Volvo vs. Tesla

This past weekend I rode along while my son test-drove a brand new Volvo XC 90, a big SUV that bore a sticker price of more than $61,000.

VolvoMy son doesn’t want to buy a car; he doesn’t even want to own a car. But he had received an offer in the mail from Volvo promising $75 just for taking a test drive, and that was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The car was very comfortable, even cushy. But all that cushiness couldn’t hide two things—the noise of the engine and the feel of the mechanical shifting of the transmission, two things that don’t even exist in my Tesla.

But Volvo isn’t going to stick with these gasoline-burners much longer. In fact, on July 5, Volvo announced that as of 2019, all its new car models launched would be either hybrid or fully electric cars. Unfortunately, many, many news outlets (including The Wall Street Journal) misinterpreted this to mean that Volvo will stop making traditional gasoline-powered cars at the same time. Not true. Volvo will continuing making and selling existing gasoline-powered models, and the market—among other factors—will determine when the actual end of the line comes for those traditional vehicles.

In any case, the market that Volvo is truly targeting with this new direction is not the U.S. but China, which is not only the world’s largest market for cars but also the home of Volvo’s parent company, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group (which bought Volvo from Ford in 2010).

Spurred by a need to reduce pollution, China is requiring automakers’ fleets to reach the equivalent of 47 mpg by 2020, and the only way for Volvo to do that (absent making little cars), is to go hybrid or electric.

The hybrid/electric power plants will also provide a great alternative to diesel in Europe. Volvo sales in Europe were 83% diesel in 2016, but thanks mainly to Volkswagen, manufacturers (and consumers) are now running from diesel as fast as possible.

But this doesn’t mean Volvo’s new offerings will be competitive with Tesla’s all-electric cars. The vast majority of Volvo’s cars will be built on existing (un-optimized) platforms and will be mild hybrids, in which electric systems assist a gasoline engine at times and store energy regenerated in deceleration, but are unable to propel the car on electricity alone.

Tesla, meanwhile, continues to lead the pack in the electric car market, with its “affordable” Model 3 beginning deliveries to the first of more than 400,000 reservation-holders later this month.

Tesla Model 3Conclusion, Volvo is moving in the right direction, but as of today has nothing that is competitive with Tesla’s all-electric vehicles.

Road Tripping in the Tesla

My daily commute is only one mile, but I’ve managed to put more than 46,000 miles on my Tesla since I bought it in September 2013.


Road trips!

So, given that many potential Tesla buyers still suffer from range anxiety—that uneasy feeling that your car’s battery will die before you get where you’re going—I’m presenting this account of my latest road trip, in which my wife and I not only got where we were going but enjoyed some fringe benefits from driving an electric car, too!

We started with a 3-hour drive from Salem, Massachusetts to New Haven Connecticut, where we had lunch at “The Study at Yale”, a hotel/restaurant that not only provided free valet parking to patrons but also had a Tesla High Power Wall Charger (HPWC). The result: after a good lunch and a visit to both of the college’s museums, we had plenty of power to drive first to JFK Airport, where we dropped my son off for a flight to Tokyo, and then to the 1 Hotel in the up-and-coming Brooklyn Heights neighborhood (braving the Van Wyck Expressway both ways).

Valet parking at the hotel normally costs $50 (Manhattan prices have crept into Brooklyn), but in support of Green living, it was free to us—as was the overnight charge on the HPWC.

Across the street, by the way, was the Watchtower Building, with a big digital clock on top. Long owned and occupied by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the building was recently sold to Jared Kushner, who has been actively investing in the neighborhood.

The next day we drove to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the amazing botanical garden developed by Pierre S. DuPont and well maintained since thanks to a very healthy endowment. Comprising more than 1,000 acres of land, the garden last year completed a $93-million upgrade of the fountains area. Parking at Longwood Gardens is free for everyone, but electric cars get a preferred spot, as well as free charging.

And that night, our B&B also offered free charging, leaving us well prepared for the next day, as we drove down to Maryland to visit relatives, and then into Washington, DC for a publishing conference and a three-night stay. Parking at the Donovan, normally $50 per night, was half price for electric cars. The charging was free.

Three days later it was down to the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, where we paid the full $20 parking rate (for two nights), and once again got free charging between seeing the sights. These included the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, the Hollywood Cemetery (where Presidents Tyler and Monroe are buried as well as Jefferson Davis) and this mural from mid-2016. 2016 bernie sanders mural, Virginia

The first day heading back north took us to Annapolis for lunch and then to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the beautiful Brampton B&B in Chestertown. Parking was free for all, and charging was free for me.

