I Sing the Vehicle Electric
What I’ve Learned From Three Years of Driving Without Gasoline
Over the last half-decade, electric vehicles (“EVs” for short) have become an ever-increasing presence on American highways, but they’re still a curiosity in most places. I’ve driven an EV nearly every single day for the last three years, and over that time have had many conversations with people who want to know how it’s different from driving a “regular car”. What follows are some of my thoughts on the day-to-day experience of driving an EV and some of the things you might want to take into consideration if you’re thinking about getting one for yourself.
First, a little bit of background: I live in a suburb just north of Chicago with my wife and two small children. The driving I do consists largely of commuting to and from work, dropping off and picking up the kids for school and other activities, as well as miscellaneous errands (groceries, etc.) on the weekends.
Three years ago, when it was time to replace our aging Volkswagen Jetta with a new car, I knew I wanted a vehicle that was as safe, practical, and as fuel-efficient as possible and able to accommodate both the needs of our growing family as well the grind of the daily commute.
A LEAF on the Wind
My research soon led me to the Nissan LEAF, the most popular all-electric vehicle in the world with over 200,000 units shipped since its introduction in late 2010. By comparison, Tesla has shipped less than half that many vehicles over the same time period, though Nissan is clearly aiming for a different market; the LEAF is about a third of the price of Tesla’s Model S and gets less than half the driving range on a full battery. It also has nowhere near the amount of dashboard tech, though this arguably also makes it more approachable for people used to more “traditional” vehicles.
But what appealed to me most about the LEAF as someone new to EVs was the fact that it had already been around long enough and driven by enough people to establish a stellar safety and reliability record. By contrast, Tesla has struggled with reliability issues, and although they do a great job of taking care of them at no charge to their customers, I wasn’t in the market for a car that might end up being in the shop regularly, particularly given that one of the selling points of EVs is that they require less maintenance than conventional vehicles.
The LEAF is a basic, no-frills EV with just enough sci-fi trappings to remind you that you’re not driving a conventional vehicle. It’s big enough to handle two carseats with plenty of cargo space left over; perfect for someone looking for a car they can drive around town with the family.
I decided to lease my LEAF instead of buy, because the resale value for EVs that are more than a couple years old is often quite low. This is because battery technology is still changing so fast that newer and better vehicles are being introduced all the time, just like smartphones that become obsolete after only a few years. While I have no doubt that purchasing an EV will become a safer investment in the future, at this point leasing is probably still a better option for most people.
Going the Distance
The biggest surprise the first time you sit behind the wheel of an EV is how quickly the vehicle gets out of the gate. EVs have 100% torque, which means that all of the vehicle’s power is available to you the instant you press on the accelerator. Even the relatively low-powered LEAF is able to go from 0–30 faster than most other vehicles on the road, making it great for commuter traffic.
The LEAF and most other non-Tesla EVs advertise about 80–100 miles on a single charge, but in my experience, driving range is highly variable based on weather and driving patterns. Both very hot and very cold conditions reduce lithium-ion battery capacity and have an adverse effect on range. In Chicago, temperatures around zero Fahrenheit are not uncommon in the winter, and on those days, my range would be cut down to 45 miles or less. Fortunately, my round-trip commute is less than half that distance, and there was only one day when I had to stop at a charging station because I was worried that I didn’t have enough juice to get home.
This “range anxiety” is really only an issue for 100% EVs; plug-in hybrid vehicles like the Chevy Volt and other cars work in conjunction with a gas motor that helps drive the car and keep your battery charged when you’re not able to run in full electric mode.
If you live in an urban or suburban environment and have a garage or other place where you can plug in at night, keeping your EV charged is pretty straightforward. When we’re at home, the EV is kept parked in our garage alongside our other car, a Prius hybrid.
If you don’t have a garage where you can plug in at night, access to a second vehicle for long-distance travel, or you live in a rural area, an EV is probably not going to be a practical option, at least not until charging stations become more widespread and/or battery technology improves significantly.
For the first year that I drove my LEAF, I plugged it into a regular 110-volt household outlet in my garage using the adapter that came with the car. This generally worked fine, but if I had been doing a lot of driving that day, it could sometimes take more than 12 hours to fully recharge.
When we moved into a new house, I had an electrician run a 220-volt line out to the garage terminating in a NEMA 14–50 outlet (the same kind used by an electric stove), which plugged into a residential charging station that I purchased from ClipperCreek. The result was that my charging time was cut down to a couple of hours.
Where I live, there are also free charging stations in many parking lots and garages, and plugging in at your destination is a great and easy way to “top off” for the ride home. In addition to the database in your car’s navigation system, mobile apps like PlugShare make it very easy to find nearby charging stations.
After the lease on my LEAF expired last year, I decided to replace it with a BMW i3. If the LEAF looks like the car of the future as envisioned in the 1990s, the i3 looks like a car that fell out of a wormhole from an alternate future timeline. From its carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer body construction to its baffling rear coach doors to a wood-grain dashboard with floating LCD panels that looks like it was inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation, the i3 looks and feels like a concept car that somehow made it into mass production without the usual compromises to mainstream sensibilities.
The i3 not only looks different from every other vehicle on the road, it drives differently too. It’s several hundred pounds lighter than the LEAF, has incredibly tight handling, and very heavy regenerative breaking, which means the car slows down rapidly when you take your food off the accelerator. The overall driving experience is like being behind the wheel of a German-engineered luxury go-kart. The one caveat is that when driving with small children, you need to be careful not to provoke motion sickness.
The i3 is also available with an optional Range Extender (REX), a gasoline-powered generator with a two-gallon tank that extends your driving range by up to 50 miles or so when your battery gets low, thus mitigating any range anxiety. The REX is clearly intended to be a backup option and not something for day-to-day driving; when it kicks in, it’s noisy, it vibrates, and your car switches over to the most efficient economy mode, with a reduced maximum speed and reduced climate control.
The next few years are going to be exciting ones in the EV market. The Chevy Bolt and Tesla’s Model 3, coming out in late 2016 and 2017 respectively, both promise 200 miles of driving range on a single charge with a price tag of around $35,000 each. In the meantime, many automakers are releasing plug-in hybrid and all-electric versions of some of their most popular models. On top of that, almost every major automaker is working on some version of an autonomous (or “self-driving”) electric car, as are Silicon Valley tech giants like Google, Apple, and Uber.
Because EVs are much simpler than conventional combustion engine vehicles, they’re less expensive to operate and require less maintenance. While gasoline-powered vehicles are still cheaper to produce, that won’t be true forever, and as battery technology improves and charging stations pop up in more and more places, it seems inevitable that electric vehicles will be everywhere within the next decade or so.
But if what you’re looking for is a car that you can drive around town with the kids, you don’t need to wait; today’s EVs are just as safe and reliable as anything else on the road.
And besides, they’re a lot more fun to drive!