National Bank Direct Brokerage Review

January 18th, 2022 by Potato

When they announced a move to commission-free trading (and fully free, not just a few cents for the ECN), I knew I was going to have to open an account there and add it to the book and course as an alternative to Questrade.

I’m not going to get too far into the details of the platform: it’s a brokerage, it has a proper desktop web interface {shade. thrown.}, you can buy your all-in-one ETF and pay no commission.

Neat features: the order entry screen updates how much cash you’ll have left after the order in real time as you change your ask price and quantity. This may help prevent that rare mistake where someone rounds up on their division step instead of rounding down, and tries to buy one share too many.

The account opening procedure was very modern and slick: I filled out all the forms and then it sent a link to my phone so I could take a selfie and a photo of my ID to confirm my identity. I had all that submitted in very little time, and in 4 days my account was open and ready for funds to be added.

However, that slickness wasn’t without it’s issues.

Minor issues: First off, my driver’s license wasn’t accepted as valid ID during the sign-up process. I suspect it’s because the application automagically filled in “North York” as my city when I entered my address, but my license says I live in “Toronto”. I was able to complete the sign-up by using my passport to verify my identity, though (which doesn’t have an address listed).

Second, I entered all my chequing account information, which they were supposed to be able to use to further verify my identity (sending me off to Tangerine’s sign-in page, kind of like how the CRA’s partner sign-in works). That failed, too, but didn’t stop the application process. I manually entered my chequing account information (transit number, etc.) to link my bank account, but that ended up not sticking and I had to spend the requisite 52 minutes on hold after the brokerage account was activated to call in and get an agent to tell me how to do it.

In case this helps anyone else skip the part where you sit on hold for an hour, I had to send an email to directbrokerage@nbc.ca with the subject “For Banking Indexation”, with my name, phone number, account #, and a void cheque image attached. For Tangerine if you don’t have physical cheques, they have a button on your chequing account to press where you’ll get a PDF of a void cheque for just this sort of purpose. This is one spot where Questrade has a bit of an edge, with their ability to self-serve some of these tasks. They did manage to link my chequing account just 4 days after that email, though, which was nice.

And just like other brokerages, you have to go through the tedious process of agreeing to all the individual exchanges’ agreements, re-type your name and occupation and all that for the Americans, etc.

One other thing to watch for is your login number: this is different from your account number, and they will only flash it at you once when you go to activate your account. Miss it and you won’t be able to log in!

Inconsistencies: As relatively smooth and quick as things went (I suppose being under the hour mark for a brokerage is fast for hold times these days), the whole process had more inconsistencies than I’d like to see in a financial institution acting as the custodian of my investments — NBDB could really use a little bit of a clean-up and alignment of their processes for that final bit of polish.

My biggest peeve is that we are training people to use the top-level domain (TLD) as a quick verification of identify for security purposes. If you’re expecting to deal with NBDB.ca, but the address bar says something different, you may be getting phished. National Bank has an identity crisis, using multiple names for themselves and multiple TLDs. So far in just one trade and the account set-up process, I’ve been directed to and have received emails from:
nbdb.ca
nbc.ca
bnc.ca
And also visited nationalbank.com once and linked them in my bank account as Banque Nationale.

Please, pick one TLD and name for yourselves. Or at least the English or French versions for respective audiences: when I’m trying to go to NBDB, NBDB.ca makes sense. NBC (National Bank of Canada) I can parse out too, though it’s not as intuitive (the American television network comes to mind first for what this domain could be), but bnc.ca doesn’t ring any bells in English.

There were also several inconsistencies in the email instructions they would send. For example, to log in for the first time, they tell you to go to a certain page and “click on Client centre” but the button is actually “Sign in”. It’s not hard to figure out what to do, but the instructions don’t quite match what you actually have to do.

Then to link my chequing account, the email helpfully told me to call in and which two menu options to press after calling in. I really like that little touch — those phone trees can be havoc to navigate, so it’s really handy to know that I press 4 – 1 to get to where I need to go. Except they were the wrong instructions and I had to get transferred anyway!

Summary: It’s a brokerage account. The sign-up process was refreshingly automated and fast for a Canadian financial institution, and best of all at no point did I have to mail anything or visit a branch. Trades are commission-free, and the interface is perfectly serviceable. I do wish they’d settle on one domain name though.

