Thursday, November 25, 2010

You Don't Know EVs

Mass market electric vehicles (EVs) are coming soon to a dealership near you*. The Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt are both scheduled to begin delivery in early 2011. These vehicles are very different from the gasoline powered cars that most of us are used to driving. EVs are new to the mass market and people are asking questions. These questions, however, often come from their gasoline driving experience. For example, when I am showing my EV to the public the typical questions are:

  • How far can it go on a charge?
  • How long does it take to recharge from empty?
  • How fast is it? (top speed & 0-60MPH)
These seem like important things to know about a car, and they are; however, most people are asking them without really understanding the question. I'll explain. If you are willing to take a step back, and look at personal transportation from a fresh perspective, EVs are a whole new opportunity.

"How far can it go on a charge?"
When people ask this, what they often really want to know is, "Will this go far enough for my needs?". Most people don't know how far they drive on a typical day. The numbers that most people know are: one, how many miles they get on a tank in their current vehicle and, two, how far it is for that long annual trip they take. Neither of these numbers apply to a commuter EV, yet the EV range value will be compared to them. When they hear that an EV can travel 100 miles or 120 miles, this is compared to the 300 plus miles that they get per tank or the 580 miles to grandma's they drive every other year. This makes the 100 mile EV range sound far too small and EVs are dismissed as unusable or "not yet ready". They don't realize that 80% of people drive less than 40 miles per day.

Less than 40 miles per day for most people means that a 100 mile range is more than 2.5 times the distance that most people need on most days. And unlike a gas car, EVs can be conveniently charged overnight in your own garage and start out each day fully topped up.

Viewed another way, how often are you filling up that gas tank? If a tank carries you 350 miles, and you are filling it up once per week, that is an average of 50 miles per day; well within the capabilities of modern EVs.

If you want to quickly map your driving, try the Nissan 100 mile drive test. Plug in your own locations for a busy day. Try home to work, to the gym, errands, dinner, and back home. Or try home, school, shopping, pick up kids, soccer, dance, then back home. Can you do these with miles to spare? For most people the answer is 'Yes'. This means an EV can fit most people's lifestyle well. If your answer was 'No', read on, option #5 below might work for you.

What to do about that annual long trip? There are several options.
  1. Keep a gas 2nd car around. Use your EV whenever you can and the gas car when the EV won't work. See Hybrid Driving without a hybrid car. If you drive the gasser less than 5k miles per year, you may be able to put it on recreational insurance rates.
  2. Borrow a gasser. Swap cars with a friend for a week. They get to try out an EV and you can take your trip.
  3. Rent a car. The annual savings you get from not buying gas will allow you to rent a nice vehicle for an extended period of time and still come out ahead.
  4. Ride Share. Programs such as Zip Car have been expanding. If there is one in your area, this can complement EV ownership well. Just log-on, find a car parked near you, reserve it with a click and it is yours when you need it.
  5. Buy a PHEV: Rather than buying a pure EV, buy a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, the 2012 Prius PHEV, or the Fisker Karma. You don't get all the benefits of a pure EV, but you can utilize a gas station when needed.
The new perspective on range is how far per day, not how far between fill ups. On to the next question.

How long does it take to recharge from empty?
No one wants to be stuck for hours waiting for their car to charge before they can go someplace. Vehicles represent our freedom. When you drive an EV, you can be less restricted, not more.

Going to the gas station is inconvenient, so we tend to put it off until it cannot be avoided. Therefore a gas car is usually being filled up from empty. Don't assume the same with an EV, in fact, the opposite is usually true. For an EV, the charging station is right there, in your garage, the one that you are already driving to when you go home. It is not a side trip that you have to make to fill up. This means that you can plug in each day, even if you only drove a few miles.

Until you stop going to gas stations, you may not realize what an inconvenience they really are. Compare this to your cell phone. You plug in your phone overnight and it is fully charged, ready for all your needs the next day. That is convenient. By contrast, what if you were not allowed to plug in your phone? Instead, you had to take it to a "phone station" each week for a "fill up". This would be intolerable, yet it is OK for our cars because most people don't know of any other way.

