When I bought a Chevy Volt in October, I promised an occasional update on the vehicle. As you may recall, the Volt is an “extended range electric car” that runs off batteries and then switches to gasoline after the batteries are depleted.

So while it has a shorter electric range than a Tesla or Nissan Leaf, you always have the option to keep driving when the batteries are empty.

Over almost eight months of ownership, I’ve driven 5,080 miles, with 3,769 miles (75 percent) running on the battery and 1,211 miles (25 percent) on gas. During all this time, I’ve consumed about 35 gallons of gas. My overall mileage has been 144 mpg, while the car has averaged 37 mpg when using gas alone.

If you think I’ve kept all these statistics, that’s not the case. I signed up to a website called Voltstats.net that automatically tracks mileage and the electric and fuel usage of 1,800 Volt owners, in conjunction with OnStar’s on-board communication system.

I’ve really been enjoying the car. It’s been trouble-free except for one unexpected repair: An electrical cable to the braking system on one wheel was replaced because a rodent ate through to the bare wires! The dealer, Weseloh Chevrolet in Carlsbad, fixed it as soon as I brought it in.

I took the car in another time for a software update to eliminate the occasional crashing of the center console’s GPS. Unlike some cars, the Volt does not do over-the-air updates.

The Chevy Volt is programmed to begin charging when electricity rates drop at midnight; charging takes about 3¾ hours. Courtesy photo

What was most surprising to me is that my SDG&E bill has gone down about $100 each month, from about $350 to $250. This is the result of getting lower overall electric rates as an owner of an electric car.

My mileage, of course, is a result of how I use the car. Voltstats list owners with mileage ranging from 5,000 mpg to 35 mpg, with a mean of 157 mpg. Typically I’ll travel fewer than 50 miles most days, often to the airport, downtown or less frequently to Orange County. I made a couple of trips to Los Angeles as well. While the battery is rated to provide 35 miles of driving per charge, I get from 39 to 42 miles.

I’ll typically plug in the 220-volt charger each evening; the car is programmed to begin the charging when the rates drop at midnight. Charging takes about 3¾ hours and, using an app provided by OnStar, I receive an email when the charge is done. When I want to begin the charging immediately, I just unplug and plug back in the charger. A light on the dashboard displays the charging state.

While I once had GM’s wireless connectivity service called OnStar on an Acura, I never used it, but I’ve found it to be a real benefit on the Volt.

For example, there’s no need to type in your destination on the GPS, just touch the OnStar button and tell the friendly operator where you want to go, whether it’s an address, the nearest Starbucks or a business. A few seconds later, it’s loaded into your GPS ready to navigate.

OnStar’s built-in cellular phone using Verizon’s network also remotely starts and charges the car and reports on its status. When the light went on alerting me to the brake problem, OnStar did a remote diagnostic check while I was driving and let the dealer know I was on my way. You can also use OnStar to make wireless calling. Just ask the operator to dial the phone number, although it costs 40 cents a minute. The OnStar operators answer within a few seconds, address you by name and are extremely helpful.

I’ve rarely charged my car at other locations as there’s been little need. But one company I have occasionally visited in Irvine has a charger that I use while I’m there. I can even check the charging state using the iPhone app.

After six months, the car continues to be free of rattles or any defects and continues to drive smoothly with excellent acceleration. I’ve used the GPS with its traffic information extensively and it’s a well-designed system that’s easy to use and to see at a glance with its colorful display. A built-in information system provides weather alerts, local gas prices and nearby movie information.

The automatic Bluetooth connection to my iPhone works perfectly and the address book is downloaded into the car in fewer than 10 seconds each time I enter. Like every car I’ve used, the voice recognition is not very good. But by holding down the home button on the iPhone, Siri is activated and I can request to dial by name using the car’s mic.

Occasionally I will listen to an out-of-town radio station using the iHeart Radio app on my iPhone. The car’s Bluetooth system detects it is playing and routes it through the audio system, displaying the station. On my previous car, a BMW X3, I needed to go through several button pushes to listen.

While the Volt is not an expensive car, now in the low- to mid-$30,000s before rebates, it comes fully loaded at $35,000, with some features that often cost extra. For example, it comes with keyless entry, pushbutton start, front collision alert, an alert when you go out of the lane, a built-in diagnostic system, GPS system, a trial version of Sirius, leather seats and much more.

