What it’s like to drive a plugin-hybrid for the past 6 months

Last year I bought the number one selling plugin-hybrid vehicle sold in America, and I even got a $7,500 tax rebate for the purchase. And before you try and guess, I’ll say that nope it wasn’t a Prius, it was a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe.

It’s ridiculous that a 5,000lb tank with the aerodynamics of a brick would get electrified (or that anyone would get a rebate for this option), but it makes sense when you look at the whole Jeep Wrangler line-up. Their flagship V8 Wrangler only gets about 13-14mpg. Their V6 model gets about 18mpg. They make a small turbo 4 cylinder that gets around 20mpg. They used to sell a diesel model that got up to 30mpg on the highway, but canceled it this year probably due to EPA phaseout rules. And EPA rules are probably what spurred Jeep to try and electrify their classic Wrangler so it didn’t drag down the average fuel economy for the whole brand’s lineup.

Why a Jeep?

Last year I wanted to get into more hardcore off roading and decided that a Jeep Wrangler was going to be miles ahead of any other option. Despite its engineering feeling closer to its World War II origins than the latest and greatest EVs that feel closer to today’s laptops, I knew the simple construction and straight axles and healthy aftermarket could let me build exactly what I needed, and it delivered.

The Wrangler 4xe is an amazing machine and last Winter I took it to Moab, Utah to push it to the limits and it rarely disappointed me.

Why go plugin hybrid?

Hybrids and plugin hybrids are admittedly a middle step between conventional gas engines and fully electric vehicles. My considering of a plugin hybrid Jeep was that electrification in a huge country like the USA is going to be a decades-long project. Even though I drove an EV over 1,500 miles a few months ago with ample charging support, going into remote places would be impossible for any EV in 2023.

Hybrids date back to the early 2000s here and they’re still selling well. Plugin hybrids are newer, only available for about the last ten years, but fill an important gap. The gist of it is that you can drive around town where you live running errands on full electric power, recharge at home, but you also have a gas engine as your backup for longer road trips. It solves the EV range anxiety problem and tries to give you the best of both worlds of gas and electric.

For me, it works really great. I live about 4 miles out of a small town, and typically I run errands in my car once or twice a day, racking up about 10 miles per trip. In the first month I owned this Jeep, I drove something like 1,500 miles before I bought my second tank of fuel. I have a level 2 charger in my garage which tops up the tiny 17kWh battery in about an hour (most EVs have about 75-100kWh of battery). The battery gives me about 20 miles of pure electric driving, which I use constantly around town.

I just hit over 14,000 miles on the odometer. Over the past six months, I’ve driven about a third of all those miles on electric power, with the remainder on gasoline. It’s tough to estimate the total average fuel economy of the Jeep, but I would guess my longterm average to be around 25mpg if you consider gas-only power to be about 18mpg and EV-only at 49 eMPG. Costs are also hard to estimate since I have a large solar panel setup at home where I charge that makes daytime recharges basically free.

What are road trips like in a plugin hybrid?

Long road trips are a different story, and I typically don’t use the electric option on freeways since 20 miles depletes the battery quickly. For my trip to Utah, I drove in the gas-only optional mode using the battery as a reserve, like an emergency tank of gas, and got about 16-18mpg driving the thousand miles to Utah. Once there, charging infrastructure was scarce and I could only charge it up once a night at my hotel. I switched to the “hybrid” driving option on trails to get the full benefits of both the gas engine and electric motor together, and it was also cool/freaky to drive over rough terrain hearing nothing but small twigs crunching beneath the tires. Also, most off road trails are only 5-10 miles long (but they can take several hours), so the electric power was plenty for most days there.

The energy regeneration options are great for descents and downhills, and on a few off road trips I’ve done, I’ve seen my battery gain 5-10% of its power just going downhill, using the brake regen to slow the Jeep down and store all that power while also saving the brakes from wear and tear.

It wasn’t just one big Utah trip either. I’ve driven the Jeep to Vancouver, BC (about 700 miles round trip) and to Monterey, CA (about 1700mi round trip), and it worked well on those trips too.

Why not go full EV?

