9 months owning an electric car (not a Tesla)

Living with one car, we tried.

Background

In March this year, I bought (3-year lease) a Nissan Leaf, and it changed my view of driving forever.

My family and I had tried for a long time to be a one car family, using buses, taxis, cycling to get us around. When it’s pouring down with rain, you have a tired three-year-old toddler, and a buggy bound one-year-old travelling on two packed connected buses at 5 pm rush hour gets tiring and becomes a daily stress. What was a ninety-minute multi-mode commute several times a week (a five-mile journey) that we could get to a well-timed ten to fifteen-minute drive. Firstly, we tried taxi’s which though removed the stressful part out it was costly and resulted in only being fifteen percentage cheaper than what would be the second car.

Finding a car

After deciding to move to two cars, it was car shopping time, from fiat 500 to Audio Q3, we review many vehicles. Our main criteria for a second car was simple, we wanted to get us around town, on most days going no more than a 10-mile trip and can comfortability fit a family within. After reviewing several cars, we ended up pretty set on an Audio A3 with a one ltr turbo (I know 1lr, engines are crazy nowadays), it was ok to drive, car seats would fit in the back. We test drove an A3 for the weekend to try it out, and it was great, but I wasn’t 100% sold.

The previous week my wife had tried the all-electric Renault Zoey and was more excited by that then any Audi. The Zoey was small, leg space and overall frame just didn’t work, then to BMW and the i3, again exciting but not great for little kids in the back. And then there was the Nissan Leaf, I was not convinced, but under jurist, we went to look, it was the nicest of the bunch but not perfect (on the showroom floor), the seat didn’t go that far back that felt comfortable. I booked a test drive.

Falling in love with electric

Begrudgingly (I hate driving) attending the test drive, we move out of the showroom forecourt nearly knocking down two pedestrians on their phones (the car is near silent), the sales guy drives us to a safe place to switch while explaining all the features. I get in and my view of driving changes entirely, firstly no gears, I understand this is not new to any American readers but not having to worry about gear change or like in the Audi not having a dashboard nagging you to change from 3-4 or back from 5-4 every minute, was lovely. I started to improve how I drove even during the test ride looking further into the distance watching things around me rather than focusing on my immediate area.

The Nissan Leaf

Then comes regenerative braking, this is where, when you take your foot of the power the car slows with minor braking (no brake lights to freak over other drivers) which in turn passes small amounts of charge back to the battery giving you more miles. In this mode of driving, I found myself looking ahead towards roundabouts or junctions and slowing down small quantities to then accelerate out without the stop and go you get in a petrol car; I flowed around the roads.

Between 10 mph and 40mph, the Leaf has a kick to it. It’s ability to nip and weave through the streets coupled with not worrying about gears, or aggressive breaking made driving enjoyable.

Reference: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2011_Nissan_Leaf_SL_--_NHTSA.jpg

Charging

The most frequent question I get from people is how far can you travel before a charge and how long does that take. The range of the 30kw Leaf with a new battery claims (the battery will decay over the years, Nissan guarantee 80% battery level for 5 years) a range of 144miles, this is bullshit unless your in eco mode (restricted your acceleration speed) with no a/c and driving under 30 mph everywhere. If you’re going along at 70 mph on the motorway with the AC pumping, then expect a 70–80 mile range. But that is still enough to get you from Bournemouth to Southampton and back without a charge. If needed you can increase your miles during your route by, drop off AC, turn on ECO, driving slower and keeping regenerative braking enabled.

These tweaks gain you an extra 5–10 miles. The next question is how do you charge, what does it cost and how long does it take. We added a charge point at home; costs wise it is much cheaper than petrol about 25% the price, a full charge from 0% would take about 5 hours though we rarely let it go below 40%. We are trying to move over to a variable tariff of electricity so we can schedule charging overnight at a reduced rate when power is cheaper.

If you are going to make more extended journeys it is best to remove some misconceptions, a lot of people think the charging points you see on the road or in car parks are free. Most are not, charging you between £4–6 for a 30-minute charge, which on a supercharge connection will get you top 80% of your battery topped up. Some shops like Ikea will pay for your car charging if you spend so much in store plus no paying for parking.
 
