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Electric car enthusiasts get charged up at Plug In Day

By Barbara Kessler Green Right Now Say what you will about the high costs and short ranges of electric vehicles , a good many people who’ve had the privilege of...

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Say what you will about the high costs and short ranges of electric vehicles , a good many people who’ve had the privilege of driving or owning one are awestruck in love with them.

We caught up with members of the unofficial EV admiration society  at a Plug In Day celebration in Frisco, Texas on Sunday. The event, one of dozens around the country, showcased commercially available EVs like the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, as well as cars still tiptoeing into production, such as the elegant Karma by Fisker, the popular Prius Plug-In Hybrid (available in selected states) and the petite Mitsubishi MiEV.

Fisker's Karma dazzled. (Photo: GRN)

Families, singles, young hipsters — potential and aspiring buyers — stroked leather interiors, snapped pictures and praised the handsome lines and finishes of their pet vehicles. Charging network reps from Blink and eVgo reviewed the differences between standard Level Two  and Direct Current Fast Charging.  A salesman from Toyota of Plano explained how regenerative breaking can recharge a battery while the car’s in use, and several EV owners shared their experiences, including one fellow who sneaked up in his Tesla Roadster and started giving people mini joy rides.

The Tesla created the usual whiplash among onlookers. But the public literally parted for the gleaming,  sleek and stratospherically expensive Fisker Karma, car of choice for eco-star Leonardo DiCaprio. People stepped respectfully around this monument to auto design, currently available to select buyers and slated for potential production at a refurbished plant in Delaware. The price? If you need to ask, then never mind. If not, you can arrange to purchase this car from Sewell Fisker in Plano.

The Fisker and the Tesla sports cars may be mainly for the wealthy and lottery winners, but they do help burst some myths about the electric cars. A key lesson: They’re not slow. The Fisker boasts 402 hp and zips from 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds. The Tesla Roadster does even better, accelerating from 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds.

Myth 1: EVs are pokey

Checking out a Leaf at Plug In America event.

That’s not news to Ron Swanson,  president of the North Texas Electric Auto Association (NTEAA).  His group, formed in the 1970s (remember the oil crisis?) by aficionados who made their own electric cars, has been cherishing the idea of electric mobility for decades. Members have swelled and waned with the price of gas, but they know a few things about EVs, mainly that they’re fast, quiet and use no gas.

“Right now the general public doesn’t understand them,” says Swanson, a retired engineer. “They think they’re glorified golf carts. ”

Leaving aside the Roadster and the Karma, the average car shopper who tries out a sporty Volt or even the Nissan Leaf, a family sedan, will be pleasantly surprised to learn that accelerating is not an issue. The Volt claims a respectable 8.5 seconds in a 0-60 test, and the Leaf won’t slow you down on highway ramps either, getting to 60 mph in 9 seconds, according to numerous chat threads.

“These are all really fast cars. They go really fast on acceleration. They’re great vehicles to drive and there’s plenty of room inside them,” Swanson says, sweeping a hand toward his own Leaf, parked at the Plug In event outside the Frisco Square Cinemark, where the owners have installed four Blink EV chargers for theater goers.

Another thing the public isn’t grasping, Swanson says, is the fuel savings, which helps offset the higher upfront costs of an EV.

Myth 2: EVs are too expensive

Since he bought a Leaf in the summer of 2011, Swanson’s been keeping meticulous records of  his electric costs to charge the car, which he plugs in at home every night. The low electricity costs are saving him more than $150 a month compared to what he used to pay for gas driving his Ford 150 pickup.

That savings can be applied to his car payment, he says.

By his calculations, Swanson will quickly recoup the higher cost of his Leaf, which retails for about $35,500, but comes in at $28,000 with the federal rebate.

At that price, the Leaf compares favorably to the comparably sized Toyota Camry (retail $22,000 to $30,000) and other gasoline engine sedans with similar finish out.

