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Range Anxiety Will Wipe the Smug Right Off Your Face
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Posted On: 8/3/2011 3:28PM
SuzyBruisy

The industry does a lot of minimizing of so-called "range anxiety" in electric vehicles. Oh, nobody ever really drives more than 100 miles in a day, they say. Those EV owners are just being ninnies, they say. Sure, in a world where everything worked exactly as advertised, it might be an irrelevant concern. But for now, range anxiety is real. And it'll take you from smug to sweating bullets in no time flat. Continue reading...

For one thing, your EV's "range meter"--the little gas gauge substitute that tells you how many miles you have left--is really more of a conceptual tool for thinking about whether you should drive or not, than a literal indicator of how far you should travel. Commonsense advice applies, like not stomping the accelerator at every opportunity. But even if you're being a good little hypermiler, your range meter will do strange things. On the Nissan Leaf, traveling at highway speeds would gobble miles at an alarming rate, but stop-and-go traffic, counterintuitively, would sometimes top your miles back up, thanks to all the regenerative braking. But you can generally always count on having fewer miles than you think you do, and going through them faster than you anticipate.

When I was out smugly cruising in the Leaf a couple of weekends ago with my friend Sondra, we decided just as an academic exercise we were going to see if it was possible to charge the car for free. In Bellevue. Well, part of the problem was that nothing in Bellevue is free--this is the home of Microsoft, and the houses are all $1M and up--but another issue was that the much-lauded "charging infrastructure" still has some major holes. ChargePoint is third party vendor that enjoys an apparent monopoly over EV charging stations (at least in Bellevue). We discovered that they all theoretically take credit cards, but apparently only some super-futuristic whizbang credit card equipped with something (probably an RFID chip) that, last I checked, not everyone has yet.

We got on the 800 number with the company (or more specifically, a representative of the company at an offshore call center), who explained that he could hook us up remotely but only if we gave up a whole lot of personal information over the phone to set up an account: hardly confidence-inspiring. As an alternative, he offered to guide us to a "free charging station"--we were stoked!--but only to discover that not only was the charging station he sent us to (using the company's own intel on its own equipment) a pay one like all the others, but was also imprisoned within a pay parking garage that we had to pay to get into. Wtf? We snapped some pics, which promptly got us thrown out by security (the whole Bellevue thing again).

So maybe there's no such thing as a free charging station, and that's totally fair and understandable. But the point is that, even if you're willing to pay for juice, there are an awful lot of barriers to entry that make it so that you could very likely end up screwed.

But we didn't care! Convinced that we possibly had 78 actual remaining miles with which to screw around, we did some joyriding, hit up the All-British Field Meet, visited the Kubota Gardens, and showed off for various friends we picked up along the way. And we did it all pretty efficiently: at the end of it we had 16 miles of range, and my home was only 15.2 miles away. But then the thing started flashing. Beeeeeeeew.

We plugged into a regular 110 wall socket, which will charge it, but at an absolutely glacial pace: it's like watching lichen grow. After killing about 2 hours to let it juice up, we'd only picked up 5 additional miles. But no way we couldn't make it home with 20 miles on the ticker, right?

That drive ended up being quite the white-knuckle deal. It involved some highway, which seemed to eat up the surface-charge miles we'd just put on it even faster than normal. Once we got down to under 8 or 9 miles, it didn't even bother trying to tell us what we had left: it just flashed the low-battery bars and the nav voice came on to tell us that we'd better get to the nearest charging station. Now. Crawling up the last big hill on 522 with two extra bodies in the car, trying to coast all the traffic lights while keeping an eye out for a safe place to roll to a stop on the shoulder, all trace of smugness had long since completely vanished.

Though it did eventually make it home without quitting, the Leaf was hungover for days. To charge it up from empty on household juice appears to take well over 24 hours: that just doesn't work if you need to drive every day. To make the Leaf a truly feasible choice, you either have to shell a couple thousand (well-subsidized) bucks for the home charging station, or you have to not drive every day. But really, you have to be a lot more on the ball about planning trips, and basically adopt an entirely different mindset about your relationship to your car. No more long, aimless drives for fun. No taking the scenic route. No exploring. Hell even circling the block for a parking space might get you into trouble. I really want to be able to recommend electric cars to everyone, but the infrastructure is really not that friendly yet. 

Comments (18)
Avatar By: krush454
8/3/2011 4:20 PM

My problem with EVs is the smugness many people who drive them exude. Oh your car runs on electricity? You're saving the environment you say? But how is the electricity made? Most of it will just be made from burning fossil fuels anyway. They act like the magic Ev fairies kiss power into their cars at night, but all it is is more fossil fuels burning up with every mile you drive. So basically, electric vehicles are more of an "Out of sight, out of mind" fix to the problem, and that's my problem with them, or more specifically, their smug owner (not all of them are smug, but I've yet to meet someone who owned one in person who wasn't)

 
Avatar By: BIG_CIVIC
8/3/2011 5:11 PM

Top gear UK just did a test on this car and an EV Peugeot on series 17 episode 6. I haven't seen it yet but am sure the results are similar to yours.