The problem with the charging networks is they are a pain in the arse to use, there are a lot of them which is excellent, but they are not well signposted in car parks, you can’t guarantee what power connectors they will have or that will be available. This results in having different cables in your car to connect as you never know the type you will need.

The number of charging bays is limited at locations, customarily 1–2 bays and once charged people use them as parking spaces so you can’t charge. Equally, I get it; you don’t want to go shopping and have to move your car after a 30 minute charge. With the growth in charging bays, this will get resolved, but it can be annoying, though for us this has not been a significant issue as we have only used a charging bay five times this year.

Pedestrians

I nearly hit about two per week, the Leaf is almost silent, there is an option (That is on by default when you start the car) which plays a faint sound up to around 19 mph but it isn’t impactful enough to notice, and most people aren’t listening for it. We opted for the mid-range Leaf which came with a reversing camera but no reversing sensors which admits a beeping sound, equally beneficial to you as the driver and people walking by.

As a society, we will hit a transition point as more cars become silent and people learn to be aware of this, but for now, electric drivers need to be more vigilant.

Software

All modern cars have telematics systems, and the Leaf is no exception, you can access all the expected data such as driving efficiency, miles remaining, time to charge etc. One nice feature which you usually get in much higher end cars or as an addition is remote access, allowing you to turn on and off heating, charging and getting alerted when the car charge is complete.

I have been working on adding an Amazon Alexa Skill “Alexa, what is the charge on the car” as well as linking the car to weather data so if the temperate dropped below 1c by 4 am then at 7:30 am start the heater so defrosting can begin.

Unfortunately, car company software is pretty shit, I should have know when even the sale guy said “the car has all this great functionality and you can remote charge and turn on A/C etc. but the telematics system powers it, so it doesn’t work all the time). Upon trying to finally set up the app, entering my details and the VIN etc. Greeted with a lovely “error code: 3” message, googling around and a call to customer services to resolve.

Tesla

Being a techie, I was always interested in Telsa from the Elon Musk point of view, but then I had the luxury of being a passenger of one. Bournemouth has a taxi company called drivve.me that uses only Tesla cars and what is crazy is the customer price is within 5% the costs of a regular taxi on a airport trip. Every time I would take a trip in a Tesla I would fall deeper in love. I then got to see ludicrous mode in action 0–60 in 3 seconds, amazing but at 3–5 times the price of a Leaf, not something on my radar to purchase.

Tesla then announces the model 3, foolishly not putting down a £1,000 deposit I will have to wait a long time for one. Having driven the Leaf for nearly ten months, I understand why the inside of the Tesla model 3 is so minimal, in the short term it focuses the driver on the road and what is around them. In the long run, it gets them use to the fact the car will drive itself, and the removal of buttons all over the driving and central console is a smart way to build the confidence of autonomous vehicles slowly.


Where to now

Due to Elon and Tesla’s bold moves, most of the other car manufacturers are following suit, coupled with government rulings banning petrol and diesel cars by 2040; electric transportation is our future.

I am a believer that cars will be driving themselves, by 2050 driving owning a vehicle will be like riding a horse, but 30 years is a long time and who can become the Google or Apple of transportation is up for grabs.

Over the next 5–10 years, the focus has to be on charging networks; it worked for supermarkets with petrol stations so why not car companies. Tesla superchargers are popping up across the globe, but they are smartly adding 5–10 bays in each location ensuring availability. The charging points look great, the software is clean, and if your not a Tesla driver you’re going to want to use them and every time you do the experience will make you think to yourself, their cars must be amazing, I want one.

Petrol stations will go, car parking spaces near street lights will gain power chargers, there will be no issue of waiting for a space to charge and longer term the car will just drive itself away to charge when not in use.

BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and Ford have joined forces to build a pan-European charging network and last month Shell bought NewMotion, so the tide is changing.

Currently, our primary vehicle is petrol, and with it cranking up to 90,000 miles it will be our last petrol car. We will ride it out for a few more years until a reasonably affordable family SUV joins the market (sorry Tesla model X I would love you but £90k) and we will become an all-electric family.