I’ve written about our transition to electric vehicles a few times here, but I just realized I’ve never introduced the latest addition to our fleet.
We’d had the Nissan LEAF in our shared fleet for almost 9 months now. Unlike my plug-in hybrid that is gas+electric, the Nissan is electric-only. The 40 kilowatt-hour battery is rated at 150 miles of range, depending on weather and driving speed.
Our motor pool is used for everything from runs into Plymouth (8 miles), to the airport (110 miles), or across country. The LEAF fills a nice slot for local daily runs or trips to regional cities like Warsaw, Elkhart, South Bend, or Hobart. It can also go further (more on that in a bit). A few people were hesitant at first, but they generally found driving the car to be surprisingly normal. The responsive & smooth acceleration that the gear-less electric motor provides just means you have to watch the speedometer a little closer! Plus, no stinky stops at the gas station, just 5 seconds to plug in when you’re done.
So far we’ve covered around 6,000 miles in the LEAF. That’s displaced 170 gallons of gasoline compared to a 35 MPG car. It runs instead on the electric grid, which is combination of wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, and coal.
But with a little planning, the LEAF can do even more. It addition to the standard charging port (“Level 2”) that adds about 25 miles of range per hour, it is equipped with a direct current fast-charging (DCFC) port called CHAdeMO. Don’t ask me about the initials, I just know that it works!
DCFC is designed to charge fast enough to make longer distance highway usage possible. On the LEAF, it charges up to 50 kW, so it can add around 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. Newer LEAFs charge twice as fast (100 kW), and Tesla – which is the industry leader – can now charge up to 250 kW for brief periods.
Well, since I pushed us into EVs I figured it was on me to be the guinea pig. This March, I was delivering a talk at the Indiana Academy of Science meeting in Indianapolis. I saw that there was a DCFC at the Keystone Mall, which was on the way to my destination downtown. It was 104 miles away. The range of the LEAF is 150 miles in temperate weather, but it can be quite reduced in the cold, so I was a little worried. I drove slowly and kept the cabin temperature reasonable, and rolled into the mall with 14% battery remaining.
I was pretty anxious as I was cruising down on 31 and relying on just a single DCFC station to get me downtown. This is the dreaded “range anxiety” among first-time EV drivers. There’s really no way to alleviate it except from experience. Most drivers report that the anxiety subsides with familiarity (time), and that was certainly the case with me. I just needed to know what the car was capable of, and have a reasonable backup plan. I’ve found that Nissan’s range-remaining estimator to be a little optimistic, so I discount that number in my mind for extra margin.
I plugged the car in, activated the charger from an app on my smartphone, and slipped into the quiet mall to use the restroom.
By the time I got back from the other side of the mall, the charging session had lasted 16 minutes and had boosted me up to 41%. I was ready to go downtown. Since my coffee-swilling self needed a bathroom break anyway, I didn’t really spend any extra time waiting.
Ideally, I would’ve had a reasonable option for Level 2 charging for the car while it was parked for 8 hours, like the station we have here at The Center. Then it could’ve went from 41% to 100%. With a little extra planning I could’ve found a way. Unfortunately, the downtown Indy charging scene still leaves a lot to be desired, so I did not.
After a wonderful day of nerdy goodness among fellow scientists & practitioners and a dinner break at an old friend’s house, I went back to the mall to top off before heading north. I was down to 8% by that point, and I needed to charge up to at least 95% to make it all the way home. Unfortunately, as the battery fills up, the charging rate slows (it’s an unavoidable battery-chemistry-physics-thing). I knew this ahead of time, so I had planned to get some steps in by walking the mall.
I have to say it was an ace move by Tesla for locating a showroom in a mall with a non-Tesla charging station.
When it comes to EVs, there’s Tesla, and then there’s everyone else trying to catch up. Their mission “is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” and they’ve done that by setting the bar for which other manufacturers are now aiming.
One of their strongest advantages at this point is their supercharging network. The superchargers typically operate at 100 kW and faster. They are designed as a network across the U.S. interstate system, evenly spaced so that there is always a charging option on the highways. You plug in and the network recognizes your car, billing your account automatically. You go to the bathroom, grab a coffee, and you’re more or less ready to go.
Unfortunately for us, this network is for Tesla vehicles only. Nissan, GM, Toyota, and other manufacturers don’t own and operate a network of DCFCs. When you look at the CHAdeMO charging map (used for the LEAF), there’s no central planning agency or company that ensures there are evenly-spaced stations throughout the interstate system. Some are free & located at car dealers. Others are run by private companies, but seemed to be clustered around metro areas. The federal government, so far, has not stepped in to remedy this market failure yet.
Meanwhile, as I pondered the trials of being an early adopter, I kept poking around the Tesla Model 3.
The Model 3 was the 3rd step in Tesla’s “Master Plan” published in 2006
- Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
- Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
- Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car
These steps correspond to the Roadster, the Model S, and now the Model 3. While Tesla got established as a luxury car manufacturer, they are now moving into mass production. The Model 3 is now shipping around 14,000 units per month in the U.S. and is currently the 3rd best selling car in California, ahead of staples like the Honda Accord and Toyota Corolla.
Most surprisingly, the total cost of ownership of a Model 3 is now on par with… the Toyota Camry.
Yep, read that again. The secret hasn’t yet trickled out to the average car buyer yet, but we are quickly approaching the tipping point when EVs will not only be the less polluting option (and improving annually as the grid cleans up) but also the less costly choice.
Meanwhile, back to my mall walk…
After an hour of charging, I was ready to head home.
Even though it was the best bang-for-the-buck at the time we were deciding on a purchase one year ago (and will continue to be useful regardless), the 40 kWh LEAF is already getting superseded. A 220 mile range is becoming the minimum for new EV models. Batteries continue a steady downward march in pricing. The charging network is slowly improving, though we desperately need a boost in the non-Tesla infrastructure (more news on that I’m hoping to share in the coming months).
I expect to look back on this time like we now view party line phone system my parents used growing up on the farm, a system that people certainly managed to make work, but would ultimately be a transition phase to the next step.
Since March, I’ve tried out a few other DCFC locations as well. There’s one we used at Bosak Nissan on US 20 & I-94, getting a quick top up after visiting Sojourner Truth House. The photo below was a quick fill-up at a Wal-mart in Lafayette, IN. I went in to the bathroom, answered some e-mails on my phone, and got back on the highway.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the college has been using a Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid that has logged almost 12,000 miles, but that’s for another post. Until then, charge on