The Rule of 30 Review

January 9th, 2022 by Potato

TLDR: The Rule of 30: A Better Way to Save for Retirement is focused on a singular question: “how much should I save for retirement?” This one is central to personal finance, and worth some discussion. Vettesse approaches it in a neat way, looking for how to smooth your consumption over your lifetime. I love that this book exists and takes this seemingly simple question seriously. However, I have some quibbles with the titular rule of thumb, largely because it doesn’t work for my particular situation, and he didn’t lay out any guidelines for when the rule breaks (not even “if you’re a sentient tuber, this rule may not be for you”). The discussion to get to the rule-of-thumb and some of the considerations are good and important to read, but I didn’t personally care for the book’s narrative format.

I don’t like finance books that try to teach personal finance things through a narrative, it’s just a pet peeve. I know, the Wealthy Barber is one of the most successful books ever, but not everyone writes as well as Dave Chilton. Well, it’s not just a pet peeve, it really doesn’t work in some ways. I felt that way with The Rule of 30: A Better Way to Save for Retirement — there was a lot to like with the book, but the filler really detracted from the experience.

“You mean we won’t be finishing today?” asked Megan, looking a little disappointed.
“I’m afraid this process we’ve embarked on will take a while, if you want to do it right. This seems as good a place to break as any.”
“Of course,” Megan responded, “but you should know we’re not going to be able to sleep until we know what happens with our $2.7 million. Are you free tomorrow?”
“I think so,” Jim replied. “I’ll check my calendar at home and text you with a time. Next time we’ll meet a my place…”

This is not a rich and engrossing story that happens to also teach a lesson, it’s a narrative device that makes the book about 3 times as long as it needed to be.

“But Potato, the book is only 190 pages long as it is. How else am I supposed to pad it out?” Fred Jim asked the freelance substantive editor and subject-matter expert in an email.
“Jim, I don’t know what to tell you. To say that the characters are one-dimensional is to besmirch the character development of lines,” Potato said, sharing a harsh but necessary truth. “The book requires significant re-writes before it will be engaging. Plus you don’t spend nearly as much time as you could discussing the titular rule itself, or it’s shortcomings.”
Jim, the findependent former actuary, thought about that for a bit. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was an important lesson from an independent voice in the field — and not something his publisher’s copyeditor was telling him.
The next day, he invited Potato over to discuss it more. He started setting up lawn chairs in the back yard for a discussion, oblivious to the frigid December air. “Potato, I’ve given a lot of thought about what you said about my book needing to be padded out.” He waved a new manuscript in front of his face. “What if we add a bunch of unnecessary actions and establishing text too?”
“You’re not hearing me, that’s slowing the reading down without making it more interesting,” Potato said, direct and to the point. “If the characters are just saying the things you want the book the say, there’s not much point in having the characters there.”
“Hmm, you’ve given me a lot to think about here, my good Doctor Spud. May I call you Stormageddon, Editor Extraordinaire?” Jim said, gathering his lawnchairs back up.
“Please don’t, that’s just a cheap callback to a previous post. I do have one final piece of advice for you before you go: read the dialogue out loud and see how it sounds. Does it flow naturally like human speech, or are you just throwing quotation marks around an essay?”
The next day, Jim knocked on Potato’s door at the crack of noon. Potato stumbled out of bed to get the door, threw on an N95, and answered the door otherwise in his PJs. “What?!” he demanded.
“I did that thing you suggested and read the dialogue out loud. It sounded exactly like how three actuaries talk to each other,” Jim proudly announced.
“Only one of the characters is an actuary, though.” Potato pointed out, rubbing his forehead. “The other two are supposed to be normies.”
“The dialogue is fine,” Jim insisted. “Just fine.”
“Ok, well how long did each scene, which was supposedly stretching on so long that the characters had to break to pick the discussion up later, seem to take?”
“Exactly two minutes,” Jim proudly stated.
“Yes, it’s like they’re talking between commercial breaks while watching old-school TV. People have Netflix now, Jim, and anyway, there was never a TV on in the background.”
“My media manager says I have to convey information in two minute chunks so I can be invited back on BNN or get a YouTube channel,” Jim said.
“But this is a book.” Potato flatly stated.
“Yes. And it needs to be about 200 pages to get published.” After a moment he added, “Plus I added one part where they’re watching Jeopardy so it could be a commercial break.”
Potato sighed. “Look, Jim, if you’re committed to this narrative device of having the characters talk out all the financial information you’re trying to convey to your readers, just take one more stab at making this interesting and readable, and we can move on to copy-editing. Have the characters say or do something interesting, or introduce a few more to see how your Rule of 30 works for people in different situations and life stages. I know you can do this!”
Three weeks later, Potato saw that he had a new email from Jim. Subject: I TOOK YOUR ADVICE AND NOW THERE ARE MORE CHARACTERS AND ALSO AN ORGY SCENE
Potato hit reply: “Jim, let’s revert to the previous version of the document and proceed with copyediting. It’s fine. It’s just fine as it was.”
Jim replied immediately: “Thanks so much Potato, your advice helped shape the book for the better for sure. Now I’ll give you some: don’t be so critical in your book reviews. You’re not working as an editor for the author, you’re just giving your thoughts to people at large, and if people think you’re an asshole they’ll be less likely to be nice to your book.”
Potato replied back: “Speaking of which, there was a perfect moment to plug The Value of Simple when the couple needed to know how to invest to capture those returns your actuary character was projecting for them. Why didn’t you?”
Jim’s final reply was BITFD material: “I really want to, it’s truly an excellent guide for the do-it-yourself investor. Really every young Canadian should pick it up, if only so that they know what they’re paying their advisors to do. But my hands are tied here, I’m working with ECW Press and we can’t go slipping in a mention to other books, especially not a self-published work. It’s like that whole conversation about government pensions. My hands are tied, here… Plus if we remind people that other books exist, there’s a danger they might put this one down before they get to the good stuff.”