Don’t get me wrong, full electric vehicles are more efficient, faster, more powerful, easier to maintain, and more fun to drive. But a sprawling country like the US simply can’t deliver high output power to its far off reaches. Jeep has been showing off a full EV off road concept for several years now and it looks great and would work great on trails but our energy infrastructure just isn’t there yet. Plugin hybrids are definitely a stopgap measure that aim to give you some of the benefits of EVs while also letting you take a thousand mile road trip in a day.

After six months, I’m pretty happy with my Jeep Wrangler. It’s by no means quiet or comfortable, but its ruggedness makes it bulletproof in harsh winters and on rough terrain. The plugin architecture does complicate the maintenance and the platform as a whole, but it’s kind of nice that I basically get to drive it around town running errands day to day and it costs me almost nothing.

Until electrification gets further along in America, this is the best current middle-ground compromise option and I would recommend this or any other plugin hybrid (especially the new Prius Prime, which offers about 45mi of pure EV power) to anyone looking to get the best of both worlds.

*pssst* Lego Masters is much better in Australia

A few years ago, the show Lego Masters popped up on television in the US. It’s fun to watch, though as much as I like the host Will Arnett’s acting in comedy shows, he kinda takes on a persona of a “jock” spending most of his time heckling nerds. It’s not a good fit, tone-wise and detracts from the show. There’s also a bit too much pomp and circumstance in the show when I just want to see how people build things and how the builds perform at the end of each episode.

When a friend mentioned there was a UK version and also an Australian version of the same show that was even better, I looked and found all the previous seasons on usenet, though I’m sure you could find them on reddit too. If there’s a way for Americans to legally buy copies of it, I’d say go that route, as the show is worth it.

UPDATE: thanks to David who shared that there’s a free streaming option at Tubi for Australian Lego Masters.

The builds are pretty great on the Australian show. I don’t think they give them more time as the American version, but they certainly find talented contestants. Also, their “Brick Master” expert is more of a Tim Gunn type where he helps everyone out and teaches those watching how to do certain things with LEGO (the US version’s experts don’t give too much in the way of hints and feedback during the build process). They give contestants a ton of feedback during the build process, which often makes for better outcomes though small changes. The whole show feels way more supportive and like a Great British Bake Off instead of a typical American reality TV show. Also, the host, while still a comedy guy from Australian TV genuinely likes the contestants and feeds off their energy.

I’ve watched every season of the Australian version and it’s indeed much better in the way of builds but also a key factor is they don’t throw someone off each week. They tend to do it every 2-3 episodes, which means contestants can have an “off” week and be ok and come back to compete another day.

This is a long-winded way of saying the current season is one consisting only of previous winners (a “Grand Masters” season) and as a result, this best-of-the-best competition is producing some of the most artistic, functional, and impressively engineered LEGO builds I’ve ever seen. The very best of the season so far is the episode three above, where they have to build life-sized realistic LEGO models of stuff you’d find on a 1950’s detective’s office film set.

Across the board, all the items built were incredible, lifelike, and when the “is it cake?!” style competition happens near the end, it’s completely mind-blowing how realistic these contestants made their builds.

You can watch the show embedded above without knowing any of the builders or their personalities. It works as a standalone episode and it’s just a fantastic mix of engineering and art that produces truly amazing LEGO works. But I would strongly encourage everyone to check out the whole fifth season, and if you have the chance and the time, go back to season 1 and watch everything all the way through.

Some recent photos

Every once in a while, I take a photo and I look at it on a desktop computer and I’m just amazed that it came out of a phone. Anyways, here are some photos I’ve taken in the past couple weeks that surprised me at how good they came out.

Red Team Blues is a fun “ripped from the headlines” romp

A couple weeks ago, I got a copy of Cory Doctorow’s new novel Red Team Blues, and after reading about a third of it the first night I had it, I ended up switching over to the audiobook, and listened in one eight hour stretch during a road trip to California the next day.

First thoughts: I love love love that Cory made the main character into a sort of most unlikely of all superheroes: he’s an older guy that has spent his life working as a high-stakes forensic accountant. I can’t believe I was hanging onto every word of what an accountant was doing but I was transfixed the whole way.

It kind of reminded me of the movie Nobody with Bob Odenkirk as an unconventional action hero. And hey, if two nerds like Paul Rudd and Kumail Nanjiani can be in the Marvel universe as superheroes, having a forensic accountant being a star of your sci-fi/mystery novel is totally fair game.

