For the first part of this blog, click here.
The Drive: from Spirited to Zen
In terms of drivability of an electric vehicle, “I had all the assumptions a lot of people had,” says Whiteside, who, at 6’ 3”, was surprised at the Leaf’s roominess. “Will it have enough pickup? Is it practical? It blows me away how much pickup it has. I didn’t know what instant torque was, and that’s fun. It’s surprisingly fun to drive. It’s out of the chute before everyone at the stop light.”
Gebb says when traveling through a local highway cloverleaf he’s had to let up on the acceleration for safety’s sake. He’s taken his coworkers for test drives, and they’ve been impressed. “I work with guys that drive big diesel trucks and when they get out of this car they say, damn it’s a sweet deal,” he says.
Tweed, owner of two Porsches that he races, comes from a different perspective. “It’s been trouble free for us and drives like a normal econo box,” he says. “It’s not the most exciting or high performance car, but it gets the job done.” Tweed even took the Leaf to his Porsche club’s autocross track. While he found it “underpowered,” he says the battery’s weight and low position keep the vehicle stable on the road.
“Nissan engineers went to great lengths to render the overall Leaf driving experience as similar to ICE (internal combustion engine) cars as possible,” Tweed says. Tweed feels Nissan could’ve been more aggressive on the brake regeneration to recapture energy, “but that would’ve gotten people freaked out when they took their foot off the accelerator and really slowed down more than a (gas-powered) car,” he says.
Tweed says Nissan also added a slight "creep" effect to when drivers lift their foot off the brake at a standstill on level ground while in gear, which replicates the torque converter on an ICE vehicle’s automatic transmission.
“While the EV driving experience is indeed different, they (Nissan) didn't want it to be so different that people would be shocked by it or think it was too strange,” Tweed says.
Hamilton has “no complaints” about the drive. He praises the pickup and braking, though he admits the Leaf can’t match the cornering on his BMW 330. However, “I get in the gas powered car and it feels like an antique,” he says. “The vibration and looking at the gas tank gauge drive me crazy. I will never own another gas car again if I can avoid it.”
Leaf owners say the driving limitations — along with the desire to conserve power — is having unexpected consequences. “The driving induces a Zen approach,” says Tweed, who now leaves the performance driving for the track. “You get in and you calm down.Tweed continues, “To extend the range, driving safely and sanely in a quiet environment and noticing your environment is what it’s all about, rather than getting all jacked up about the drivers around you cutting you off. You’ll get there, but a few minutes later.[PAGEBREAK]
Range Anxiety, What Range Anxiety?
“Range anxiety isn’t really there, as long as I’m realistic that it’s a commuter car — a metro area car,” Whiteside says of his Leaf. “Range anxiety is mostly a matter of the unknown. It’s something I had before we bought the car and a little bit in the break-in phase. (At that point) I was analyzing everything. ‘Can I get here; how far is that.’ But then you realize distances to places after you’ve driven back and forth a few times.
"The reality is, in a given week or month, I do the same 10 things,” says Whiteside, adding that he thought he was driving 70 to 80 miles a day when it turned out to be only 50. “It’s amazing how adequate (the Leaf’s range) is. We rarely have to charge anywhere else but home. I initially thought this would need a massive charging network. For what the car is designed to do — a commuter car — it covers about 80 to 90 percent of our driving.”
The state of Washington is implementing the nation’s first “Electric Highway,” a network of public access charging locations every 40 to 60 miles along Interstate 5.
“I plan on occasionally using that to double the given range in a day,” Whiteside says. “It will allow for a little more spontaneity, but until the range of an electric vehicle is 300 to 400 miles, you’re not going to stop to charge every hour or so all the way to Sacramento. You’ll still need a gas car.”