Ok, I hope that vignette thoroughly demonstrated my point that I did not care for the framework story and how much the extra description slowed down getting to the point, and how very little happened before they had to break and start with a new scene. Plus I can’t imagine anyone will want to go and hire a planner if it takes four months of nearly weekly sessions just to be able to answer the first question in creating a financial plan.

So what about The Rule of 30 itself?

The book is centred on an important topic: how much should you save? From there, it takes off into a discussion of what shape your savings should take: should you aim to save a set percentage of your income for retirement from the time you start work, or should you aim to save more later — you’ll have less time for the magic of compounding to work, but it will be easier to save a higher portion of your income once the costs of childcare and a mortgage are through with.

Fred makes an important point in Chapter 5: “You want your spendable income to be at a tolerable level in all years and to be rising over time in real terms. In fact, I would argue that this should be the second-most important saving goal.” This is in the context of showing that after having kids, or upsizing a house or facing an increase in interest rates on a mortgage, the amount of income available to spend may decrease.

The way to achieve that is the titular “rule of 30”: have the sum of your mortgage, daycare (and other temporary unavoidable costs), and retirement savings be 30% of your income. So when you have high daycare and mortgage expenses, you save less. When your income is higher and your daycare days are behind you, you save much more, ending off with saving 30% of your income in the last few years when your mortgage is paid off.

It’s a neat idea, but I don’t love it. Partly because my own life immediately shows aspects where it doesn’t work. Chapter 7 is on “stress-testing the rule of 30” and mentions some of these factors but doesn’t actually address them to my satisfaction.

What if you get knocked out of the workforce (or off your career trajectory) early, say by untimely disease or caregiving duties? Isn’t back-loading almost all of your retirement savings incredibly reckless? Fred mentions this problem, but just leaves it as a problem: “What I see as a bigger problem is if you are forced to retire much earlier than planned. As with everything else in life, one’s retirement plans do not always pan out. Unplanned early retirement represents one of the biggest challenges to saving for retirement. This is true no matter what rule you follow to save, but it may be a bigger problem with the Rule of 30, since that rule tends to backload your retirement saving.”

What if you’re a renter? Fred suggests that you just use rent in place of the mortgage and carry on. But as housing bulls are so fond of pointing out, rent doesn’t end, so you can’t make the same assumptions about the ability to back-load savings.

What if you live in an expensive city and rent or mortgage is more than 30% of your income? That’s the case for us, and many renters in Toronto pay more than 50% of their salaries on rent. “I can sympathize, but ultimately it means that saving adequately for retirement is going to become more of a challenge.” Yes, and the “rule of 30” will break, but he doesn’t give us a guideline where the rule may or may not apply. I would have preferred some rails on that: e.g., the rule of 30 works great for couples who buy their house by the age of 33 and whose mortgage starts at 33% or less of their pre-tax income, and who will work into their 60’s without getting sick or fired along the way. So anyone living in Toronto or Vancouver should not buy this book, nor anyone who does not have a crystal ball to see the future (or at least who doesn’t have a rock-solid disability insurance policy), nor anyone interested in early retirement.