The audiobook was read by Will Wheaton and he leans into it, doing different voices for each character and generally bringing a lot of personality to the material. Personally, I loved every minute of it, but I know some folks might be turned off by an audiobook narrator giving it their all and might prefer a drier telling of the story. Depends on what you come to expect from audiobooks but I couldn’t imagine a better version.

Without dropping too many spoilers, I’ll just say I enjoyed the book and I’m stoked to hear there are already sequels in the publishing pipeline since I could see this character being a fun unlikely star of an entire series. Like any mystery book, I could read the adventures of this hero doing pretty much anything.

The story is less far-off sci-fi than Cory’s other works, and instead it’s kind of a cryptocurrency-adjacent story that could have happened in the last few months instead of 30 years into the future. It’s definitely not a pro-cryptocurrency story as most of the story mocks it (rightfully so).

There’s a mystery to be solved, and I kind of expected it to take the whole book to track down the whodunit, but about half of the way into the book, the mystery is mostly solved, with the remainder of the story being about how the hero deals with the aftermath/fallout from unearthing a crime and coverup among a bunch of competing interests.

If you follow tech, enjoy noir and sci-fi, Red Team Blues will be totally up your alley. And if you enjoy audiobooks where the narrator spends a good amount of time and energy acting and making a performance into a real role, by all means opt for the audiobook version to get the full enjoyment out of it.

Remembering my uncle Anthony

This past weekend, I went down to Monterey Bay, CA to go out on a boat into open waters where we spread the ashes of my favorite uncle, my mom’s kid brother who was born about ten years after she was.

He died pre-pandemic of an aggressive cancer that took him much too quickly, but I got the chance to visit him every few weeks in his last few months. Even though it’s been a few years since his passing and his funeral, it takes time to get proper clearances to be able to do such a thing legally and to rent an entire boat for 22 people and go out and spread ashes. I found the whole trip offered some nice closure on my memories of him.

I was kind of amazed by the industry around such things. His wife had a floating, weighted receptacle designed to submerge itself after a minute or so of floating and it worked exactly as described. I thought there would be an awkward disintegration on the surface but it plunged below intact.

His wife offered each person present a little bag of Anthony’s ashes to spread wherever we felt most appropriate, so I selected a spot under a tree at my house where I keep my Leopold Bench (first thing I built entirely by myself as an adult over 20 years ago, and a great first DIY project I would suggest to anyone, especially those with their first house). It’s a calm, chill spot out by our chicken coop and I’ll think of him the next time I take a break there.

Stutz is pretty good

A few months ago, I heard about a new Jonah Hill project where he interviewed his therapist, who’s a unique guy that helped Jonah with a lot of break-throughs that could maybe help others too.

Usually I avoid vanity projects actors and directors do, because they’re often so self-involved it’s hard to tell if they’re actually any good. But a few friends said this was good so the other night I gave it a try.

I was skeptical going in, but found it pretty easy to watch and the 90min flew by quickly. The best way I could describe the teachings of Phil Stutz is that it’s almost all very good advice delivered with slightly odd packaging.

You see it early and often in the documentary, but the therapist has a bunch of his own jargon that he and Jonah use freely, then the viewer figures out what they mean later when they define the terms. I don’t know why this rubs me the wrong way so much but it reminds me of any best-selling pop psychology books you’d see sold at an airport checkout. Everything in life is a “system” and common situations get a jargon term and a “foolproof approach” for how to solve them. It seems too neat and tidy, more like a business advice book than self-help.

If you can get past the cute jargon they use, there actually is some good advice buried within. I felt like I had two break-throughs of my own while watching this. Once, when they discussed exercise being absolutely essential and central to us being human instead of viewing it as helping with diet or weight, and later on when they discuss how to deal with devastating losses.

I’ve been in therapy for over a decade and struggled with depression my whole life and I wouldn’t say this documentary is life-changing or the most incredible thing I’ve seen on the subject, but it definitely has its high points and is worth your time to watch. And if you’re lucky maybe you’ll get a few good takeaways too to help you think about things in a different light.

