As a true-blue petrolhead, you might assume it would be hard for me to get excited about an electric car. Surprisingly though – that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Without getting into any policy \ political \ or other debates here, let’s work from the assumption oil is a finite resource. Like anything that runs out – it’s eventually going to get much more expensive before it finally runs out. That might happen in 10 years, or it might happen in 30, but it will happen eventually.
And that brings us to the crux of the problem for a petrolhead like me – if we run low\out of oil, what happens to the cars we love? Hot rods, muscle cars, exotics and the rest – the cars that as a kid I built models of, hung posters of, and later split knuckles working on – they’ll be memories in museums or toys only the super-rich can afford.
Personally – I welcome the age of super high efficiency and electric vehicles. I think the sooner we can convert most of the worldwide commodity vehicles (day to day \ point a to point b transportation, buses, transit vans, etc), the longer we get to enjoy gasoline-based cars. When the commoddity vehicles have shifted to super high efficiency and electrics, manufacturers will still be able to make specialty vehicles like the Mazda RX8, Nissan 370z, Ford Mustang, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis that still burn gasoline – because they are a small percentage of overall vehicle sales compared to commodity vehicles like the Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, and Toyota Corolla. And we’ll get to keep enjoying our gas-burning street rods, muscle cars, and their brethren for generations to come.
Honda and Toyota got things kicked off with their Insight and Prius hybrids, but Tesla pushed the envelope much further with it’s all electric Roadster. Tesla’s technology inspired GM to build the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, revealed in September of 2008. While Nissan unveiled their first electric vehicle back in 1997, only 200 examples were ever built, and they were leased exclusively to fleet customers. In August of 2009 things changed – Nissan unveiled the Leaf: An all-electric, zero-emissions, 5 passenger vehicle – with 100mph top speed and 100 mile range. Nissan began taking reservations back in April of 2010, and in December delivered their first cars to US customers in California. Nissan will add more dealers throughout the US as inventory becomes available, and dealers can get outfitted to sell and service an electric car.
After appearing in the 2011 Twin Cities Autoshow, the Nissan Leaf was lent to us for a day to show potential customers and I jumped at the chance to spend some time with the car up close. My first impression was – this looks like a normal car, if a little futuristic. The headlight clusters are long strips – slightly elevated above the hood. The rear lights are also long strips, which give the car a really unique look from behind:
The interior looks pretty normal too – the only giveaway that something is different is that your feet are a little bit higher on the floor than normal by a couple of inches – due to the battery pack underneath. From the driver’s seat you start to get a feeling you’re driving something different, but Nissan has gone a long way to make the transition from a gasoline-based car to an electric one easy. From the charge status resembling a traditional fuel gauge, to the battery temp sensor, it’s pretty easy to understand what’s going on.
In this picture you can see the battery temp on the left, battery charge status on the right, time to full charge in the center, and the circles at the top are a gauge showing either how much power you are pulling from the batteries when accelerating or cruising, or how much power you are putting back in when using the regenerative braking system.
To augment the information in the cluster, Nissan has added an entire section to the touch-screen satnav system, accessible by pressing the “zero emission” button in the lower right corner. Available options include location nearby charging stations, detailed battery status, energy use details – like how much power the aircon system is using, and a handy GPS-based range system which takes a map and overlays your current range:
Under the hood, things are pretty straightforward – I’d be willing to bet 30-50% of drivers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between this and a normal gasoline powered car. There is still a normal 12v battery to power things like interior lights and hazard lights independent of the lithium batteries. You’ve still got power steering fluid, brake fluid and washer fluid, as well as aircon lines, and various hoses.
To start the car you still go through a normal starting procedure – with a key and push button start. “Starting” the car initializes the car’s computer, electronic power-steering assist, power-brake assist, etc. Once you disengage the electronic parking brake, you shift into drive, and start off. The accelerator pedal feels normal – the same weight and same resistance as a normal car. Power response is noticeably different – unlike a gasoline engine – an electric motor has nearly full power from 0 rpms, so the car has a ton of torque available right away. (The motor is rated at 110hp and 210lb-ft of torque.) This combination of high torque at low rpms gives engineers a lot of trouble when it comes to pairing an electric motor with a multi-speed transmission, so the Leaf has just one forward gear. (Tesla tried three different manufacturers before opting for a single-speed unit for their Roadster as well.) This limits the Leaf’s speed to 90mph, but does away with shift lag, giving instantaneous response to accelerator inputs.
In front of the hood there is another flip-top lid with two charging receptacles. On the left is the optional quick charge power plug, with the 240v home charger / 120v trickle charger receptacle on the right. Charging time from zero to full at 240 volts will take roughly 8 hours. The port on the right uses the car’s built in 3.3 kW charger, while the port on the left uses an external 50kW charger that will be installed at Nissan dealerships and charging stations. This quick-charger can bring the car up to 80% charge in under 30 minutes. When the car is plugged in the dash has three blinking lights that indicate charge status (like a cell phone), and additional charge information is available on the dash:
In addition to the physical differences in electric cars, we have a new window sticker:
These new stickers try to put things in comparable terms to fuel. At the bottom you’ll notice it says these costs are based on driving 15,000 miles per year, with electricity costs of 11c per kW hr. When you fill your car up, it’s dollars per gallon, and your gas mileage is miles per gallon. When you recharge your car, you’re billed by the kilowatt hour (kW hr), and efficiency is measured in miles per kilowatt hour. A car that gets 30mpg will take $1,750 in fuel at $3.50 per gallon to drive for 15,000 miles in one year (15,000mi \ 30mpg = 500gal * $3.50 = $1,750). This Leaf will cost $561 in electricity to go the same distance : 15,000 miles x .34 kWh per mile = 5,100 kWh * $0.11/kWh = $561. The MPG comparison is a little more tricky, but they’ve calculated that 1 gallon of gasoline equals 33.7 kWh of energy.
This is the real promise of electric cars – batteries are simply storage. If the original energy production method is clean and cost efficient – solar, wind, nuclear, etc – that makes our cars infinitely more efficient and clean to operate than a gas-powered car. In 2007 there were about 800 million cars and light trucks on the road worldwide, consuming about 260 Billion gallons of gasoline – an average of 325 gallons each. If we replaced half of the cars on the road with electrics, we could reduce our oil consumption by 6 Billion barrels per year, or about 20%. (1 Barrel of oil = 42gal, with 30-60% of that becoming gasoline, depending on the refinery and where the oil came from.)
Once you get past the whole gas vs electric thing – it’s a lot more like driving the cars you’re used to than you might expect. It goes from point a to point b, with room for four to five people, a pretty decent trunk, and the normal range of creature comforts. As technology progresses, we should start seeing charging stations popping up in cities nationwide – you’ll be able to plug your car in while you’re in the office, or grab lunch, so even if you drive farther than the car’s 80-100 mile range on a regular basis you’ll be able to recharge on the go. I have no doubt that as electric cars become more common the tuners will adopt them as well – figuring out how to make them go faster and farther. I’ll always prefer working on and listening to the glorious sounds of carbureted engines running through their rev range, but I’ll welcome any technology that will help those cars stick around longer.