The last factor that he doesn’t mention influencing the rule of 30 is inflation. Much of the rule of 30 depends on hand-waving wage inflation: your mortgage will be less, or your rent will be less in the future, because your wages will increase faster than your costs, giving you the ability to save more at that time. However, for many in the public service (or other situations) wage inflation running ahead of cost inflation (especially housing cost inflation) is not a given. Here are the salary inflation adjustments for the last 5 years as compared to CPI for an Ontario non-union public-sector employee chosen completely at random out of the sample of convenience we have here at BbtP:
2017: 3%, CPI: 2.1%
2018: 0.86% CPI: 1.7%
2019: 1.6% CPI: 2.2%
2020: 2% CPI: 1%
2021: 2% CPI: 4.7%

Our poor public sector idiots have fallen behind inflation by a cumulative 2.1 percentage points. Ok, but Vettesse wasn’t just talking regular raises that attempt to pace inflation, he also included getting promoted as part of the increased earnings. What if you include that? Including all merit bonuses and seniority promotions for an Ontario public sector employee with consistent top-quartile performance reviews only gets ahead of inflation by a whopping 0.9 percentage points after 5 years — some progress, but not enough to handwave away the assumption that back-loading retirement savings would work out, especially if your mortgage or rent payments are high (he appears to be assuming real gains of 6%/yr in earnings, based on the numbers in figure 7, a figure that I find unfathomable from the flat-as-a-pancake organization I sit in).

Wayfare also works for not-for-profits, and her wage increases (nominal) over the last five years have been:
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%

So you see my problem with the underlying assumptions of the Rule of 30. Yes, Wayfare in particular is perhaps a rare edge case, but I just don’t think the approach to back-loading your retirement savings to the degree the rule of 30 suggests is prudent enough. I don’t think we can safely assume that wage growth will show up as a general feature to make saving easier later, and I don’t think the rule applies as broadly as Vettesse makes it out to be in the stress-testing chapter — at the very least there are not enough warnings or discussions on when it will fail you.

Anyway, my main two issues with The Rule of 30 are that I didn’t care for the narrative framing padding the page count, and that the rule itself didn’t apply to me for at least 3 different reasons.

Beyond that, which is me nit-picking, it was a good book. This is an important question. A vital one: “How much should I save for retirement?” is central to personal finance. And the discussion to get to the rule-of-thumb and some of the considerations are good and important to read.

I like that there is a book that discusses how much you should save, and how much it is a surprisingly hard problem, and takes the whole thing rather seriously, including the trade-offs that saving entails. But I don’t love the replacement of one poor rule of thumb (save 10-15% or whatever) with another, slightly better rule of thumb (mortgage + daycare/some other exceptional costs + savings = 30%) where the limitations are not clearly laid out. I wish that the book had introduced more characters or scenarios to show how the rule works in different cases (rather than just handwaving that it’s robust), and more importantly, showed better where it doesn’t work.

At the very end, he presents an alternative formulation that fits the larger goals of smoothing spendable income over a lifetime that underlie the rule-of-30: “If I could express it differently, I would suggest saving 5 percent of your pay in your thirties, 15 percent in your 40s and 25 percent in your 50s. This alternative represents a rough approximation of the Rule of 30.” I like this alternative much better. Firstly, it sets a floor for saving, so you’re always saving something (even when it’s hard) — that removes the temptation to come up with “extraordinary” expenses that never get you to a point where they’re under 30% so there’s something left to save, and also helps get around the issues where high housing costs may take over 30% of your pay. Saving something early on also makes it more robust to getting kicked out of the workforce early.

Just unfortunate that “the 5/15/25 rule” is not quite as catchy as “the rule of 30”.

And a nice little touch: the book is printed with a two colour process. Really cool to see and props to the graphic designer who used the extra colour well in all the tables, graphs, and chapter titles. It made things pop just that little bit more (and was absolutely necessary for a few of those stacked bargraphs with 6 items).