It’s not only competitive, it even saves its owner money, because its electricity fueling costs are less than one-third the cost of gassing up the Camry.

For example, the EPA estimates the Camry will consume $3.43 in fuel for 25 miles, whereas the Leaf will cost $1.02  for every 25 miles driven. Using those figures, a driver going 10,000 miles in a year, would spend $1372 annually on gasoline for the Camry or $408 on electricity for the Leaf.

Take away the federal rebate and the cost analysis shifts in favor of the Camry, with the Leaf purchaser needing about seven years to recoup the electric price differential, based on gasoline savings.

EV advocates argue the return on investment would happen sooner, because EVs also cost less to maintain, requiring no oil changes. But this debate could be a wash. EV owners have one significant additional expense; they need a home car charger, which can cost $700 up to $5000 for a super powerful charger.

Raw costs comparisons, of course, don’t take into account the electric car’s zero emissions, or the role that EVs play in reducing oil dependency, both public services that many people value.

Myth 3: EVs cannot go the distance

Perhaps the biggest cloud over the EV landscape is the lingering question about how a person can get from A to B if the miles exceed your car’s range.  The answer to that question: You may not be able to go there, has not assuaged those with “range anxiety”.

Volt and Leafs lined up at Plug In Day

The Volt  (retail $39, 145) jumped this hurdle by including a small gasoline motor that kicks in when the battery poops out, but that adds to the cost of operation if one drives more than the Volt’s battery endows, or more than 35 miles. You’ll get to grandma’s in the next city, but you’ll be using gasoline.

Tesla has a better solution, a battery that will sustain a nice cruise on Highway 1, round trip 200 miles. But who can afford a Tesla?

That leaves the Leaf. You’re supposed to get 100 miles of battery power in a Leaf, but reviewers have reported that can drop to around 80 miles or lower if you’re driving in hilly areas.

As technology improves, we may see robust Tesla-like batteries in more affordable cars. But for Swanson, he says the Leaf works just fine for routine daily driving. He rarely drives more than 80 miles in a given day, so the Leaf ably delivers him home before it needs a recharge.

His solution for longer trips, rent a car.

Myth 4: EVs are not the way of the future

Another lingering debate over EVs is more fundamental.

Some people don’t think we need them, and they’re not happy that the federal government is bolstering  their development with a federal rebate that absorbs some of the sticker shock for early adopters.

Recent news reports have questioned whether the consumer demand for EVs is strong enough to justify their government support, and noting that GM has been deeply discounting the car to increase sales.

Dave Aasheim, Texas area manager for the ECOtality North America, the makers of the Blink charging network , says the tax supports for EV cars are not designed to last forever. (The rebate for most EVs was set at $7,500 in 2010, and is expected to be phased out at a yet unannounced date, just as rebates for hybrids like the Prius expired when they hit certain sales benchmarks.)

But right now, incentives for customers, as well as public/private partnerships that nurture the technology, are critical to launching an industry, he said.

The eVgo network demonstrates its charger at Plug In Day.

“It’s needed to help it get started as in any other industry that’s gotten started. The space program would not be available without tax dollars,” he said. “I tell people all the time that back in the 40s the highway system was criticized because it was tax-funded and only available to rich people.”

Like Swanson, Aasheim also believes that much of the criticism he hears about electric cars is related to the nascent nature of the industry and coming from people who are unfamiliar with their benefits.

With only a couple mass market EVs available to consumers, the electric vehicle market is just warming up, he said. Within two years, there are expected to be more than 20 car models of EVs or variations of EVs on the market. By then, people will better understand the benefits they offer, Aasheim said.

And they will  see that technological improvements and economies of scale will bring EVs into the mainstream, he said, likening the trajectory of EVs to the development of mobile phones.

“We’re at the point when you had a beeper.”

 

  • (To see all the types of electric vehicles already for sale in the U.S., from delivery vehicles to motorcycles, see Plug In America’s list.)

Copyright © 2012 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network


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