And the final day, a 4oo-mile-plus drive, brought our first use of Superchargers, the free chargers made available by Tesla at strategic places around the country. While an ordinary household 110V outlet (a Level 1 charger in electric car lingo) will charge my car at perhaps 3 MPH, and a Level 2 charger (Tesla’s HPWC or other brands that support other electric cars) will charge at between 20 and 40 MPH, Tesla’s Superchargers (Level 3) will often charge at more than 300 MPH, if the car can handle it!

joyce kilmer service areaOur first supercharger of the day (after 137 miles) was at the Joyce Kilmer Service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. We plugged in (in the far corner of the parking lot), took a quick bathroom break, stretched for a minute or two, and then hopped back in the car, with enough charge to get to our planned lunch stop, 90 miles away.

But as we were exiting the service area, we noticed the lines at the gas pumps! In New Jersey, it’s illegal to pump your own gas, and these were the lines on Saturday near noon.

gas lines New JerseySo we avoided that. And we also avoided the congestion of Manhattan, instead taking the Garden State Parkway up to the Tappan Zee Bridge and across the Hudson River to the Tarrytown Sheraton, which has twelve recently installed Tesla Superchargers. I plugged in, saw that the charging speed was an astounding 379 MPH, and we had a bathroom break and lunch, while enjoying the sideshow of a wedding in the hotel.

After lunch came the familiar drive up Route 84 to West Hartford, Connecticut, where we plugged into the Supercharger and did a little shopping at Trader Joe’s.

And then came the final leg, 125 miles to home. We arrived with 20 miles to spare, a comfortable margin.

The total mileage for the day was 428 miles, with no real waiting for charging, as we used every bit of our charging time productively.

And the total mileage for the whole trip was 1349 miles.

If my car burned premium gasoline (like my previous one) and got, say 25 miles per gallon and I paid $2.94 per gallon (the average cost in the Central Atlantic states recently), the trip would have used nearly 54 gallons, costing $158.

Instead, I spent nothing on fuel. I dirtied the air less than other drivers. And instead of spending $240 on parking in New York, Washington DC and Richmond, I spent $115.

Thus, road-tripping in the Tesla is not only smooth and enjoyable (providing you plan ahead), it’s also a great way to save money!

Fearless Girl & Charging Bull

Fearless Girl represents a young woman who’s not afraid to stare down a big powerful animal—in this case the Charging Bull statue of Wall Street.

Fearless GirlThat bull, of course, represents capitalism, big business, and perhaps greed.

Charging BullBut wait a minute. That wasn’t what it represented originally!

Charging Bull was originally a piece of guerilla art, created by Arturo Di Modica in Brooklyn and deposited, under cover of darkness, just before Christmas in 1989, as a gift to New Yorkers.

In the wake of the Crash of 1987, Di Modica designed the bull to symbolize the “strength and power of the American people,” and spent some $360,000 of his own money to create and cast the sculpture.

In just a few decades, however, the bull’s image has changed. It doesn’t represent the people; it represents the powerful corporations of Wall Street. And to people who view Wall Street as a place that rewards the rich and powerful, Charging Bull is something to stand up against.

As to that Fearless Girl, she was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, an institution with more than $2 trillion under management, as an advertisement for an index fund composed of companies that have a high percentage of women among their senior leadership.

Thus, the girl is the product of the marketing department of a powerful corporation while the bull is the product of one individual (and brave) artist!

But that’s not how they’re seen at all!

And Charging Bull is not the only statue in New York that is perceived differently than its creator intended.

Consider the most famous statue of all in the city, the Statue of Liberty.

Statue of LibertyAs a gift from the nation of France to the United States on the occasion of the preservation of our union following the Civil War, the statue stood foremost for liberty, independence and democracy.

But today, thanks above all to a poem written by Emma Lazarus, many people believe her primary message is a welcome for immigrants!

But Emma Lazarus’ poem played no role at the opening of the statue in 1886. Her poem was commissioned by the committee as part of a find-raising campaign to build a pedestal for the statue, and it wasn’t until after her death that a friend succeeded, in 1901, in getting a bronze plaque of the poem installed inside the pedestal.

Here’s the entire poem:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Bottom line: I wish Fearless Girl well in the future, whether she stays where she is or travels (as suggested) to places where she is needed. But it will be interesting to see if her original message is changed by time, just as those of Charging Bull and the Statue of Liberty have been.



Uber vs. Fasten

Everyone knows Uber. It’s the 800-pound gorilla of the ride-sharing business, operating in 570 cities worldwide, and enabling more than 40 million rides per month. Uber has changed the world in a good way.