Questrade’s New UI… and How to Revert

September 29th, 2021 by Potato

Questrade has released a new interface for their desktop/web trading platform. It looks like a bad compromise for mobile users, with only partial information displayed on several pages. For example, your positions now show either the number of shares and total value, or the share price. Three columns is not hard to fit on a screen, people…

In the trading screen, it is now a multi-step process: first choose limit order, then number of shares, then price, etc. This is a mixed bag. On the plus side, it forces your attention to one step at a time, which may help reduce mistakes. You can also click on “change balance display” to only display your cash available balance so you don’t get mixed up with what they’ll let you borrow on margin, rather than having multiple balances sitting there. The order entry also doesn’t default to entering the number of shares you currently have (as if every time you wanted to trade a position, you were looking to sell it all). The cons are that it takes longer to enter an order, and is annoying if there is any interplay between the number of shares you want and the price you want to enter: you may have to move back a step to adjust your quantity, then forward again to enter your new price. Another big con is that the order review does not display the ECN fees (note: this behaviour has also carried through to the legacy Edge setup). Instead, an ETF purchase order shows $0.00 commission, then an asterisk to some fine print that says ECN fees may apply.

If you want to go back to the way things were, you can add the old platform, called Questrade Edge, to your profile. In the top-left menu (while in Trade), click on All Platforms, then click on the Questrade Edge tab on the top, then finally the Add Questrade Edge button. When you go back to Trade, you’ll see the old (Edge) platform.

Screenshot of Questrade platform, selecting another platform

Screenshot of Questrade, adding the Edge platform

In other news, National Bank Discount Brokerage has taken their commissions to zero (and no ECN fees in the fine print that I can find). I haven’t had a chance to open an account myself yet to get a first-hand experience with it, but it’s compelling. However, I will note that the existing options (e.g., Questrade) were practically free, and even paying $9.99/trade at the other brokerages is not going to cause you to miss your financial goals. If you’re happy with your current brokerage, please don’t feel any pressure to switch. Plus there’s a decent chance that in the next year or two other brokers may follow suit. In the meantime, while the interface may be a bit different than the TD and Questrade examples detailed in the book and course, the general mechanics of placing a trade for an ETF (limit orders, ticker symbols, etc.) will still apply and I have faith that you will be able to figure it out if you choose to go with NBDB.

Plug-In Hybrids and Our Next Car, Part 2: Analysis Paralysis

September 9th, 2021 by Potato

Yesterday I set the stage with a general discussion on plug-in hybrids with a chance that you might find some part of it useful. Today we move on to the personal blog hand-wringing part where I try to decide what to do in my own life (which you can safely skip).

To get a new car, or not to get a new car? That is the question that I had managed not to ask myself for over a decade.

A few things came together to get me thinking about getting a new car. First off were discussions with my dad before he died — he was trying to push me toward getting a new car, trying to convince me I could afford it and deserved it. But that was before the pandemic. It was also a symptom of how his values were different from mine: he was just much more of a car person than me, after all he had 4 cars in his name when he passed.

And talking about moving to a PHEV for my next car with Blueberry got me to thinking why not make that transition sooner? Now, even?

On top of that, we have the weird market dynamics during the pandemic: used car prices are up a lot, so it might make sense to sell the old car now and buy a new one.

Obviously this is not a matter purely for economics — as a personal finance blogger I may have to forcibly repeat the conventional wisdom that buying used is usually the cheaper way to go. But I bought my Prius new, and will very likely buy my next car as a new car (and then keep it for 12+ years) even if it costs a bit more. I don’t want to be too loose with my budget, but this has been one area I’m willing to splurge a tiny bit every decade or two.

It’s kind of ridiculous to think about upgrading my car when the current one works great, and looks like it will have many more years of trouble-free operation to come. On the other hand, we’re a single-car family. ‘Til the wheels fall off’ is no longer our end point, we will be trading up at least a few years before that point because our one car has to be reliable.

So let’s be ridiculous for a bit and consider it.

Part of why used car prices are up so much is the chip shortage, which is causing delays for new cars. A Rav4 Prime has a 15-month waiting list at the moment, and a 6-month delay for an Escape PHEV. There are conflicting reports on how long the supply chain chaos will ripple through the market, but the consensus building in my head is that it could be a few years (several more quarters of chip shortage, and then a few more to work through the backlog). So maybe I don’t want to upgrade now, but if I want to 2 or 3 years from now, I might need to start shopping and maybe even getting on a waiting list now. As much as this mindset contributes to delays and shortages, I don’t think you want to go car shopping when you need a new car in this environment, you want to be out ahead of it. So maybe it makes sense to be thinking about this now even though the current car is in great shape?

What to get?

A PHEV is a no-brainer even for our minimal driving, if we’re comparing similar models.

The Prius is an astounding car, we cram all kinds of stuff into that hatch… but we’re not prepared to sacrifice on cargo space from there. We went to see a Prius Prime in person, and noped right out as soon as I put a box in there to see how the cargo space truly compares. So sadly, the Prius Prime is out (though as the kind folks at PriusChat pointed out, I could get a roof rack or small trailer for the few times a year we do need all the space the regular Prius offers).

