Two Years With An Electric Car

In late September 2014, I took advantage of a tremendous tax credit offered by the State of Georgia at the time and signed a two-year lease of a blue, 2015 Nissan Leaf. In the couple of months prior to leasing the car, gas prices hovered around $3.50 per gallon, so it appeared that the tax credit and the likely gas savings would more than offset the lease cost and increased insurance. Free electric car!

Trusty electric steed

Of course, gas prices tanked shortly thereafter and haven’t recovered, so in the final analysis, we’ve had some cash out-of-pocket (boo-hoo). But no matter — we still had our gas-chugging Honda Odyssey (~20 mpg) and older Audi A6 Wagon (~25 mpg), so it was an easy mental shift to look at the overall case and figure we were nicely hedged against every gas price outcome. Cognitive dissonance resolved!

The Leaf is the undisputed workhorse of the electric car world. It’s smallish, but has a fairly roomy hatchback trunk. It’s not exactly fast, but step on the “gas” pedal (with ECO mode turned off) and it gives you a very pleasing, smooth zoom. It’s not fancy on the inside, but everything is comfortable and intuitive.

I had thought that I’d use the Leaf as my primary commuting vehicle. As it turned out, my wife fell in love with it and has been the primary driver, hauling all four of our kids (the oldest of which can ride in the front passenger seat) to the library, to sports, etc. She has loved driving it without thinking about the gas and emissions that result from motoring all over town in the way that we do here in suburban Utah.

The Leaf can make it about 90 miles at a charge. That said, in the Winter it was about 15% worse, leaving me barely getting from our home in Alpine, Utah, from the Salt Lake City Airport. Range anxiety is a real thing.

There are no atheists driving low-range electric cars

Like so many disruptive technologies, however, we found that about 95% of our transportation needs were easily and consistently met by the Leaf. With few exceptions, our average day’s errands and driving add up to far less than 90 miles.

So what of the remaining 5% of cases? As mentioned, we kept our cheaper, longer-range vehicles — the Honda Odyssey and the old Audi wagon — and turned to those when we needed to travel up to Idaho or to some far-off camping spot. For city dwellers, of course, keeping an extra car for the 5% is likely unrealistic, so renting a car for longer drives might be the best solution.

Things I don’t like about the Leaf

  • The Leaf has a persistent beep feature when it is placed in reverse. This is undoubtedly an appropriate safety feature, but it’s annoying, especially when making a late-night run to the grocery store and the neighborhood is quiet.
  • The range warnings get less helpful as you get closer to empty. At 15 miles you get a low-battery warning, then at around 10 miles the gauge will read “ -- -”. While it may be a very fair warning (“You’re on your own, buddy”), it’s singularly unpleasant — when already nervous about running out of battery — to look for information and get the equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Of course, this isn’t markedly less precise than the low-gas indicator, but the approach feels out-of-step with the precision that seems to exist (however misleading it may be) when the battery is closer to fully-charged.
  • On the base model Leaf, which I have, Bluetooth capabilities are limited to phone-only and make no sense. Ultimately I un-paired my phone and stopped using it entirely. I believe, without any evidence, that the inability to stream one’s audio (music, etc.) is an artificial limitation, which feeds into my negative view.
  • On a related note, plugging one’s phone into the USB port does allow for playing music through the car stereo, but the port provides a very weak charge. Traveling in cars is prime phone-charging time, so this oversight is really unforgivable.

Looking to the future

The Leaf is a bit like the fashion trend that finally arrives at Target — not turning heads necessarily, but at least fashion-aware, and ready for the masses.

The one point of true jealousy compared with the Tesla is range. I can live without fancy features like auto-pilot, but having 200 or even 150 miles instead of 90 would probably make the Leaf usable in 99% of cases instead of 95%.

And range — specifically, future range — is really the primary reason we aren’t buying the Leaf when our lease is up in a few weeks. If the next generation of mainstream (i.e. non-Tesla) electric cars will push 150, 200, or more miles in the next few years, then tying ourselves to a car with 90 or so miles seems unwise.

Autonomous vehicles will take over much of driving in the next 15 years, and this will no doubt change more lives than any other development in transportation since the advent of the car itself. But it makes me wonder if the electric car revolution will be underrated due to the comparison. In both cases, I think we will look back and marvel that we ever managed with the cars we drive today.

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