Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Wild Ride - Electrifying Even

Published in the Sun January 21,2012

Driving Without Gasoline

Now that I have driven an electric Nissan Leaf every day for a month, I will tell you an adventure story – the story of driving to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  You are probably thinking that driving to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is not an adventure.  You assume it is unremarkable because you can just pump some gasoline into your car and head off, gasoline that you can buy anywhere.  Hah!  That’s like Olympic curling, in which seemingly ordinary people push stones across the ice.  Where’s the sport in that?  But driving an electric car to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is something else entirely, a feat that takes cunning and skill, like rushing down the ski jump and hurtling into the sky.

My daughter Kimberly grew bored with driving the Leaf around Georgetown, a task for which it is perfectly designed.  She wanted to test the limits of its range with a little road trip.  And to make the road trip even more challenging, let’s throw a toddler in the back seat.  So on a bright January morning, armed with only a credit card and some goldfish crackers, we unplug the Leaf and head toward the highway.  My battery charge meter says we can go 96 miles, but I know this is an illusion.  It means we could go 96 miles if we putter around town at 35 mph.  As soon as I accelerate onto IH 35 the meter drops to 80 miles.  It is 82 miles to the Wildflower Center and back.  The Leaf cannot use gasoline; we will make it on electricity or call a tow truck.  I switch into Eco Mode, which means we sacrifice some performance for increased range.  We can’t use the heater, which also burns up electricity.  Luckily it is a warm day.  Our plan is to go straight to Whole Foods Market, on 6th and Lamar, where there is a free charging station.  We will eat lunch and shop while the car charges.  With a 240 volt charger we can add about 12 miles of range for an hour of charge.  As I drive down Mopac I ponder what to do if somebody else is using the charger.  Fortunately the Leaf’s GPS system knows the locations of all the downtown charging stations.  Maybe we can find a back-up station.  When we arrive at Whole Foods, much to my relief the charging station is available and one of the parking places in front of it, reserved for electric vehicles, is open.  The other reserved spot is taken by a Honda Insight hybrid.  Excuse me, the Insight is not an electric car.

After lunch the Honda Insight is gone, and in its place is another Nissan Leaf, identical to mine.  I wonder if its driver is cursing me for occupying the charger.

After a nice tour of the Wildflower Center, where there is no electricity in the parking lot, we head home.  The meter says I have 48 miles of range for the 40 mile return trip, but my mind starts to conjure up worst-case scenarios.  What if the meter is wrong?  What if I drive too fast and use up the charge?  What if the car slows down to unsafe speeds as it reaches the bottom of the battery?  I never had to think about this stuff before.  There was always a gas station every 100 yards along the highway.

Back on Mopac I am still in Eco Mode.  Every time my speed drifts above 60 mph, Kimberly yells at me to slow down.  The baby however is sleeping peacefully, completely unaffected by charge anxiety.  By Round Rock the cushion of range has shrunk to 4 miles.  Twelve miles home and only 16 miles of charge.  Then it shrinks to a three mile cushion, then two.  When I reach 9 miles of charge the nice GPS lady suggests that I need to find a charging station quickly and offers to direct me to the Georgetown Public Library.  But this is no time to be timid; I’m heading for the finish line of a petroleum-free road trip.  Slowing down as we exit the interstate allows my range to increase a bit.  The Leaf slides victorious into the garage with a full 5 miles of charge left.

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