 
Avatar By: BIG_CIVIC
8/3/2011 5:15 PM

Oh, and they (Top Gear) are getting a lot of bad press from the media and Nissan about that show. I think you should speak in their defence lol.

 
Avatar By: TDWPgtp
8/3/2011 6:01 PM

with the cost of batteries and all of the other problems of EV's i dont think they will ever be a reasonable car for daily driving

 
Avatar By: TDWPgtp
8/3/2011 6:02 PM

also, i love how all electronics these days have lights and sounds that let you know when your battery is dying. my phone beeps and lights up ever 30 seconds when its dying. umm... hello manufacturer? THATS WASTING MORE ELECTRICITY

 
Avatar By: ___nes___
8/3/2011 7:09 PM

werent they talking about having stations where they switch your dead battery with a fully charged one instead of waiting for it to charge? That would make more sense that charging stations until more are available.

 
Avatar By: chewzer
8/3/2011 8:05 PM

I hate these cars so much. If I wanted to worry about gas mileage I would buy an 80s Diesel Jetta, 55mpg and they look badass.

 
Avatar By: JacobRiley
8/3/2011 9:43 PM

I i ever get so worried about gas mileage, i'll just buy a rex.

 
Avatar By: TDWPgtp
8/3/2011 10:21 PM

@nes- but who is responsible for paying for the batteries when they go bad? unless each charging company charges it's customers enough per recharge to pay for battery replacements...

 
Avatar By: retroman
8/3/2011 11:09 PM

EVs could work right now in a much smaller country, but America is the third largest country in the world by geographic size. There are many wide open spaces, and we travel a lot. I don't know what these engineers are thinking. EVs are good, but they need a fail safe to keep people from getting stranded. That's why I'm a much bigger fan of extended range EVs like the Volt. All I can say is if you have a Leaf, you might as well forget that trip to Yellowstone....

 
Avatar By: ej6coupe
8/4/2011 2:32 AM

electric cars are impractical , water powered cars are the way to go, look up stan meyers water powered car on youtube .

 
Avatar By: RareT
8/4/2011 3:16 AM

Very Good read about the "real world" use of an EV. I would probably have too many "white knuckle" days and end up trashing the car while on the side of the road. I think Americans, (myself included), want things NOW, and don't want to wait for it to charge up. I can see gas assist cars as a big plus.

 
Avatar By: RIP-Pontiac-2009
8/4/2011 5:59 AM

I really hope that people start to realize just how different the Volt and Leaf are. The Volt is the solution for the time we live in. It does all the fun stuff the leaf does without having to worry about a support structure that isnt fully matured yet. Sure Leafs wont be a problem once there is an entire network of charging stations all over but right now the Volt is just the real world solution. Bye the way Hydro electric Power Plants= no fossil fuels, nuclear power plants= no fossel fuels. Hopefully we will be able to generate either more of these or add more options in the future.

 
Avatar By: bustedwheel
8/4/2011 6:27 AM

Are the household chargers set up on 220V or regular 110V?

 
Avatar By: cknarf
8/4/2011 10:16 AM

If I ever, EVER have an EV, It'll be one of those little wedge-shaped CitiCars from years ago!

 
Avatar By: mefast
8/4/2011 11:45 AM

I recently worked on a battery powered car for an engineering competition. The reason the Leaf doesn't go very far is cost. Our battery cells run about $100K alone, but we are able to go about 250-300 miles in our car. Plus if you are able to use Three Phase charging we could fully charge the vehicle in about 30min compared to 6-8 hours. Manufacturers will never allow for drop in/out batteries because that is the area they are able to compete in. Bigger, cheaper, faster charging batteries and EV technology sounds pretty practical.

 
Avatar By: Scruffy200
8/5/2011 12:29 PM

Okay, so the Leaf doesn't get the range it says it does and you couldn't find a free charging station (there's one at Nissan of the Eastside dealership, by the way). What about the rest of the car - there's hardly a word on quality, driving experience, or anything besides batteries and charging. For those of us who don't drive more than 70 miles in a day, is the Leaf any good?

 
Avatar By: ev1guy
8/12/2011 9:12 PM

Just a quick note from a former EV1 driver. YES, you do have to change your driving habits, in the three years I had my EV1 I almost got stuck 3 times. Twice I did not recharge overnight and wound up taking people around or side trips. Wound up recharging at a mall and Costco. The third time I wanted to take a road trip and thought I had planned it out, but the road was windier and hillier than I remembered. An electric car was never meant to replace my 68' Mustang, it was meant to replace my commuter car. For the time being. Yes, they do not have the range, and as an electrician, If you double the voltage, you halve the current draw. Meaning it takes twice as long to charge at 110V. Typically also, the first part of the charging cycle is conditioning the batteries, before putting them under a full charge. I would sell my ex-wife to have another EV1. Just my two cents

 

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