August 1st, 2014

Nissan Leaf Test Drive

Today, T. and I went to Marlborough to test drive the leaf. There, we met the nicest, calmest and easiest to work with sales person of the week. If you need to buy a Nissan in the Boston area, please go to Marlborough Nissan and ask for Kasey (KC?). He's fantastic and I predict you'll love doing business with him.

The Leaf is just an ordinary car, that happens to be a BEV. The shifter looks like a chopped off shifter, but otherwise in an unremarkable location. There's a parking brake where you expect it. The window controls, turn signals, windshield wipers, etc. are all where you think they will be. I did not experiment with the music system; there are some controls for it in the center of the steering wheel that are pretty similar to what I'm accustomed to (the source switcher looks a little novel to me, but well within range). The rear view mirror has some buttons on it, in part for auto dimming, possibly there are some garage door opener buttons there, too.

You will be using the brake pedal on the Leaf; there is virtually no slow down when taking my foot off the accelerator in the Leaf. Nissan drivers will not be surprised to learn that I perceived the Leaf to be somewhat gutless. This is not a bad thing. When you need power, you just depress the pedal more and there is what you need, if you are driving in compliance with the law.

The seats are comfortable - far more comfortable than my current car, which in turn is more comfortable than its predecessor, the 2007 Fit which honestly had pretty uncomfortable seats. The headroom is ample. The car is designed for a mostly upright seating position. The back bench is not as deep as the i3, but perhaps a bit deeper than the Tesla. T. thought it was comfortable; I did not try it. There is no frunk; the charger is located there instead. It think that is a reasonable design choice. The trunk/hatch has ample cargo space. The back bench folds down 60/40, albeit not particularly flat. That's okay. Back seats that fold down really flat are rarely comfortable to sit in so I'll take that trade off. The navigation screen is about what I'm used to in the aftermarket navigator in my Fit. It _may_ be possible to get it with speed limit information. It is definitely possible to get real time traffic information.

My sense is that the CHAdeMO charging network is probably currently the most developed -- certainly way better than the SAE network that the BMW uses. It's unclear how that will go in the future.

Between the $7500 federal incentive, the $2500 Massachusetts MOR-EV incentive announced in June, and possibly additional rebate from the manufacturer, the already economical (compared to the BMW i3 or the Tesla) Leaf drops down into downright inexpensive territory.

Alas, I have too much range anxiety to buy one. If I didn't have range anxiety, I would have bought one months ago, and I didn't. If you don't have range anxiety, though, you might give this one some serious thought. There's no Statement here. Just a practical, comfortable car that Consumer Reports expects to be very reliable, and which got a perfectly respectable safety rating in crash tests.

BMW i3 test drive (I'll be buying this one):

Tesla test drive:

A bit more about BEVs

Over the last week, I test drove three of the BEV's currently on the market. First, I drove BMW's new model i3. I'm going to assume my readers know about BMW. You can think of this as a $45K, give or take a few thousand dollars, depending on what state you live in and what options you order it with. It is an all electric drive car, which means no internal combustion motor ever drives the wheels of this vehicle. You can _get_ an optional ICE (internal combustion engine) and accompanying (tiny) gas tank. Here in the US, that is not under the operator's control regarding when it runs -- it kicks in when the charge gets low and recharges the battery, which continues to drive the wheels. Without Rex (the range extender), the i3 will go 70 or 80 miles, more or less like the Leaf and some of the other BEVs out on the market. With the range extender, you'll be pulling up to a gas station every additional 70 miles. I think.

Useful words: ICE, internal combustion engine, which is basically almost every car engine you've ever thought about until fairly recently, unless you are super nerdy. If you are super nerdy, I love you extra special more, just for that. BEV = Battery electric vehicle, which is what the i3 is, even tho it has that optional engine. Other types of vehicles include PHEV (plug in hybrid electric vehicle) and HEV (hybrid electric vehicle). You know about Prius -- that's a hybrid. There are hybrids (including some Prius) that you can recharge overnight by plugging them into the wall, and which if you don't drive very many miles a day, you can pretty much avoid every using the gasoline engine. A hybrid vehicle in general has _two_ power sources (the battery and the ICE) and a complicated drive system.

The second car I test drove was the Tesla Model S, which is a new American car manufacturer in California founded by Elon Musk, of PayPal and SpaceX fame, in addition to Tesla Motors. The cars are built in a factory in Fremont, CA, which is the same Fremont, CA factory described in such detail in one of the most popular This American Life episodes ever; listen to the podcast some time. It is absolutely worth it.