Old Uber logoBut Uber has been under pressure lately.

Most fast-growing companies hit bumps in the road as they grapple with the demands of managing a mushrooming workforce

But Uber’s troubles include charges of sexual harassment, insufficient employee diversity, and a very aggressive corporate culture that prioritized growth over everything else.

New Uber logoStill, most people will keep using Uber because it’s better than the alternative, taxis.

In some cities, though, you can’t use Uber, and one of those cities is Austin, Texas, where I spent a few days last week.

You see, in May 2016, Uber (and Lyft) stopped operations in Austin, Texas after citizens voted to institute a background check system on all ride-sharing firms that included fingerprinting drivers.

So very quickly, alternatives popped up, including RideAustin, which is a non-profit homegrown product and Fasten, which was originally developed in Boston (Cambridge) and is still an alternative to Uber there.

FastenI used Fasten five times while in Austin and here’s what I found.

Fasten is just as easy to use as Uber. The main differences from the customer’s point of view are that you see the fare running in real time on your phone as you ride, and you can leave a tip for the driver through the app at the end of the trip.

The main difference from the driver’s point of view is that Fasten is less greedy. Fasten takes a fixed $0.99 commission for every trip completed by a driver, while Uber takes 20-38% of the fare. Perhaps this is why the drivers I had in Austin seemed happier!


Stranded in a Tesla

The following story is true. And like most good stories, it comes with a lesson.

It started way back in the summer, when my wife and I were invited to a September wedding in Newry, Maine, near Sunday River ski area.

We not only decided to attend, we also decided it was an opportunity to go back to the University of Maine in Orono, a place I hadn’t seen since I left forty years ago.

Then we decided to extend the trip by adding Canada and upstate New York state as well, making a true nine-day road trip.

And of course we took the Tesla, even though venturing into some less-populated regions would make charging the car a bit challenging. After three years of ownership and 41,000 miles, I’m not afraid to push the envelope (given the support of thorough research).

Day One took us from Salem to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where we had lunch on campus at what I sarcastically call the Malcolm Gladwell cafeteria. Gladwell had recently written an article claiming that the food at Bowdoin was too good, and that Bowdoin should spend more of its money on financial aid to needy students. The food was indeed very good, but just as good was the rebuttal of Gladwell’s argument by my brother-in-law, who works in the College administration, and had hard data.

We charged the Tesla on campus during lunch. Free. Then headed north and charged briefly at the Supercharger in Augusta. Free.

Arriving at Orono, we had a tour of the campus from my niece, a recent graduate who now works at the university, and then a delicious dinner at Fiddlehead restaurant in Bangor—one of the best meals of the whole trip.

We charged the Tesla overnight at a Nissan dealership next to our hotel. Free. But the charger’s circuit breaker quit when it was half full, so Day Two saw us crossing the river to Brewer and topping off at the new Supercharger there while reading the morning newspaper. Free.

While there we met a man who had both a new Tesla and a new baby—which explains why his wife was sitting in the back seat.

And then we drove west to Sunday River, which has a series of Level 2 Tesla chargers. Free.

Found the Airbnb that we were sharing with eight friends.

Enjoyed the wedding on Day Three.

Here’s the bride and groom. It was chilly.

September wedding in MaineAnd Day Four saw us heading north into the wilds of northwestern Maine

Here’s a view of Lake Mooselookmeguntic.

Lake MooselookmegunticWe drove through Canadian customs at the remote Coburn Gore checkpoint (one lane—no waiting), and rolled into Lac Megantic for lunch.

Lac Megantic is notable for the 2013 accident when 74 freight cars, full of crude oil from North Dakota derailed in town, killing 47 people and obliterating scores of buildings.

We charged the Tesla at the MusiCafe during lunch. Free.

Charging the Tesla at the MusiCafe And then headed for Quebec City, where parking in our hotel’s underground garage was free for electric cars. The charging was free too.

Day Five we toured Quebec City.

Day Six we drove to Montreal, and enjoyed a fantastic lunch at restaurant Bouillon Bilk as we entered the city.

The underground garage in this hotel was not free, but charging was.

Day Seven we toured Montreal.

One highlight was the beautiful Notre Dame Basilique.

Notre Dame in MontrealOn Day Eight, when I entered the car, I was greeted with a message announcing that an over-the-air update was available. Updates tend to take an hour or so, and run automatically, just as for smartphones. So as usual, I told mine to begin at 1 AM the next morning.

Then we drove back into the U.S. through the border crossing at Blackpool (several lanes, less than 10 minutes wait), and stopped at the Plattsburgh, New York Supercharger (free again), before driving into the Adirondack Mountains to our friends’ house in Keene Valley, a remote and beautiful place we’ve visited many times.