And while a PHEV SUV makes sense compared to a gas or hybrid SUV, they don’t make financial sense compared to a regular hybrid Prius, at least not for our level of usage. So do we want to move up a size class just to be able to plug in? (I am leaning strongly that way because I do want a plug-in)

We went out and test drove a Ford Escape Hybrid (no PHEVs available to test, but close enough to evaluate most aspects of the vehicle). I do have a Toyota bias, but was pleased with how it drove and how the controls were laid out (though I wish the Prius’ high-centre display had taken off in more cars). We hated the standard SE-trim seats (mostly that the headrest was too far forward for comfort, and not adjustable), but the ones in the higher trims seemed fine. I haven’t driven a hybrid Rav4 in a while, but I am somewhat familiar with what it entails, and am quite sure that it would be a close match-up.

Either would be a perfectly fine choice for our next car… but we weren’t swept off our feet, and haven’t felt that irrational lust to upgrade, which otherwise might have short-circuited all of this analysis paralysis. They’re just good choices for the next step, but really no better than what we have now in terms of driving feel or comfort.

Based on what’s out there now, I’m putting the Ford Escape PHEV at the top of the list, though it’s essentially a tie with the Rav4 Prime. I have some brand loyalty to Toyota, but I don’t like the look of the new Rav4s (too truck-like and mean-looking, though I know that’s superficial of me), while I do like the more rounded look of the Escape. I also don’t love that the SE trim only comes in 3 boring colours — as Wayfare said, if we’re going to spend all that money for a new car, it should at least come in a fun colour that we love. The Rav4’s XSE trim is a big jump in price to be able to get a fun colour and a few other features, and while the tech package is very interesting (a heads-up display!) to me, it costs a tonne (perhaps because of the moonroof, which I would prefer to do without) — at that point it’s essentially in another class. The lower-trim SE Rav4 costs ~$2k more than the fully loaded Escape, and the XSE is $7.5k more. That’s quite the premium (though to be fair, with the Toyota name it will probably keep a chunk of that on resale value) for vehicles that I liked about equally.

But the big question is what’s coming out next? The 4th gen Prius is overdue for a makeover, though reports are that the 5th gen Prius won’t hit the market until 2023. And the plug-in version took an extra year or more for each of the Prius, Rav4, and Escapes, so while there’s a chance the 5th gen Prius Prime might find a no-compromise way to hide the plug-in batteries in the floor or under the seats and be perfect for us, it might not be available until 2024 or 2025 (when my current car will be 14-15 years old) — a close enough future to maybe wait with a very high chance the current car will be fine through to then, but just far enough to trigger the worries and analysis paralysis. And looking back at past news stories, Toyota seems to only release detailed info on the next generation less than a year before it’s on sale, so it’s not like we’ll have specs in hand to answer the question about the 5th gen Prius Prime and reassure us about the plan to wait any time soon.

Timing Questions

If we were going to get just another hybrid, it wouldn’t even be a question: I’d wait at least for the 5th gen Prius, and wouldn’t even be considering the SUVs. Also, the chip shortage doesn’t seem to be hitting Priuses too hard, with many in inventory at the local dealers (i.e., no wait at all right now).

But the prospect of moving up to a PHEV to stop burning gas for a big chunk of my driving is an attractive idea, and is making me consider an early upgrade. Plus my dad put that damned idea to get a new car in my head, so I was primed for that debate to start up.

The chip shortage has of course thrown another wrinkle into the mix. It’s about a 15-month wait for a R4P now, and a 5-6 month wait for an Escape PHEV. The chip shortage and supply chain disruptions look like they’ll continue to create waiting lists for at least another year, and I’d rather upgrade while I have the luxury of wallowing in analysis paralysis on my blog rather than when something big breaks on my car and I worry that I am getting close to its end of life. Plus prices are weird — there are no discounts to MSRP to be had, but it’s acting as a cap to prices on a new car, while used cars have increased in value. Paying $1.25k more on a new car from not being able to negotiate a discount while getting $2k more back on the trade-in (if we can accomplish that — it remains to be seen how much more valuable our specific car is) seems like a situation that’s worth taking advantage of.

So here we are at the end, with no clear conclusion for what I should personally do. Wayfare says we still love the Prius, it’s still in good shape, and we’re not feeling that primal need for a new SUV after the test drive, so the smart conclusion is to wait. And she’s right, but I’m not sure how long to wait — can I wait for the 5th gen Prius Prime to make the move? And what about those worries about incoming inflation?