Generally, Leaf users report average ranges of 70 to 90 miles with a charge to 80 percent. Hilly terrain, using the HVAC system, a lead foot and more highway driving will negatively affect range. Leaf users say the air conditioner is relatively efficient, though the heater — which can’t suck heat from a warm engine — is notoriously inefficient. Hamilton notices a 10 percent loss of range when using the heater, though only a 3 to 5 percent loss using the air conditioner.
This can be addressed with “preconditioning.” The 2012 Leaf models have a cold weather package option that includes heated seats and steering wheel. A smartphone app allows users to heat or cool the car remotely while it is charging. Gebb says preheating the car keeps him comfortable for his entire commute. Hamilton added aftermarket seat covers with an integrated seat heater that keeps him “comfortably warm” and hardly affects energy use, he says.
UCSD’s five Leafs cover a network of extension facilities in the San Diego area and are used by mail services and other campus departments — incurring about a thousand miles per vehicle per month. Weil admits the biggest concern for UCSD users, who include the director of housing and dining and the university’s chancellor, had been the vehicle’s range, though it’s no longer an issue. Weil reports that UCSD’s Leaf drivers achieve an average range of 60 to 80 miles. “The ones who are getting only 60 miles are pretty aggressive drivers,” he says.Hamilton’s commute is 63.5 miles round trip. He says keeping the car at 65 mph or less on the freeway will get him from home to work and back again on one charge. “When I found the sweet spot — don’t lead foot it — it’s been great,” he says.[PAGEBREAK]
“When I drive around on the weekends, I don’t even think twice. I drive the car as spiritedly as I want, and I don’t have any issues. A couple times I’ve had to think about whether I can make an errand or not, but it’s more of an issue of how fast I can drive on the way home.”
Gebb has a 30-mile commute one way into Eugene. “I don’t have any challenges,” he says. “There are days when I drive the car all day in town and I get down fairly low, but I still manage to get home every time.”
However, “there are days if I could have five minutes on a hot charger, not even a full charge, just some juice, it would take the edge off or allow me to speed on the way home,” says Gebb, who calls himself “a fairly aggressive driver.”
The Leaf has a mileage range gauge that recalculates constantly based on immediate driving conditions, allowing drivers to proactively manage their range. “It’s been a great feedback loop on my driving,” Whiteside says. “I know how to eke more mileage out of the car if I have to.”
With about five miles of range left the car enters “turtle mode,” which limits the car to about 35 miles per hour while the navigation system directs the driver to the nearest charging station. Gebb says he’s experienced turtle mode once, about a half mile from his driveway. The car eases into turtle mode, he says, and gives plenty of warning beforehand. “I tell people if you run out of juice in your electric car, you deserve it,” Gebb says.
Going highway speeds in relatively flat terrain, Hamilton gets about 75 miles on a full charge. He calculates that slowing down to 55 mph increases his range by 10 percent. “It’s been an eye-opening experience for me in how I’ve changed my outlook on things,” Hamilton says. “I’ve slowed down my drive to and from work because I needed to relieve my range anxiety, but I’ve found I no longer have road rage.”
Not only have these Leaf drivers forgotten about range anxiety, they don’t think twice about filling up, either.
“Who hasn’t gotten up a few minutes late for work, gotten in the car and realized you have no gas? That doesn’t happen with me,” Hamilton says. “You keep track of it, but it’s not a hassle. It becomes like your cell phone. Do you waste a lot of brain power thinking about charging your cell phone? If it’s low, you charge it, if it’s not, you don’t.”
When looking at individual experiences, sometimes the larger picture is lost in the shuffle.
“When I think about all the carbon dioxide I’m not spewing onto the highway, it’s an added bonus,” Hamilton says. “And when they announce how many of our young men have died over in the sandbox, I think I’ve taken a small chunk out of that equation. You think about what we could do if we just changed our mindset. It’s enlightening.”
For Hamilton, who never considered himself an early adopter, acclimation is the key. “People need exposure; they need to know someone that has one, they need to get in one and they’ll never look back.”
For the first part of this blog, click here.