I plugged the Tesla into the 110 volt current in their shed, and we enjoyed a wonderful evening together.

Day Nine was our day to head home to Salem, but when I opened the car door at 9:00 AM, all its displays were blank, save for a message that appeared very briefly that said the Tesla update had failed or was incomplete!

Such a thing had never happened before, but very quickly I realized that the cell phone service in the area was so bad (usually non-existent) that the update had not completed!

So, I walked back to the main house, got on the landline phone, called Tesla Service in California, and described my dilemma to a pleasant young man named David

He checked the car’s logs, confirmed my diagnosis, and spent a little time trying to wake the car up remotely, without success.

And then we started talking about alternatives.

They could send a technician with a laptop to complete the update, but availability was thin.

They could send a flatbed to take the car back to Montreal where there was a Tesla service center—a journey of 113 miles.

They could send a flatbed to take the car to the Albany service center where there was a Tesla service center—a journey of 120 miles.

Or they could send a flatbed to take the car to the Boston service center—a journey of 279 miles by the fastest route.

None of those alternatives were especially appealing to me, particularly because the flatbed driver could only take one passenger.

So finally, we decided that they would send a flatbed and it would drive the car toward Albany, hoping to pick up a cell signal along the way that would enable the update to complete.

At that point, which was about 10:30, I went back out to the car, to take some of my wife’s gear out, not knowing whether I’d be back later that day or not.

And lo and behold, the main screen lit up in full color, with a message saying “Update Complete.”

Apparently, the cell phone network, meager as it was, had finally completed the task.

So, I got back on the landline to David in California, told him that the update had succeeded and that he could cancel the flatbed, and that we were headed home.

He said he’d keep an eye on us, just in case, but the fact is, everything went smoothly from there on.

We stopped briefly on the way home at the Supercharger in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. Free, of course.

And then we drove home.

So what was the lesson? That’s easy, never do another update unless I’m home in my own garage (where the wifi network makes it fast) or in a place where I’m very confident about the signal.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Robert Mapplethorpe

A recent visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux Arts) included a visit to two shows featuring the above artists—shows that were not designed to relate to each other, but that in my mind did.

On the surface, the artists are quite different.

Toulouse-Lautrec was a post-impressionist whose biggest sale was “La Blanchisseuse” (The Laundress), which went for $22 million in 2005.

La BlanchisseuseMapplethorpe was a photographer whose greatest sale was a portrait of Andy Warhol, which went for $643,000 in 2006.

Andy WarholToulouse-Lautrec worked in Paris while Mapplethorpe worked in New York.

Toulouse-Lautrec died 45 years before Mapplethorpe was born.

But what struck me after seeing the two shows were the similarities between the two men.

Both lived on the periphery of society.

Toulouse-Lautrec was dwarfish, as a result of breaking two legs in accidents when he was 13 and 14—also, his parents were first cousins, which seldom helps.

Mapplethorpe was homosexual.

Toulouse-Lautrec found comfort among the performers and prostitutes of bohemian Montmartre.

Mapplethorpe found comfort in the homosexual subculture of the art world of New York.

Both documented the world around them.

Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized the singers and dancers of Le Moulin Rouge with his quick pastel drawings and his advertising lithographs.

Mapplethorpe immortalized friends, celebrities and sexual adventurers with photographs that ranged from formal to erotic.

Laid low by alcoholism and syphilis, Toulouse-Lautrec was committed to an asylum and died in his mother’s house at the age of 36 in 1901.

Mapplethorpe died in 1989 at the age of 42 due to complications from HIV/AIDS.

Despite having died young, both left behind large bodies of work, which we can enjoy (or at least view), today.

The exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque” will be at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC from February 4 until April 30, 2017.

The Mapplethorpe exhibit, “Focus: Perfection” will be in Montreal until January 22, 2017.

But now I get to the hard part. Having described the basic differences and, more important, the similarities in the artists’ circumstances, what does it mean? Where is the value?

Is it enough to say that these men, unable to adapt to normal society, became flaming candles that illuminated their dark worlds and were prematurely extinguished?

If each had been born a bit later, he would found a society more accepting of his differences.

But then might we have been denied the art that was born out of those circumstances?

I don’t have any answers, but I do think it will be interesting to see what the art market is saying about Mapplethorpe’s photographs a century after his death.

Halloween in Salem

Halloween is the holiday that continues to grow (at least as measured by dollars spent) both domestically and internationally.