I think I’m going to take at least 6 months to cool off and reconsider in the spring — maybe we’ll get lucky with an early preview of the 5th gen Prius by then that will make the next step clear one way or the other, or maybe Toyota will offer the R4P SE in teal (sorry, ‘Blue Magnetism’) and the rational discussion will end.

A small part of me that has skipped ahead to the last page thinks that I’m going to be picking up a Ford Escape PHEV next year, and then is immediately replaced by the part that says we’ll have that Prius for another decade until Blueberry goes off to university (and then she can drive it fully into the ground). It’s an almost perfect superposition of two opposite states — such is life in the analysis paralysis web.

So I guess I’ll see you in 6 months with another whiny, inconclusive blog post!

Plug-in Hybrids and Our Next Car

September 8th, 2021 by Potato

I was talking with Blueberry about global warming and transportation, as one does. We drive a Prius (and not much driving at that), but even then we still burn gas just to go get groceries or go to dance class. She looked up at me and asked the fatal question: “Can’t we do better? Is there a car that burns no gas, Daddy?” I had long been interested in hybrids and electrics, but hadn’t specifically shopped for a while, so I went and did that.

PHEVs in General

Electrify most of your driving. Save money, save the planet. That’s the goal right? So how do you best do that: with a plug-in hybrid [electric] vehicle (PHEV) or a fully electric battery [electric] vehicle (BEV)?

The answer was counter-intuitive for me: wouldn’t a PHEV be more complicated and expensive than a pure BEV, having two powertrains? Maybe more complicated, yes (though not much more than a hybrid, which are also counter-intuitively more reliable than their pure gas counterparts), but to cover most daily driving you only need a small bit of batteries, so perhaps not more expensive.

I came across a very persuasive argument that helped shift my perspective: you want to electrify your normal driving, and that takes an electric motor and a certain amount of batteries, 10-20 kWh or whatever. Then you want to not have range anxiety by having barely enough juice for your daily drive, so you have to add something to provide that cushion. One way to go is to add another 40+ kWh of batteries to provide a longer range. Or, you can add a gas engine and all its accoutrements for that extra range. And it turns out that with the price of batteries still so high, the gas engine is still considerably cheaper than adding more batteries (and has some added convenience in not having to learn about fast charging networks — you can keep using regular gas stations on long trips).

On a fleet level, the PHEV approach also makes sense if batteries are in limited supply and a production constraint (and for now and the foreseeable future, they are). A GWh worth of batteries can make so many BEVs, or ~4-6X as many PHEVs, and all those PHEVs would do a lot more to reduce our emissions than a few BEVs. This article on that topic coincidentally popped up as I was writing this post, so go there for more.

Eventually when batteries aren’t a limited supply, and if battery prices come down, then that intuition about pure BEVs being the better choice will be true… but for most people with typical driving habits, PHEVs are the way to go for now. And as a bonus, you don’t have to install a charging station at home (you can recharge overnight from a regular 110V outlet) or learn about charging networks for trip planning (just switch over to gas-burning hybrid mode and hit a regular gas station).

I barely drive these days, but still came out ahead picking a hybrid, on top of the environmental benefits of burning less oil. PHEVs are nearly no-brainers (in part thanks to government subsidies) in the same way, thanks to the cheaper cost of electricity (in most jurisdictions) and better efficiency of electric motors. Even with just 8000 km per year of driving, and just 75% of that electrified, I’d come out ahead picking the plug-in version of the Escape or Prius over the hybrid version (and way ahead of the gasser version). If you drive like a normal person, the benefits can be huge.

If you’re shopping for a new car and aren’t at least looking at the PHEV options out there, well, go do that!

However, there is a trade-off with many PHEVs: those batteries and powertrain take up space. The Prius is a remarkable car for its efficiency in space and what we’re able to cram in the trunk. The Prius Prime is really cool, incredibly efficient… and unfortunately loses a hefty chunk (~1/4) of that versatile trunk space (plus the spare tire). Fortunately, the newer SUV PHEVs (Ford Escape and Rav4 Prime) have found ways to put those extra batteries under the car and are basically zero-compromise — they even keep the spare tires. But it seems you have to go up to that SUV size class to get that storage space along with everything else.

Calculator

Of course I have a spreadsheet to help do the comparison math. As always, download it or copy to your own Google drive rather than ask for permission to edit the template.