Continuing with the cell phone analogy, do you know how long it takes your cell phone to charge up? Probably not, it depends on how much you have used it that day, and most likely you don't really care because an overnight charge is more than enough. The only time you pay attention is the few seconds it takes to drop the phone into the cradle and then to grab it the next morning.

It is the same with an EV, your attended time is just the few seconds to plug it in each evening and unplug it each morning. The charge duration is completed while you sleep. Most days the battery pack is more than half full at the end of the day, so charging to full has a head start. Public charging infrastructure is nice to have, but it is not required for EVs to be usable.

The new perspective for charge time is not how long does it take, but how much of my time does it take. EVs take far less of your time.

What if I am stranded with a drained battery, how long will that take?
Modern EVs such as the LEAF will show you on the nav system how far you can go. If your destination is not within the circle, you cannot get there without stopping to charge. When you do stop to charge, no one said that you must charge up all the way. If you are plugged into a standard 120V outlet this will give you about 7 miles of addition range per hour. A Level 2 outlet that you'll find at EV charging stations will give about 16 miles of additional range each hour you are plugged in. So a stop for lunch or dinner can give you the extra miles you need to get home or your stop for the night.

Tom Saxton is a Seattle area Tesla Roadster owner. He has blogged about driving his roadster down Highway 101. He stayed at the coast, charged overnight, drove into Portland to meet up with NEDRA, raced his Roadster, charged between races, and then headed back home. He was able to make the entire trip without ever waiting for the car to charge. Charging was always something that he could do in the background while he was sleeping or waiting for his next turn on the line. Granted the Roadster is out of most people's price range, but you can do the same thing in a LEAF on a smaller scale.

The new perspective on charge time is the charging rate in miles per hour, not hours till full.

How fast is it? (top speed & 0-60MPH)
I think most people that ask this question are wondering "Is this a golf cart or a real car?". There have been many low speed EVs and glorified golf carts that have been pitched as the solution to transportation. Skepticism here is well deserved. Low speed EVs have niches that they can serve very well such as retirement communities or commutes that can be done exclusively on residential roadways. However, when they are sold outside of these niches they fail to meet the needs and give all EVs a bad name.

Perhaps in part because of the "golf cart" experience, many people assume there are things that an electric motor is just not suited to do. In fact, other than burn gas directly, electric motors can do everything and more that internal combustion engines are used for today. Such as, the little white car shown in the picture to the right. It is an electric car that can run the quarter mile in 10.4 seconds. That is supercar territory. And it was done as a DIY project with a Datsun and two forklift motors.

What about big loads? Surely electric motors cannot handle hauling. Think again. Diesel-electric trains have moved big loads for years. The diesel is only used to generate electricity. It is the electric motors that do all the work of moving the load. The same is true for many types of giant hauler trucks like the one shown to the right. Large mining machines, NASA's huge Crawler-Transporters, some submarines and ships also use electric motors.

Assuming all electric motors are weak based on riding in a golf cart is like seeing a moped and assuming that a Dodge Viper is not possible.

Performance, hauling, & range are all possible if you are willing to pay for them. In the '90s, Ford and Chevy both made electric trucks. Ford, NaviStar and others have new generations of EV trucks planned.

The new perspective: EVs can be whatever we design them to be.

To truly understand if an EV would work for you, it should be compared to your needs, rather than to the gasoline car that you drive today. This means that you have to understand your current driving habits. How far do you drive in a day? Try resetting your trip meter each morning this week to see. How many hours does your car sit parked each day? If an EV was plugged in for just those hours, would it get enough range for your current driving needs?

EVs are a new tool for your transportation needs. They do not work in all cases, but they can work for many people and coupled with a 2nd car or a range extender, a large percentage of your driving can move off of gasoline.

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