Surprisingly it has no power seats, ostensibly to reduce power consumption. The audio system from Bose is designed to use less energy, but sounds pretty average.

Service and support for the Volt has been excellent, both locally and nationally. The few times I’ve asked for specific information about some feature or operational question, using either OnStar or the 800 number, GM always has followed up, even when it required research on their part.

Being able to use a car in a car pool lane has always been one attraction and big advantage for hybrid and electric vehicle owners. The Volt qualifies for a green sticker that has recently had its life extended from Jan. 1, 2015 to Jan. 1, 2019. As of May 9, 2014, 40,000 “green” stickers have been made available.

I’ve found that the Volt has more than lived up to my expectations. It’s fun to drive, comfortable, well finished and a well-appointed car. And it’s been a very good value, saving me about $250 to $300 per month and dramatically reducing my dependency on oil.


San Diego-based ecoATM wants to pay you for your old phone or tablet. A retired iPhone, Nokia or Samsung smartphone could be worth a couple of hundred dollars. And if you’re near any of its 900 ecoATM kiosks, you can get your money on the spot.

New technologies are driving hardware innovation at such a rapid clip that we’re now discarding these products at record rates, not when they wear out, but when we want to upgrade. It could be to get a tablet that’s lighter and thinner or a phone with a larger display. We’ve been trained to believe that the latest is always better and to want to be the first with the newest.

While this may be good for the economy, it’s not good for the environment, if we just throw out the old. But what may be one person’s old gadget is another’s sought-after device. And companies have sprung up to find ways to pay money for old products and sell them to others.

According to Bamboo Mobile, an electronics recycling company, there were about 370 million idle, non-active devices in the U.S. market at the end of last year. This number is expected to rise to 461 million by 2018.

EPA figures show that of the 370 million, fewer than 20 percent were recycled, but that number is expected to nearly double by the end of 2018 because of new and convenient ways to quickly turn your old product into cash.

When I bought my most recent phone, an iPhone5S, I sold my iPhone5 to Gazelle, an on-line service that will buy your old phone, tablet or music player. The process is pretty seamless. Look up your phone on its site, describe its condition, and you’ll be instantly provided with an estimate.

San Diego company ecoATM has found a way for people to conveniently recycle their old electronics, rather than have them end up in a landfill. Courtesy photo

If you accept the estimate, register and the company will send you a mailer for your phone. After receiving and inspecting your phone, they will mail you a check. If they find the condition to be different than you described, they’ll revise their offer.

My iPhone5, a 32GB Verizon model in very good condition, fetched $350. That offset about half the cost of my new phone. My experience with Gazelle, however, was not as rapid as described. I received emails alerting me that the phone was received and was being checked, but then heard nothing for about three weeks. I received the check a month later.

Joe Brancatelli of joesentme.com told me that his experience in trying to sell his old phones was not worth the effort . He found Gazelle and competing companies of limited value. He was offered just a few dollars for his Blackberry 9700 and others even less. He returned them to the carriers for recycling.

Five years ago, ecoATM’s founder, Mark Bowles, was looking for a way for people to conveniently recycle their old electronics, rather than have them end up in a landfill. I visited the company when it was first founded and it seemed to be a very ambitious undertaking. Because it paid out money, the company needed not only to identify the device, but also had to carefully figure out its condition. A phone with a chip or scratch on the display would be worth much less than one without flaws.

I recently revisited the company, and it’s come a long way. It’s gone through three generations of machines and has placed 900 of them in malls and Wal-Mart stores across the country. EcoATM is now a subsidiary of Outerwall Inc., the company that also owns Redbox and Coinstar kiosks for movie rentals and coin counting.

The ecoATM machine has also grown in sophistication. I got a behind-the-scenes look at the latest model in operation at company headquarters in Sorrento Valley. The tall, attractive kiosk with its large LCD display invites you to trade in your old device for an immediate cash payment.

The customer is invited to get a free estimate of the device in a few minutes, once the machine performs a thorough evaluation of the product. I tried it with my iPhone 5S.