It should be pretty straightforward to use: enter your competing options, how you plan to drive, the consumption figures, and the cost of your fuel sources (electricity or gas) to get a comparison of the 15-year cost to own. Lots of simplifying assumptions: no inflation or other needless complications built in this time. It doesn’t consider resale value after 15 years, so perhaps a 20-year period would better capture full lifetime costs (which should be easy for you to change).

Getting your estimate of vehicle purchase costs should be easy (all[?] manufacturers’ build-and-price tools look to include the federal iZev and provincial [BC & PQ] incentives). Gas price is easy to estimate, though will be the most volatile in the future. Fuel consumption figures are listed, though getting kWh/100km and battery sizes can be a little harder (I added a way to estimate it from the battery size and range if you like, though it’s likely easier to just convert back from the Le/100km figure which should be listed in the specs somewhere). Electricity costs can also be a bit trickier to find as there can be delivery charges and time-of-use issues. Here in Toronto the headline number for off-peak usage is 8.3 cents/kWh, but there’s HST and a delivery charge (1.5 cents/kWh), so I’ve put 11 cents/kWh in. If you want to get fancy, you can add scenarios for off-peak and on-peak charging, but I’m already teetering at the edge of the rabbit hole.

I built in a 7% loss of efficiency for charging. Finding a more precise number will be hard until more people have the cars in their hands and try to measure it, but that should be close enough to capture that factor. (What is that, you ask? Well, it usually takes more than X kWh of electricity to fill a X kWh battery — some will be lost as heat, or used by the control electronics and cooling system during charging. It can vary depending on the model, the weather, etc., and it’s not reported in a standardized NRCan test, so unless you want another dive down the rabbit hole, take a rough estimate in the 5-10% range).

Aside: Not all PHEVs Are Created Equal

The magic of a gas-sipping hybrid car is not in the regenerative braking or cruising on EV mode, though that’s the sizzle that many auto journalists focus on. No, the big fuel savings comes from the Atkinson-cycle engine, which is more efficient at converting energy in liquid hydrocarbons to motion down the road. But you can’t put an Atkinson-cycle engine in a regular car because its acceleration (peak power output) sucks balls — the magic of a hybrid is using the electric motors and battery to cover you for those acceleration bursts, letting you get much better fuel economy from that more thermodynamically efficient engine (plus the extras like regenerative braking, turning the engine off when not needed, etc.).

For some reason, many PHEVs seem to be just a battery and electric motor slapped on to a conventional car that still has an Otto-cycle engine and conventional multi-gear transmission, and as a result get shoddy fuel economy once the battery runs out. So to me that was an important filter: is this a top-to-bottom hybrid that can also plug in (which should solve that worry about added complexity), or is it a conventional car with an electric motor hack? I almost immediately dismissed a number of offerings for that reason.

Though an alternative point of view is that it really doesn’t matter — if you do ~90% of your driving on pure electric, then who cares if it’s a gas guzzler for that occasional trip beyond EV range?

Another issue is that PHEVs have a bad history of being discontinued (perhaps “as the market evolves rapidly”, or perhaps just bad luck). The Volt had many, many issues as it was being birthed into the world (and I was super-critical of its apparent half-hearted development back in the day), but seemed to meet a genuine need once it finally made it to production, and meet it well. But now you can’t buy it any more. The Honda Clarity made it less than four years. The Ford C-Max and Fusion Engeris are both gone, and the Prius has gone through three plug-in iterations in just two overall model generations (but is still on sale and if it had a larger trunk would already be in my driveway).

However, I think that the automakers are starting to figure it out. The Rav4 Prime appears to be a massive hit (helped by the fact that it’s pleasing the moar power crowd and the green crowd at the same time with zero sacrifices). I don’t see quite as much hype for the Ford Escape PHEV, though it was delayed by over a year, and doesn’t have the perk of holding the Autobot Matrix of Leadership (i.e., it may need a cooler name to distinguish itself from a regular Escape. The Escape Lightning?).

I haven’t done a hybrid/primer post in a while, so hopefully that general stuff helps you (and nudges you to choose a hybrid or PHEV for your next car). Tomorrow I’ll get into the personal hand-wringy part of trying to decide what to do.

The Big Picture

And of course, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that as much as choosing your car well can help save money and the environment, it’s even better to not drive at all: taking public transit, walking, becoming a hermit in the woods free of the modern world’s burdens, biking, or carpooling when you do need a car to get somewhere can be good alternatives.