Personalized Fuel Cost Comparison Tool Unveiled by UC Davis | Edmunds

Personalized Fuel Cost Comparison Tool Unveiled by UC Davis


Just the Facts:
  • Fuel cost tool developed by UC Davis transportation researchers lets consumers input their own commuting needs and local fuel prices to get custom comparisons.
  • Although aimed at plug-in vehicle shoppers, the tool also can be used to compare fuel costs for gasoline and diesel vehicles.
  • Natural gas, hydrogen and multiple trip applications are coming in Version 2.

SAN JOSE, California — A free online calculator that will help consumers compare fuel costs for thousands of cars and trucks has been launched by researchers at the University of California at Davis.

The fuel cost comparison tool, called the EV Explorer, was developed initially to help city planners develop public EV charger strategies. Researchers at the university's Institute for Transportation Studies quickly realized its value to consumers, though, and have launched it as one of the institute's first consumer-friendly online tools.

It utilizes the federal Transportation Department's fueleconomy.gov database of more than 34,000 vehicles, enabling shoppers to compare them — up to four at a time —  based on their EPA-estimated combined city-highway fuel economy or on real-world fuel efficiency numbers input by the consumer.

The comparison uses the consumer's home address and a final destination — typically a place of work — and permits the shopper to input the local price for gasoline, diesel and electricity. This guarantees a highly personalized cost comparison. For hybrid vehicles, the tool shows both gasoline and electricity costs.

Consumers can compare up to four vehicles at a time, and can mix fuel types in each comparison.

Because the federal database of vehicles goes back many model years, consumers also can compare used vehicles and even have new and used models in the same comparison.

Users also can change the frequency of travel, the price of gasoline, diesel or electricity, and alter the start and end points of a trip.

EV and plug-in hybrid shoppers can add the option of charging at the commute's destination, specify the duration of charging, the level of charging power and the price of commercial charging — if not free — at the trip's destination

The tool, introduced at the Plug-In 2014 electric vehicle conference in San Jose, produces a printable spreadsheet showing annual fuel costs for the various vehicles for the commuting route specified.

In a simplified test, we compared the annual cost of a five-day-a-week round-trip commute from downtown Long Beach, California, to Edmunds.com's office in Santa Monica, using the four default vehicles that pop up when the tool is opened.

We set the price of gasoline at $4 a gallon for regular and $4.20 per gallon for premium, and the price of electricity for home charging at the average California rate of 17 cents per kilowatt-hour.

When we said there would be no use of the EV chargers in the parking structure at our office, the tool gave us the following annual costs for the 59.3-mile weekday commute:

  • $1,828 for gasoline for a 2014 Honda Civic with automatic transmission;
  • $1,119 for a 2014 Toyota Prius Plug-In hybrid with 11 miles of all-electric range ($978 for regular gas and $141 for electricity);
  • $1,151 for a 2014 Chevrolet Volt with 38 miles of all-electric range ($563 for premium gas and $588 for electricity);
  • $770 for an all-electric Nissan Leaf EV with 84 miles of range.

But when we added on-site charging at work — the fee in our building's garage is $1 an hour — the numbers for a year's worth of fueling for the vehicles using electricity changed a bit:

  • $1,828 for the Honda — unchanged because it doesn't use electricity;
  • $1,410 for the plug-in Prius, which now used just $749 worth of gas but saw its electricity costs jump to $661 because it was tethered to the charger for 2 hours a day to recharge its battery for some all-electric range on the return home;
  • $1,489 for the Volt, all of it for electricity because it used the work charger for 20 hours each week to refill its batteries so it could go both ways on electric power;
  • $905 for the Leaf, which didn't need to be, but for comparison purposes, also was tied to the work charger for 20 hours a week at $1 per hour.

One take-away is that while charging an EV or plug-in hybrid at work would enable more all-electric, emissions-free driving in the plug-in hybrids, it wouldn't be a good thing economically for this particular commute.

With commercial charging at the $1 hourly rate, all of the electrified vehicles were cheaper on fuel than the 33-mpg (combined) Civic, but all were far more expensive to operate than if they'd made the commute without using the workplace charger.

The calculator doesn't account for how differences in purchase prices, insurance and maintenance would affect the overall cost of owning and operating each car. But Edmunds.com's own True Cost of Ownership calculator can help with that.

And future versions of the UC Davis fuel cost comparison tool will permit consumers to compute lifetime ownership costs by factoring in insurance rates and retail purchase prices and by accumulating various trips and commuting routes, a university spokesman says.

Updated versions also will add hydrogen and compressed natural gas fuels.

"Deciding which car makes sense can be challenging. Everyone's driving needs vary and vehicles person in different ways," says Michael Nicholas, lead researcher for the university institute's Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center. The EV Explorer tool, he said, is designed to help minimize the challenge.

Edmunds says: It's great to see helpful tools for car shoppers come out of university research. 

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