills to determine the actual bottom line cost of HECO’s price to the household. This price was then reduced by 6 cents, a discount that HECO offers if the EV is charged at home overnight. I assumed that this preferential treatment will last for the 8 year horizon in my analysis. HECO installation of a appropriate meter, purchase and installation of a 240V charger add over $2,500. There is a $750 incentive for the 240V charger.

Despite Honolulu’s expensive electricity, use of the Volt exclusively for short trips is much cheaper than its competitors. Honolulu Volt owner’s running cost comes to $595; the same cost at an average U.S. mainland city is $283.

Then I used a mix of 5 trips of 30 miles each and 2 trips of 70 miles each, per week, to arrive at my bottom line estimates. With such usage, the Volt, Prius and CRV will cost $1,150, $992 and $2,044, respectively, to run for 12,500 miles per year in Honolulu, and $698, $843 and $1,738, respectively, to run for 12,500 miles per year at an average mainland city.

Volt is the cheapest to operate on short and medium trips on the mainland, and Prius is the cheapest to operate on short and medium trips in Honolulu; about $150 cheaper than the Volt and more than $1,000 cheaper than the CRV. HECO’s high price per kilowatt-hour takes a toll on Volt.

Using’s True Market Value(2), a flat documentation fee, 4.5% tax (GET in Hawaii, 8% sales tax on mainland) and applicable incentives, I arrived at the following cost estimates:

CRV has a purchase price of about $26,000 and Prius is about $29,500. Volt is $31,500 after $7,500 in federal incentives and $4,500 in Hawaii incentives have been deducted. These prices include destination charges and regional adjustments of about $750 (an add-on to car cost in Hawaii.) Due to lower state incentives and higher sales taxes, the Volt is about $3,000 more expensive on the US mainland. The other two are about the same as in Hawaii.

The bottom half of the table above is the bottom line. I arrived there by estimating today’s resale value of the three vehicles for 8 years in the future, using Both CRV and Prius have an over 10 year history on the market so their used car value is reliable. There are no estimates for the year-old Volt, so I assumed that it will have a resale value equal to the Prius.

Bottom line is that in Honolulu over 8 years and 100,000 miles the CRV will have a total cost of $33,775, the Prius will cost $27,888 and Volt comes in the middle with a total cost of $31,080. Mainland estimates are in the same order with only the CRV costing about $1,500 less than Hawaii due to the cheaper gasoline price.

With analysis like this, one can run “what if” scenarios quickly. What if average gasoline price for the next 8 years increases by a whopping 50% over the 18-month average I used? This would take Honolulu’s average gas price to $5.43 per gallon. In this case, the bottom line for the three cars will be as follows: the CRV will have a total cost of $41,963, the Prius will cost $31,861 and Volt would come in the middle at $32,589 (... plus registration, insurance, maintenance, parking and other applicable fees ... and the charger for the Volt.)

But over 75% of Oahu’s electricity comes from oil and this is not likely to change by much in the next 8 years. So if gasoline goes up by 50%, then electricity will go up by at least 30%. This increases Volt’s bottom line cost to $34,394. So even with very expensive gasoline Prius is cheaper than the Volt by $2,500.

All estimates indicate that Volt is a losing proposition to its buyer and it is certainly a losing proposition to the taxpayer because tax incentives of $12,000 are involved in the sale of every Volt in Hawaii. A Volt buyer could have gotten a much lower priced hybrid car and $12,000 of taxpayer monies could have gone to far more worthy causes. Parking incentives and the tax credit for the home charger may also add several thousand dollars of taxpayer subsidies.

Even the most extreme of “green” advocates cannot argue that the environmental benefits of each Volt over a Prius are worth $10,000 to $20,000 depending on location and taxpayer subsidized perks.

The Volt is a huge “miss” for GM, a manufacturer that could least afford a costly “miss,” and the total financial blunder from this vehicle is attributable to misguided policies (of the familiar liberal type.) Billions more will be spent on mandated EV chargers at parking lots, and on government fleet purchases of Volts.

Postcripts: (1) What about the all electric Nissan Leaf? Look for my updated coverage that will include the Leaf once reliable data become available, most likely early next year. (2) is a reliable publication that I also used in my doctorate dissertation to determine car values in the late 1980s. It includes a “True Cost to Own” estimator that takes into account most of the life-cycle categories mentioned in my article. It has no estimates for Leaf and Volt.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Where Are the Rail Construction Crews?

Gone racing!

A friend sent me several pictures and this note: "I was stuck in traffic for almost an hour at 12 noon in Waipahu on Farrington Highway on Friday going to lunch and back with the staff. Took a picture of the construction area -- not a soul was there. What a charade."

I have already covered the effects of debilitating construction that will be caused by the rail project. What we are observing now is pre-construction for soils testing and relocation of utilities. The nightmare will begin once elevated construction begins. But where are the crews?

As I said, gone racing. See for yourself:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

News Behind the News: Honolulu Rail on the Ropes

An update of the Honolulu Rail Project, and the Rail Lawsuit by UH professors Randy Roth (Law School) and Panos Prevedouros (College of Engineering.)