Will Electric Cars Work For The Everyday Driver?

October 10, 2010

Andrea Kissack

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First of a three-part series

I have never been into cars. I don't know an oil filter from an air filter. But my 15-year-old Honda is on its last legs, and recently I've been curious about alternative fuels.

The first mass-produced electric vehicles ever sold in the United States will begin to hit showrooms by the end of this year. The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt already have tens of thousands of pre-orders.

Until now, electric cars had been the domain of small groups of tech hobbyists and hard-core environmentalists. With electric cars around the corner, my dream of green motoring suddenly seems possible. But how feasible are they for everyday drivers?

Driving A Leaf

I wanted to find out. So, I spent some time behind the wheel of a shiny new, powder blue, all-electric Nissan Leaf -- an aerodynamic four-door hatchback with a range of 100 miles.

Paul Hawson, a spokesman for Nissan, joins me for a test drive outside the San Francisco Giants ballpark.

"You are going to want to turn on the car by stepping on the brake," Hawson says.

I'm surprised by how roomy it is inside. I'm almost 5-foot-10, and I often find that I'm not comfortable in small cars.

As Hawson launches into car salesmen speak, I search for the brake.

"This is the brake -- the big one -- and this is the gas pedal? Oh, you don't call it a gas pedal?" I ask Hawson.

"It's an accelerator pedal," he says with a laugh.

A Digital Dashboard

The dashboard overwhelms me with a confusing array of digital displays. There's some kind of interactive bar graph that I think is supposed to tell me when I'm about to run out of juice. And there's a satellite map of charging stations I can use -- not very many of them at this point.

After several attempts, I finally manage to start the car, and much like hybrids, I can't really hear anything.

As we drive up over the Bay Bridge toward Berkeley, I notice a blind spot because of the small back window. Otherwise, I find my excitement building as the car zooms along.

Fast Car, Limited Range

It goes fast -- and without realizing it, I'm already going 72 miles per hour. The top speed is 90 mph, Hawson says.

I could get a ticket in this car.

It's a wild feeling driving without a tailpipe. But there's a downside -- instead of a gas tank, which might run an average of 300 miles, there's a big lithium-ion battery pack that sits under the car. One charge only lasts for about 100 miles. I need to figure out how to get around with this kind of limited range.

"You probably need to have a second car that, you know, is a backup that you can utilize," says Karl Brauer, an editor at Edmunds.com.

What, I need to buy two cars? Isn't there something else I can do?

"What people need to do is get better about planning," Brauer says, "and not assume they can just go out and run four different errands, coming back and forth each time."

I'm also going to have to think about how I use my radio, heater and wipers because they can all run a battery down pretty quickly.

Expanded Range With A Plug-In Hybrid

And that's where the competition thinks it has an advantage. GM's new mid-sized Chevy Volt is a new type of hybrid -- a plug-in hybrid. It will go 40 miles on pure battery power, but when that juice runs out, it can go another 300 miles on gas power.

GM couldn't make a Volt available for me to test-drive, but at a little more than $33,000 after federal tax credits, the car is probably just too expensive for me.

"I don't believe the Volt is so expensive," says GM spokesman Shad Balch. "I mean, it's an electric car that can be your only car. So, the value that you get out of this car is a pretty good deal."

But Nissan's all-electric Leaf is just $20,000 in California after state and federal tax credits. That's more affordable and would get me one of California's coveted carpool stickers for low-emission vehicles.

But one thing still haunts me: That fancy satellite map on the Nissan Leaf dashboard showed less than a handful of charging stations out there.

I don't want to run out of juice and be stranded by the side of the road. Even driving solo in the diamond HOV lane isn't worth that.

In part two of the series, Andrea Kissack goes in search of a charge. Copyright 2010 KQED Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.