Monday, March 24, 2014

Sticker Shock

Woohoo! Got my green stickers, baby! It was getting a bit dicey there…. one of the reasons why I got a Volt now instead of later is because those California HOV stickers were running low for qualified plug-in hybrids and extended range electrics. Back in January there were over 7,000 of the available 40,000 stickers left, and by the end of last week that number dwindled down to under 4,000 remaining. I applied for my sticker as soon as I could – the day I got my plates, about a month into the lease – then monitored my bank account on a daily basis looking for a check cashed in the amount of eight bucks. Meanwhile, the depleting sticker supply debacle was getting more and more attention in blogs and articles. To make things worse, more dealers were getting into the act of ordering stickers en masse for cars they had in transit from the factory. It didn’t take long to have second thoughts about not leasing my Volt from one of the big dealers in the Valley that pre-orders stickers, even if it would have meant abandoning the great lease terms I got from a local dealer. At my lowest point I even wished I had not picked up the Volt at all, that I should have just kept driving the Focus Electric 18,000 miles a year, which at 20 cents per mile over 12,000, would have resulted in almost $4000 of excess mileage charge over three years, instead of taking on the Volt for a mere six cents per mile more.

Despite the risk of such significant financial penalty two years from now, I started neglecting the Volt most of the week, like I did with the Mercedes it replaced, in favor of commuting with my white-stickered Focus Electric in the HOV lane. Spending over three hours a day crawling on the 405 in the Volt just wasn’t as appealing as flying in the Focus Electric at proper freeway speeds while the rest of the world around me stood still. At any price. As the weeks of March passed, seeing more and more Volts on the road with no plates and pre-ordered green stickers on their bumpers further convinced me that I probably made a costly mistake.

Eventually the planets aligned. On Wednesday of last week I logged into my checking account like so many countless weeknights prior, and there it was – a tiny icon that was a scanned image of an eight dollar check payable to the DMV. That meant arrival of my Volt’s green stickers were imminent, and that my daily obsession with online banking would transition to manically sifting through a pile of snail mail that my wife so thoughtfully places on my side of the kitchen table before I get home from work (I love that girl!). But the following night as I made a beeline from the front door to the kitchen I couldn’t see the stack of mail…. my wife was standing in front of the table with a firm stance and cold stare. If I were a dog my tail would have instinctively curled under my hind legs, head lowered as I slowly back away. “Uh oh”,  I thought. She held up an envelope and sternly asked, “Why are you getting mail from the DMV? You did NOT buy another car, did you???”.

I was relieved. Because I did nothing of the sort, this time.  She’s a bit sensitive about my craigslist buying binges, and is probably harboring a fear that my obsession has moved back to cars. Over the past couple of years, my weakness has been with guitars… now there are over 20 guitars lining the walls of  my man-cave, bought from aspiring rock stars that moved on to other pursuits, professional musicians that upgraded their gear, and folks that otherwise don’t want to spend the time nor resources to fix broken instruments – probably half of the collection required mild restoration, i.e. snapped necks, failed electronics, sometimes just a simple paint touch-up. After getting two electric vehicles so far this year, one in January and the next in February, I suppose her angst is justified.

Surprised and delighted about the DMV mail, I snatched the envelope from her hand and ripped it open. “Stickers! Look, I got my stickers,” I  clearly explained, waving the shiny green holographic treasures just inches from her face. She rolled her eyes and stepped aside, opening up my path to the kitchen table, where I got on my son’s laptop and started googling for pictures of Volts with HOV stickers to help me visualize how I should install these things. In all these weeks of waiting, I didn’t have the sense to finalize exactly where they would go once I got them. Between eating dinner, cleaning up, and putting the boys to bed, it took all night to decide and then to install the stickers, but by midnight the Volt was armed and ready to take on the HOV lane for the Friday morning commute.

Since then, I’ve been commuting with the Volt exclusively to get a jump on minimizing excess miles on the Focus Electric lease.  With the stickers installed and 50% higher average speed achieved in the HOV lane, the Volt now needs about a quart of gas per day on the 38-mile, 1200-foot climb back home after being fully charged at work… in its pre-sticker guise it took at most a pint, and with the weather warming we were actually starting to make it home without waking up the ICE. A small price to pay for spending one less hour on the freeway, I suppose.

I’m guessing that the depletion of the green sticker supply will slow momentarily because as reported by Inside EVs,  the DMV has suspended the program that allows dealers to obtain those stickers prior to sale. This is good news for those dealers that don’t pre-order the stickers as well as for consumers that shop around for the best deal. Even better news is that there’s a bill to increase the number of green stickers that can be issued, exact quantity is apparently yet to be determined. With any luck, it will be enough to cover introductions of the rumored Focus Energi and imminent next-generation Volt. Because after one solid week of driving my Volt, I’ve realized that it has a few shortcomings that keeps me from wanting to keep it longer than its lease term. More on that later.