The one good HomeKit-capable wall switch you should get

TL;DR: The Lutron Claro (or Diva if you want dimming) Smart Switch is the best HomeKit compatible wall switch there is, period.

I’ve been playing with smart home devices since x10 came out in the 1990s. And every house I’ve had since 2005 has had a few smart switches hard-wired into my walls. I’ve tried out almost every brand and heard from several friends with more sophisticated systems than my DIY + whatever is on sale at Amazon approach.

For years, all my friends using HomeKit and Apple devices to control their home have had a a lot of good things to say about the Lutron Caseta line. They are not cheap, usually about $50 per wall switch, and require a home hub you connect via ethernet to your main router, then you install switches that talk to each other using their own wireless protocol, which means your light switches work even when your wifi is down.

To date, I’ve avoided Caseta because I felt the wall switches were ugly, weird, and cumbersome to use. Take a look at one:

Seriously though, what’s up with this wall switch? It’s got like 12 buttons and guests in your house would probably have to ask you how to operate it. Can you imagine trying to use this at midnight while stumbling around a dark house?

Eventually, I caved and tried out their most basic switch with two flat buttons, but it was still a tad ugly and not as easy to use as a regular switch. You can see what those look like below:

On the upside, the Lutron Caseta switches I tried out were reliable AS HELL, which is unusual for my wifi wall switch experiences, as they tend to not be 100% available day after day, month after month. Eventually, things crop up and your lights are all showing error messages on your phone and you have to stand up and tap the wall to get any light.

The good news is Lutron finally wised up and made a good looking, easy to operate switch that does everything the old ones did but with a traditional rocker design. Here’s what the new ones look like:

They’re about $60 each, which is quite steep (plus it requires one of their $100 home hubs) and if you want a very slim slider off to one side to control dimming, it’s $10 more or $70 each. Also, you can’t buy them at Amazon, only from Home Depot for some (probably weird legal contract) reason.

Anyway, I’m several months into replacing all my various smart wall switches with nothing but Lutron Claro smart ones and even though they’re pricey (it’s gonna cost about $1,000 to replace every switch I’d like to control from my phone in my house), the installations are going smoothly and pairing them to the Lutron Caseta hub is easy and only takes a few minutes.

Once a switch is set up, it appears in your Apple Home immediately, at the room and name you gave them in the Lutron app’s setup. I’ve been using these for several months now, and I haven’t had one iota of downtime, or flaky can’t connect messages or any other problems.

I’d long heard the Lutron Caseta line with their smart hub and switches were the most reliable nearly bulletproof HomeKit wall switches and I have to say I agree. I’ve currently got nearly a dozen peppered throughout my house and they work great in automations (when a garage door opens, our porch lights come on, also ditto for when the sun goes down until about 10pm). I’ve bought a bunch more and over the next month or so I’m going to replace every switch in a public area as well as overhead lights in bedrooms, so people can turn off a light without getting out of bed (a killer feature in the winter).

I’ve tried wifi-enabled wall switches from six or seven different companies over the last 15 years and though some can be as cheap as $15 per switch, they relied on custom software and unreliable hacks to get them into HomeKit. With the Lutron setup, everything is native and works out of the box. And so far, I haven’t had any downtime at all.

Three Claro light switches installed, two are turned on, one is off, hence the little LED status lights

They look and act like normal switches, still have the power of remote control and automations via HomeKit and Siri behind them, and will work 24/7 for years to come. It’s surprising no one has made a switch to date with all these features that looked and acted like switches commonly found in homes, but we have them now and I would heartily recommend these for anyone that wants to control their home via their iPhone and other Apple devices.

That pure uncut glacial shit

If you live in the Pacific Northwest and ever wondered how the varied terrain got to be the way it is, this video is a concise, fascinating 18 minute deep-dive into the last ice age from 17,000-10,000 years ago and how today we can still see clues all over to explain how it all went down.

Let me state upfront: this video is extremely my shit.

A couple years back, I stumbled onto this geology professor from Central Washington state doing lectures and informational videos on YouTube. I was instantly hooked, not only because I kinda minored in Geology while doing degrees in Soil and Environmental stuff in college, but also because I see a lot of weird rock formations where I live and I probably found this guy from searching to find out why things look the way they do in Oregon.

