Life in the Fast Lane – Electric Vehicle Observations

Recently I had the opportunity to use a Nissan Leaf™ for several full days, a much more interesting exercise than a simple test drive. As someone working in the sustainability area, as a co-chair of the California Clean Cars campaign and as a likely car buyer in 2012 (my current vehicle has over 230,000 miles on it) I am very interested in the electric vehicle (EV) market.

Nissan’s Leaf™ is among the handful of low emission cars that are presently authorized to carry a Clean Air Vehicle Sticker, entitling a single occupant to use the carpool lanes during rush hours – a very nice side benefit to EV ownership that helped speed my commute this week.

My general impression of EV driving is very favorable. This particular model is roomy, it has all the bells and whistles (bluetooth, navigation, backup camera, etc.) and most importantly, it really drives well. Acceleration, handling and power are all indistinguishable from a gas powered vehicle. The only issue I’ve had this week is the one that continues to slow down growth in the EV market, namely range anxiety and ease of recharging. I have been charging the vehicle at home and at work using conventional 120v outlets and while the process is simple and easy, it certainly takes a while, e.g. 11 hours to get a full charge last night. When I left my home the range indicator read “100 miles”, but 35 miles of highway driving depleted that amount to 42. In other words, at 60+ miles per hour, a 35 mile trip used up 58 miles of driving range. Keep in mind, I tried to use the EV just like I use my current one, driving as fast as usual as opposed to crawling along in the slow lane just to conserve the charge. With the indicator staring at you the entire time, you also start thinking about all of the devices that consume electricity in the car, such as the lights, the radio, and the seat warmers and so on. Since I want a fully functional vehicle, the notion of driving around in a dark, cold vehicle is not a selling point.

My conclusions: I love just about everything in the EV experience other than the limitations on range. If the car had a 200-mile range, I would be placing an order tomorrow. Until batteries are improved, however, fast charging 240v stations are essential and the buyers for whom EVs work perfectly may be limited. By the way, Applied Materials is among the companies working to address some of the battery issues. It will also be exciting to see a whole slew of new EVs and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) in 2012.

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