A large lid rises in the front where you place your phone onto a glass platen and plug in a cable that appears. There’s actually a carousel of cables that fit essentially every type of phone, tablet and player. Once you select the type of product, the appropriate cable rotates into place.

The kiosk then thoroughly evaluates the phone — identifying the memory, provider and both the phone’ internal and external condition. Cameras take pictures of all sides of the phone. Using a wireless connection, the ATM checks the phone’s serial numbers against a list of stolen products and looks up the current value of the phone using a continuously updated database.

Once the evaluation is complete, a price flashes up on the display. If you accept it, the machine will wipe off all of your data from the phone, and the cash will be dispensed, just as at a bank ATM. Or you can reject the offer and take back the phone.

What happens to the devices that ecoATM collects? They’re sold to a network of wholesalers that resells the phones. While the company was mum on providing more information, there is apparently a thriving business in buying and refurbishing used products.

EcoATM indicated that all who buy their used devices are vetted to insure the phones are not improperly recycled. About 75 percent of the phones find a second life; the rest are recycled by certified e-waste reclamation facilities.

So check your drawers and closets for old phones and tablets, and you might find you can convert them to quick cash while responsibly recycling them. (ecoatm.com).


Having been among the first to accuse Toyota of covering up its unintended acceleration problem, I thought it appropriate to look into GM’s recall for faulty ignition switches. Each is an example of corporate malfeasance, each caused deaths that could have been prevented and each company handled the issue differently.

General Motors was terribly remiss in not reacting to problems that began many years ago. The company knew of a problem with the ignition switch that would turn off the engine, disable the power steering, power brakes and airbag deployment. The switch would fail if there was too much weight from the key rings with several keys attached.

Although the company was aware of the problem, it never implemented a known solution.

In addition, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government agency responsible for monitoring safety defects in automobiles, never asked for a recall after receiving hundreds of complaints. (NHTSA’s incompetence and malfeasance is well documented at safetyresearch.net.)

Thirteen lives were lost, possibly many more. Unlike Toyota’s unintended acceleration problem, the cause was known, reproducible and simple to solve. We don’t know where in the company’s bureaucracy the issue got lost and buried. Clearly it was not one that encouraged reporting bad news or adding a few cents to the cost of a car. Safety at GM was not job one, to paraphrase another car company’s motto.

When the issue was recently exposed, GM immediately admitted fault and addressed the problem head on. The company suspended some of the engineers involved and apologized, something Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, says hasn’t happened for decades.

In contrast, the cause of Toyota’s problem was more difficult to identify. But rather than admit that it could have been caused by inherent design defects in the electronics and software, or that they just didn’t know what caused the problem, the company immediately ruled that out, and attributed it to sticky pedals, floor mats and driver error. Conveniently, those were fixes that were easy to implement.

Toyota then attacked technical, academic and industry experts who offered credible theories, as well as evidence put forth by NASA engineers pointing to electronic and software causes. They instituted a massive public relations campaign to assure the public that all was well and they were safe. That included Toyota’s president and CEO, and James Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, who both lied to Congress, stating that electronics and software were not responsible, contrary to what we learned later.

In contrast, Mary Barra, CEO of GM, acted quickly in taking responsibility for the defective ignition switches and GM has recalled nearly 3 million cars to repair them. Those with defects were informed their cars have the problem and owners will get the cars fixed.

She fired 15 workers, many executives, after an internal inquiry into the incident.

“Some were removed because of what we consider misconduct or incompetence, others have been relieved because they simply didn’t do enough,” Barra said. “They didn’t take responsibility. They didn’t act with a sense of urgency.”

“Numerous individuals did not accept any responsibility to drive our organization to understand what was truly happening,” she said. “The report highlights a company that operated in silos, with a number of individuals looking for reasons not to act, instead of finding ways to protect our customers.”

So while GM owners can be assured of their cars are no longer dangerous to drive, Toyota owners cannot. Their cars will not be retrofitted with safety fixes and millions remain subject to unintended acceleration.

Some may say that both companies’ behaviors are equally bad, and they may have a good point. Neither one’s behavior is admirable or defensible. But now when we buy a vehicle, we can judge how each company responded when they were caught, and use that to predict future behavior. One company admitted fault and the other covered up. But then, I’d much rather find a manufacturer that doesn’t need to be caught to do the right thing.