Here's the transcript:

I have mixed feelings about Musk, but I expected to love the Tesla. It has much more range than any other BEV out there currently, and Musk/Tesla Motors is putting a lot of effort into building out an extensive fast charging network to support the vehicles.

I will now digress about charging. There are three quick charging systems out there in the wild:

(1) CHAdeMO, which is what Nissan's Leaf (the third car I test drove) uses.
(2) Tesla's SuperCharger (self-explanatory)
(3) SAE, which is what BMW uses

These systems are _not_ intercompatible. You cannot charge a Leaf at a Tesla station and vice versa. In general, you can charge your car at a dealer that sells your car (all Nissan dealerships seem to have fast chargers, type of thing). You can also use sites such as this one:

to find stores that have chargers. However, while you can find some sort of charger in a lot of places, often it is not a fast charger. It's closer to your home charging experience, and a full charge could take 3 or more hours. The quick charging systems located above can generally charge 80% in about a half hour (they're all impressed with themselves if they can get it down to 20 minutes -- I don't see a huge difference there, but whatev).

Needless to say, this is not like driving up to the Self Serve, swiping your car, letting money drain out of your account for a few minutes as the black gold drips into your tank, and driving away, safe in the comfort that you can drive 200-400 miles before having to do that again. The difference in refill time (hours -- or, in a best case scenario, a half hour -- vs. minutes) combined with the difference in distance before you hit E (75 or so miles, unless in the Tesla in which case 200+, vs. 200-400 in a typical ICE) creates "range anxiety": am I gonna make it to where I am going?

While ICE vehicles experience relatively minor degradation in performance (range, etc.) in cold weather, batteries suffer in the cold. Experience in this area is still being developed, but expecting a 10% or more reduction in range during cold weather seems reasonable -- it's not even particularly conservative. Unlike ICE vehicles, the faster you go in an electric drive, the faster you drain the battery/the shorter your range. Because the car doesn't really know how many hills you will be driving up, much less how fast, it can really only guess how much further the charge in your battery is going to take you. Driving a BEV requires some careful consideration and rewards detailed route knowledge and repeat trips.

If your life is relatively predictable (you tend to go to the same places within the same area) and you live in a densely developed area, the range of a BEV might look just fine to you. And the cost to replenish the charge in the batteries at typical electrical utility prices might look _really really awesome_ to you. Recharging at normal electrical rates is going to typically come in under $10. Well under $10. Not too many people have ICE vehicles they can fill the tank for that price, altho, to be fair, it's not quite such a screaming deal when you figure it mile-to-mile. But it's still really good. When a BEVs power consumption is translated into mpg, it usually is 100 mpg or better -- you'd have to ride a low-power motorcycle or scooter to get comparable mpg with an ICE. I drive a Honda Fit, but that's a lot better than my Fit gets, which is more than I can say when comparing the Fit to, say, a Prius. Of course, you could accomplish a lot of the same goals with a plug in hybrid, but the batteries on that have even shorter range, so trying to get all of your driving in electric mode can be difficult.

The next obvious question is, well, how about charging at home, or some other place that I can control? You typically get a cord with a plug at the end with these cars for "occasional use" that you can basically plug in anywhere. It will take a long time -- 7 hours or more -- to fully charge your car that way, but overnight should be just fine. You can set up a circuit that is more or less like a dryer circuit that will shrink that down to 3ish hours. The Tesla can be bought with an option that will give you _two_ cords, so you can charge it twice as fast, and each of those can be the fast kind of charge. There are some additional options as well, unique to each manufacturer (as near as I can tell, anyway). But you can't do any better than the 80% charge in 20-30 minutes than I mentioned above.

Executive summary for those whose eyes glazed over: every electric car out there can be recharged anywhere there is an electrical outlet, if you are prepared to wait long enough. If you want to charge your car most of the way, quickly, there are 3 incompatible charging standards, one for Tesla, one used by BMW, and one used by Nissan Leaf. The Nissan Leaf standard is the most widely deployed, altho that may or may not be true a few years from now. You don't _have_ to install anything special at home to charge your electric car, but odds on, you will want to. You can probably do most trips in a BEV -- but having a good plan in place for trips that will tax your BEV's range is important to reduce range anxiety ("Am I gonna make it?") and avoid buyer's remorse. That could be a second car in your household ("I'll borrow my spouse's minivan"), rental or a carshare membership, or purchasing BMW's Add On Mobility option (which is a sort of amortized rental system -- I may post about that if I can find someone to supply a meaningful level of detail).

Why I Never Bought a Hybrid, or the Fit EV

I asked R. which car he thought I should buy. He remarked that he thought I would be better served by waiting and buying something in a few year's. This is why I call myself a second rank sheep: I am _not_ an early adopter, but I tend to do things relatively soon after the early adopter phase has passed and before the great mass of Normal People have decided to participate.

