Even though there is only one electric vehicle on the Round Rock Nissan lot, there is a charging station prominently situated in front of the showroom. At the end of the cable emerging from the charging station is a plug that looks like one of those little pistol shaped hair dryers. The “hair dryer” is plugged into a port on the front of the Leaf, Nissan’s new all-electric car. Jerry Crider, one of only two salesmen at this dealership certified to sell the Leaf, unplugs the charger and opens the hood. There is the electric motor, clean as a whistle. The car doesn’t use any oil, so there is nothing to get it greasy. The lithium ion batteries that make the car go are underneath the body, protected from the road by a steel plate.
We get in and I punch a button to start the car. A gauge on the dash indicates that I have 99 miles to go on the current charge. The GPS screen helpfully informs me that the nearest public charging station is at the Nissan dealership. As we back silently out of the parking space the GPS screen changes to a back-up camera, and then we’re off to IH 35. The interior is roomy and can seat five people. The steering wheel, pedals, and turn signal are just like any other automobile so it is easy to drive. On the highway we accelerate easily to 74 miles per hour, and could go a lot faster if it were legal. “Charge anxiety” keeps me glancing at the charge indicator, which tells me how many miles of range remain. After an uneventful twenty mile test drive to Georgetown and back the gauge says I have used 42 miles of charge, because at highway speeds and with the air conditioner churning full blast the Leaf won’t get its full 99 miles of range. However there are still 57 miles of charge left. Since more than half of all vehicle trips in the US are less than 10 miles, and almost 80% are 50 miles or less, the Leaf can handle most drivers’ requirements most of the time, even with the AC on.
So how much electricity does it take to drive a car? The EPA fuel economy sticker says it takes about 34 kilowatt-hours of electricity for a full charge. Thirty four kilowatt-hours is approximately the same amount required to run the central air conditioning at my house for one day in the summer. At current rates that is about 4.7 cents per mile. Even my Prius, which gets 40 miles per gallon, requires almost 9 cents of gasoline per mile traveled. If you drove a Leaf instead of a 20 mile-per-gallon gasoline car for 120,000 miles, you would save $15,600 in fuel costs. That’s assuming that gasoline prices don’t go up over the next few years.
There are people who postulate that an electric car is just as polluting as an internal combustion engine vehicle, because the electricity is generated by a coal plant. Calculations show that even using electricity from a dirty source, greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and ozone would all decrease as internal combustion engines are replaced by electric vehicles. Particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere might actually increase, if we continue to rely on outdated coal plants to generate most of our electricity. However, as we generate more electricity from cleaner sources like natural gas, wind, and solar, those pollutants will also decrease. Another thing to consider is that, no matter where the electricity comes from, electric cars have zero tailpipe emissions, so on a crowded downtown street, or waiting in line to pick up the kids at school, local air quality will immediately improve as the percentage of electric vehicles increases.
What kind of people drive electric cars? Mr. Crider says that of the eight Leafs (Leaves?) that he has sold so far, all of his customers have short commutes to work, so they can charge up at home in the evening and go everywhere they need to go the next day. They all have hybrids already which they can use for long trips. And they are not scared off by the $35,000 sticker price. Yes, that does seem a little high at first glance, but when you figure in the $7500 federal tax credit for buying an alternative fuel vehicle, the lifetime fuel savings, and no oil changes, it is actually cheaper than a hybrid. The biggest plus is that with an electric vehicle you get to break up with the Saudi royal family. Now that’s a luxury car.