And my city, Salem, Massachusetts, is perceived as the center of the Halloween tradition, due to the fact that way back in the summer of 1692, its leaders convicted and executed nineteen citizens by hanging—and pressed to death one who refused to plead.

Some current residents of Salem regret the big focus on Halloween—basically all of October is devoted to the holiday. They’d rather the tourists stay home—or visit for our great architecture, maritime history or world-class museum.

But the majority—including me—embrace the holiday. It’s all in good fun, the money is good for the city, and we get to see lots of great costumes, like these.

halloween costumes, salem MANow, not everyone dresses up, but I do! In fact, for the past 17 years my Halloween costume has been Chewbacca!

Early in the evening I sit on the front step of a friend’s house where there’s lots of foot traffic and give out candy. Some of the little kids are afraid of me, and that makes their parents laugh.

And then I talk a walk into the center of town with friends and join the thousands of revelers, who are listening to live music and eating fried dough, but mainly walking around and checking each other out.

Here’s a picture of me from last year, with some other celebrants I met on my walk downtown.

timothy lutts as chewbaccaEveryone loves Chewbacca. I get my picture taken with a lot of people. So if you see me, say hi!

The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan

Way back in 2006, four years before Tesla’s initial public offering (IPO), CEO Elon Musk released The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan, which detailed his long-range plan to move the world from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy. At the bottom, he concluded:

“So, in short, the master plan is:
1. Build sports car
2. Use that money to build an affordable car
3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options.”

Now, ten years later, Musk has accomplished numbers 1,2 and 4 (though the “affordable car” was priced higher than he originally envisioned). He’s on track to accomplish number 3 next year. In the meantime, he’s also built a gigafactory, produced an SUV, built a network of superchargers and introduced Autopilot, which is the first big step to the true the self-driving car.

tesla-chargingAnd now Musk is promising an update to this master plan, which is totally appropriate given that it’s been ten years.

What might be in it?

Certainly, greater integration of car and home energy storage and solar power systems, all of which are true to Musk’s originally mission and would also help combat climate change, a problem that has become clearer in the past decade.

Hopefully, more partnerships with established stakeholders in the automotive and energy worlds. Getting more charging stations in locations where people like to stop would be nice. And getting a foothold in the car-sharing business, through giants like Uber and Hertz would be cool.

And possibly more news about self-driving cars, with the focus on reducing the number of human-caused accidents.

But I hope there’s something even bigger. Because Musk is a very big thinker and the world needs people like him so that the rest of us have someone to follow.

American Visionary Art Museum

If you’re in Baltimore, and want to have a good time, I highly recommend a visit to the American Visionary Art Museum, located at the south side of the inner harbor, across the street from the Ritz-Carlton Residences.

It’s not a natural pairing. Ritz-Carlton is traditional while the American Visionary Art Museum is anything but. Here you’ll find “outsider art” from people who have a lot of vision, and least some talent, and no training.

Overall, it’s a blast.

On a recent visit, my favorites included an 18-foot model of the Lusitania made of toothpicks and fractured right in the middle—supposedly as it looked prior to sinking… A toothpick model of the Lusitania…the King’s Mouth, an interactive audio-visual installation by Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne…

King's Mouth… a faux early copy of “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, in which it appears that the original first line was, “I’m dreaming of a white poodle”…

I'm dreaming of a white poodle…and this tableau of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which reminds us that those two famous characters on Sesame Street were named for the supporting actors in the movie!

A wonderful lifeThere’s much more at the American Visionary Art Museum, all guaranteed to make you smile. The only negative is the price tag; because it’s a young museum with a small endowment, the adult entry price is $15. I think it’s worth it!

Boston’s Swan Boats

One of the best ways to spend $3.50 in Boston is to take a ride on the Swan Boats, which have been plying the waters of the lagoon in the Public Garden since 1877.

I did recently, and here are some pictures.

Boston Swan BoatsThe Swan Boats were a revolutionary development back in 1877, marrying the romance of small-craft boating with the excitement of the bicycle. Basically, a Swan Boat consists of two pontoons spanned by benches and driven by an underwater propulsion system that is powered by a healthy pedaller who sits in the body of a swan.

Swan BoatsThe whole arrangement is quite silent; the main sounds are the comments of the passengers, who marvel at the behavior of the ducks and other fauna and flora. The whole trip takes 12-15 minutes and is totally worth it, especially if you can enjoy it on a beautiful spring day.

Swan BoatsInterestingly, the Swan Boats are still operated by the Paget family, whose ancestor Robert Paget built and operated the first Swan Boat way back in 1877. Over the years they’ve become an iconic Boston attraction. If you visit, don’t miss them!