And while these companies express regret to their customers, that hasn’t been reflected in their opposition to another bill relating to car safety, a congressional bill to prohibit the renting and loaning of recalled cars.

The Safe Rental Car Act of 2013 bill was filed last May, supported by car rental companies, and was unanimously passed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. But it has advanced no further, because of opposition from the automotive manufacturers and dealers.

Recall that the cause of death of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, was unintended acceleration driving a Lexus ES350 loaner car in Santee.

The bottom line is no one is looking out to protect the public from life-threatening automotive defects. Certainly not these two manufacturers, nor the NHTSA.


Here’s my selection for 2014 Father’s Day tech gifts. I’ve tried each of these items and can definitely recommend them.

Pocket Pro Cameras: There have been many improvements over the past two years in pocket-size cameras, spurred on by the competition from smartphones. But these cameras beat a smartphone every time, with their larger sensors, stronger flashes and optical zooms. The best pocket-sized models you can buy are the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II or their new III, the (fixed lens) Ricoh GR, and the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark, each from $700 to $800.

If these tax your budget, consider the tiny Canon PowerShot S110, a model that’s been replaced by the S120, but is still available for an amazing $249. Lastly, the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX7 continues to provide great results and can be found for less than $350. It’s the same camera that had sold under the Leica brand for nearly three times the price. I’ve tested all while traveling on business and vacation, and they all are excellent, producing images that are sometimes as good as those from DSLR cameras.

A bag within a bag: With some of us now using just a lightweight computer such as a MacBook Air or Microsoft Surface, or even just a tablet, there’s less need to travel with a huge briefcase, particularly once you have arrived at your destination. Consider these cases, which you can carry separately, but are also small enough to pack inside your larger case.

Briggs & Riley KA001 Digital Cross Body: This case ($129) is just the right size for carrying a 13-inch notebook, plus a tablet, power adapters, pens, keys and cards. I used it on a recent business trip to China and it was much easier carrying this each day than a fully loaded briefcase, particularly while climbing up six flights of stairs in a factory that that had no elevator (briggs-riley.com).

Another choice is the Muzetto leather bag from WaterField Designs. Handmade in San Francisco, it’s a vertical bag available in a wide range of sizes and colors from $179 to $259 (sfbags.com).

Or consider the Levenger Stealth Laptop Messenger ($299), a slim, zippered, soft leather bag that fits a 15-inch computer, tablet and other small items (levenger.com).

Logitech Case [+]: This iPhone case is so new your dad will likely not even have heard of it. Dubbed as the only case you will ever need, it is really a multipiece system. The basic case is a high-quality black matte design with a brushed metal back panel that’s attractive and provides good protection. It comes with a snap-on battery back that provides a full recharge of the phone without adding a lot of bulk. The advantage over other battery cases is it snaps off when you don’t need it and it can be recharged while off the phone.

The case comes with a clever compact magnetic mount for your car window or dashboard. Two add-ons snap on the back of the phone case. One is a compact wallet that holds a few cards and the other is a folding stand to prop up your phone for watching videos. $199 in a presentation gift box (logitech.com).

Gene Coffee Roaster: If you can’t afford to tour the world’s coffee-growing regions, then you may want to imagine visiting them by enjoying their coffee beans. Start with the green coffee beans from Sweet Marias (www.sweetmarias.com), with more than 70 constantly changing choices. Each comes with a detailed description of the geographic area and the farms where the beans are grown. Then add a coffee roaster. The Gene Coffee Roaster (genecafe.com) is one of my favorite products tested over the past year. I liked it so much, my wife bought it for me for last Father’s Day, and I’ve been using it nearly every week. The Gene Cafe ($585) roasts a half-pound of coffee in about 15 minutes using a clever off-axis rotating design that lets you watch the beans turn from green to brown. I find the coffee to be noticeably better than even my favorite local roasters. Coffee beans cost about $6 to $7/pound, about one-third to one-half of roasted beans. (genecafe.com)

T-Mobile and the HTC One (M8) Phone: This is the perfect gift for the International traveler. For the first time, you can use your normal cellphone wherever you go in the world and forget those huge roaming charges for calls and data that Verizon and the rest of the companies charge. T-Mobile’s new Simple Choice Plan lets you call for just 20 cents a minute in nearly any country and get free data. Couple it with a HTC One (M8) phone and you’ve got the best possible combination.

iPad Air: While the Air may look like an incremental improvement over the original 9.7-inch tablet, it’s really quite a breakthrough in its reduced 1-pound weight, faster processer and only 7.5mm thickness. It retains a 10-hour battery life and is the best iPad you can buy this year. $499 for the 16GB version, $100 more for 32GB. (apple.com).