Lately, this professor has focused on zoom talks and livestreams of his upper division geology classes, and that stuff is pretty dense subject matter, but if you go deep in his video upload history you’ll find stuff like this new Lake Missoula talk, which is aimed at everyone wondering how glaciers, lakes, and ice dams completely transformed the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve been a huge fan of Montana ever since I went to Glacier National Park about ten years ago, and I’ve also seen many of the road cuts he mentions with geologic anomalies. At one point he even shows a photo of the “glacial erratic” rock the size of a VW Bug that sits about ten miles south of me, which happened because a chunk of ice with the Montana rock sitting in it dropped to the ground 1,000 miles away from its origin as the ice melted away about 10,000 years ago.

A nearly 20 minute video on geology might sound pretty dry, but I found myself saying “no WAY!” and “holy crap, that’s what that thing is?!” several times as I was transfixed throughout the whole thing.

(honestly, if you watch this just to fall asleep to, that’s cool too, he’s got a soothing voice and it’s probably a goldmine of afternoon nap material to cue up on your TV the next time you crash out on the couch)

Amazon vans

Today I was driving past an auto body shop that specializes in collision damage and I couldn’t help but notice the three Amazon trucks parked out front.

It reminds me of the time my uncle got a job at UPS, driving a truck and doing deliveries about 20 years ago. He hated it at first, not only because it was back-breaking labor and you were on your feet running all day but also he said the driver training part was excruciating and took a couple months of having a mentor riding along with him pointing out all his mistakes.

My uncle thought of himself as one of the best drivers on the planet and hated all the time spent having to relearn how to maneuver a giant van into alleyways and loading docks, thinking it was entirely beneath his experience driving a variety of vehicles over decades.

About a year into his tenure at UPS, he backed into someone’s car at an office building and he was instantly fired for it.

Seeing the three Amazon trucks at the auto body shop in my small town, I’m reminded that I’ve never seen a UPS truck in an accident, or in a body shop’s lot. They seem to take safety seriously.

Of course, UPS isn’t immune, and accidents must happen but Amazon’s track record is so bad you can search YouTube right now for “Amazon driver crash” and easily find dozens of clips from house cameras and dash cams showing Amazon trucks hitting cars and houses and knocking over mailboxes then leaving, plus a bunch jackknifing on freeways because every driver is under immense pressure to hit their goals and deadlines, or risk getting fired if they come up short.

Amazon seems to give anyone with a pulse the keys to a giant Sprinter van and lets them loose. I say this after watching Amazon trucks regularly tear up my gravel driveway that has a slight incline at the exit. FedEx and UPS drivers figure out they should park on the flat area, then get a running start to have enough momentum to glide up the driveway and out. Amazon drivers usually start driving up the gravel incline, lose traction and slow to a stop, then punch the throttle, leaving potholes and spraying rocks all over. When I see this, I tell them to back up and try again and get some speed first from the flatter part of the run-up.

I may be cynical here, but if this post ever got shared to someone high up at Amazon, I don’t think there’d be a memo sent around on how maybe they should train drivers a bit more, perhaps outfit the vans with more safety features like 360º cameras and parking sensors to prevent accidents, and maybe retool their driver incentives program to prevent future accidents by focusing maybe more on safety and having a clean driving record.

Instead, I bet there’d be a memo from the PR team that goes out to all their contracting business telling them in the future to please park any Amazon trucks in the back of any shop because seeing the Amazon “smile” logo at a collision shop is a bad look for the brand.

How to create a clutter-free desk

A few weeks ago, I caught a YouTube video on how to hide wires and cords in an effort to create a completely “wireless” desk look. I was basically born a slob and whatever desk I’ve been working at for the last 25 years doing tech work has usually resembled a disaster area.

So I started following the advice in the video and I bought a few things at my local Lowes and over the course of a full day, I completely stripped away everything in my home office and painstakingly put things back one by one, with cords all tied up and hidden. The result is pretty great, and something I look forward to working at each day now and it’s remaining clean weeks later.

I posted my progress that day on my Mastodon account, but I also set aside some more time to describe how anyone can approach a project like this, step by step. It’s all here on the Zapier blog now, with some more before and after shots of my desk.