But it is worth reminding myself why I never bought a HEV, a PHEV or, for that matter, the Fit EV, to assess whether those reasons might apply to the current plan to buy a BEV.

The Prius is heavier, more expensive and has less interior space for passengers and cargo than an ICE or BEV would have -- there's just more going on in there and it takes up room. And until you could plug one of them in, the best you could do with it was improve your miles per gallon. And honestly, the improvement in mpg versus buying the Fit (specifically, the Fit) was not impressive. So, no Prius. But why not a plug in? Well, by the time there were plug ins (that weren't people adapting existing hybrids, but manufacturer supplied), BEVs were pretty clearly on the horizon. Again, the battery only range on the PHEVs was pretty limited.

So why didn't I buy the Fit EV (which has recently been discontinued, as near as I can tell)? Because I distinctly remember being so excited about that that when I bought my current car in 2011, I asked them to put me on the list to call if/when the EV version came out. I got a postcard. I looked at it and said, W.T.Everloving F. Because you couldn't buy it, only lease it. It didn't have the Magic Seats. And the flat load was gone. Basically, it wasn't the car I know and love any more, it was just another cheap, uncomfortable subcompact that wasn't so cheap, had a drastically reduced range and was only available on lease terms which I found way too expensive compared to my preference which is to pay for a car without financing.

Why wasn't I on the Tesla waiting list? Too expensive for me to buy without knowing what other people thought about it. I got interested this time around because of all the Love -- but it turned out not to be for me.

Why not the Leaf when it came out? Or when some of the additional incentives became available? Range anxiety.

I remain unconvinced that BEVs, or even PHEVs will ever become widespread. They might -- they might not. If gas got _way_ more expensive, the calculus would surely favor BEVs and PHEVs. Fuel cells are tantalizing, particularly in conjunction with common rooftop solar installations via companies like SolarCity. OTOH, if you know anything about hydrogen, you have to sit there and wonder whether it's really that good of an idea to drive around with a bunch of it in the vehicle with you -- or how well you would sleep with a bunch of it stored in the basement after a full day of the solar panels collecting sunshine in the summer. Predicting more of the same is the easiest thing to do: hybrids will continue to sell well, PHEVs will become increasingly popular, the infrastructure for fast charging stations will get built out a bit more by companies like evGo and others, so it will become normal to plug in your car when you run to the store for groceries, and apartment buildings and employers will routinely offer -- for free, or for a price -- the ability to charge in their garages and parking spaces while you sleep or work. Perhaps ICE car sharing will become more common, as a way to handle range issues.

Are fuel cell vehicles in our future? Our near future?

ETA: Short answer, Not Our Near Future. Build up that charging infrastructure, because that will still be in demand when children yet unborn are chomping at the bit to get their driver's license. And maybe for a while after that.

The Prime Minister got to drive the Toyota FCV.

Fuel cells made it very tough to get hybrids and BEVs going earlier, because there was sort of this idea that battery tech was sort of awful and the range was horrible, and fuel cells were Right Around the Corner so why waste time on this shit? Naturally, this makes me suspicious of fuel cells at this point, since GM (and, for that matter, Ford) who were so negative on anything between ICE and fuel cells wound up abandoning fuel cells in favor of that interstitial generation they were so contemptuous of.

R. seems to think there's a power to weight issue with fuel cells. I, of course, am prepared to be picky about where the hydrogen comes from. Still working on the power to weight issue, but I am skeptical that there is an issue here.

A bit more in detail:

Honda has some competition that might be better, altho not as far along in terms of production:

Is this why they are retiring the Fit EV and the aging Insight? Or is this just a round of the Japanese making the same mistakes GM and Ford did a decade ago?

It looks like R. is correct in thinking that fuel cells require a ton of space in the car for all the stuff to Make It Go. There is no range problem (altho a fueling infrastructure is needed). I cannot even imagine parking some of these things, and of course there's just no room to bring anything bigger than your purse with you.

This explicitly asserts that R. is wrong about the energy density issue:

And this guy is really not a believer:

This isn't very encouraging:

Where's the make-hydrogen-from-water-using-solar-panels option? Maybe that's so inefficient it is pointless?

Oh, wait, here it is!!!

Oh, geez:

"Using Solar and grid power, the system is capable of producing 1.5kg of hydrogen within 24 hours which enables an FCX Clarity to run approximately 150km or 90 miles."

Ooooh, that's not good enough. 24 hours to get 90 miles of range. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. And with zero cargo space and limited passenger space in the vehicle.