Last week I wrote about my experiences with T-Mobile in China, and said I would get back with more details.

T-Mobile has implemented big improvements in how it charges for a new phone and services, particularly what it charges for calling and data outside the country. Late last year T-Mobile introduced its Simple Choice Plan that made text and data free and reduced calls to a low flat rate of 20 cents a minute in more than 120 countries.

That has allowed international travelers to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Most importantly, it transforms our phone from a very dangerous-to-use money sink to the convenient item it was designed to be, to keep us in touch and accessible without worrying about cost.

T-Mobile recently released a survey of international travelers that compared customers from other carriers that pay the large charges with the T-Mobile customers who have been using this new plan.

“It’s completely outrageous that old-guard carriers are still raking in billions each year from these ridiculous roaming fees,” said John Legere, T-Mobile’s outspoken president. “That they continue to gouge their customers to the tune of 90 percent margins every time they set foot outside the country is shameful. Americans deserve better.”

His comments are accurate; when I speak to friends living in other countries, they are astounded at how much we pay.

The company’s survey showed that 88 percent of those polled said they were frustrated by the expenses and challenges of staying connected while abroad; of those, 20 percent said they just don’t use their phones, 40 percent said they turn off data roaming and 20 percent said they would turn off data roaming if they knew how. That’s 80 percent of carrier customers struggling to avoid the high costs of staying connected while traveling abroad.

Those using T-Mobile behave much differently. They make three times more calls, text seven times more often, and use 28 times more data.

T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan simplifies not only international use. Domestically, there are no annual contracts, no overage fees of any kind, phones can be upgraded anytime and all calling and texting is free. Depending on what you pay, you also get a given amount of high-speed data in the United States. For example, you get 3GB in a $60/month plan. Should you go over your data, there are no penalties. The speed slows or you can buy more data for that month.

Other carriers make you choose how much data you think you will use and if you go over, you pay a penalty. Most of us choose conservatively to avoid going over, resulting in paying for more than we use. As a result, we’ll want to sign up to get warnings at 50 percent of data use, 75 percent, 90 percent, etc. Don’t we have something better to do than worry about all this?

So how good is T-Mobile’s domestic coverage? What good is a phone if it doesn’t work where you are?

While all of our experiences will vary depending where we spend our time, I’ve experienced good results with T-Mobile. I’ve been trying it out for the past few weeks, mostly on the West coast, from San Diego to north of San Francisco, as well as in the outskirts of Denver. California cities and towns include San Rafael, Ross, Corte Madera, Larkspur and Tiburon, San Francisco, LA and all over San Diego, including the airport.

I’ve carried both the T-Mobile HTC One (M8) and my Verizon iPhone 5S. I’ve monitored the signal strength, made and received calls, sent and received email, and browsed the Internet. The last time I did this, about three years ago, I found Verizon’s coverage to be noticeably better.

This time I found little difference. I was surprised how strong the T-Mobile signal was, often when Verizon was just two bars. At home in Solana Beach, T-Mobile actually provides a stronger signal. My testing is certainly not scientific or broad, just anecdotal.

With more extensive testing, Consumer Reports rates Verizon and AT&T as best, so I would still be cautious about shifting to T-Mobile without trying it out. Like other carriers, T-Mobile offers a free 14-day trial and will take the phone back within that period, waiving restocking fees if the return is due to coverage issues.

With the discussion of mergers between Comcast and Time Warner, and AT&T and DirecTV, it’s interesting to recall that when AT&T attempted to buy T-Mobile it said it would be better for the consumer. If that had happened, does anyone think we’d have seen such a reduction in international rates?