In the year and a half since modern, mass-market electric cars have been available for purchase, many a pundit has attempted to paint a picture of what driving and owning one of these vehicles is like. From ludicrous myths (exploding batteries) to questionable claims (a more relaxed morning commute), it can be hard to know exactly what a plug-in car will do in the real world.
Now EV owners are beginning to speak up on what it is like to be early adopters and how the cars behave during daily driving. It is expected that many owners at this early stage are enthusiasts, but the experiences of a small sample of drivers so far indicate they are being rewarded for their leap of faith.
With all the attention spent in the last year on electric car batteries catching fire it would be easy to assume the large battery packs sitting underneath the cabin present a significant danger. As it turns out, EV drivers have been thinking quite a bit about this topic as well.
"I'd rather sit on batteries than a tank of gas, in terms of explosion risk," says Olivier Chalouhi, who became the world's first Nissan LEAF owner when he took delivery of one in late 2010. It is a sentiment that Patrick Wang, one of the first to own the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, shares. "There's a ton more energy in gasoline than in the battery pack—so to me its not a concern at all," he says.
The only safety concern among a small sample of EV owners interviewed in conjunction with the May EVS26 electric vehicle symposium in Los Angeles relates to pedestrians' obliviousness to the quiet electric drivetrain. Chalouhi, whose LEAF is equipped with an automatic pedestrian-alert sounder, says he has not had any such issues. Yet Wang, whose Volt is equipped with a driver-actuated pedestrian-alert sound, says that sometimes in parking lots pedestrians have not noticed him, so he activated the chirping noise.
Peder Norby—who drove a Mini-E not equipped with pedestrian-alert noises from 2009 to 2011 and has since migrated into the BMW ActiveE all-electric 1 Series—has the most direct experience with pedestrian safety around electric cars. "People are so attuned to listening [for car sounds] that they don't notice you, especially in parking lots," he says. "Sometimes they take a step right in front of the car with their cart and then react in shock as their senses did not tell them they were about to get hit. In fact, I've even had a bicyclist turn into my car and hit it with his front tire."
Although the bicyclist and his bike were fine, Norby says he's become more cautious and alert in parking lots. He notes, however, that as soon as the car gets above about 15 kilometers per hour motor and tire noise are loud enough to avoid the issue.
Maintenance and driving range
After tens of thousands of collective driving miles, maintenance issues have been relatively minor. Wang says he had an issue with a dead taillight and a loose bolt on a brake caliper right after he took delivery of his Volt but no issues since then. In about 60,000 kilometers of driving the Mini-E, Norby says his air conditioning unit had to be repaired but that his ActiveE has been flawless so far. Of the EV owners interviewed, Chalouhi seems to have had the most carefree experience saying that after more than 27,000 kilometers of driving he has only paid $29.90 for a tire rotation.
Given that the battery pack is the single most expensive part on the vehicle—some estimates are up to 45 percent of the total cost of the vehicle—questions have been raised as to how frequently it will need to be replaced. The concern is that any savings on maintenance will be overshadowed by having to spend multiple thousands of dollars every few years to ensure you can continue to drive the advertised range on a full charge.
None of the drivers has yet noticed a drop off in electric range due to age of the battery packs, but Wang—who lives in northern California—has clearly noticed a change in range due to changing seasons. "In the winter the Volt’s range definitely drops due to external temperatures and climate-control usage," he says. "This is my second summer and second winter with the car, and it pretty much drives like the first month I owned it."
Range or fuel anxiety?
Perhaps the biggest concern has revolved around the question of range anxiety—the fear that the car will run out of juice before getting to a destination. Norby and Chalouhi, both of whom own all-electric cars, say this has not been a problem.
When he first became a Mini-E driver in 2009, Norby kept his second gas-powered car "just in case." He eventually sold that car because he was not using it. About twice a year, when he had to travel farther than the Mini-E's range of 145 kilometers he would swap cars with his wife. He does admit to once pushing the car too far and having to stop at a local convenience store for a 20-minute charge on a 120-volt outlet. Norby charged just enough to ensure he could make it home, which was a little more than a kilometer away.
Chalouhi says that "range anxiety" is the wrong term, but that he is a lot more "range aware" than he was before. "I know what I can easily do with the car, and I know when I'm pushing the range," he says. "In these cases, I'll either change my driving—meaning go slower on the highway and use the [LEAF's] 'ECO' mode—or I'll find a charging station to use midday. I've never been stuck, not even the one time I had forgotten to charge the [previous] evening."
Given that the Chevy Volt is a plug-in hybrid and can travel about 50 to 65 kilometers on battery power before switching over to gas, Wang has never even thought about range issues, but he does say he had a bit of "fuel anxiety" at the beginning. "In the last year and a half 80 percent of my miles have been on electric power alone," he says. "I did have fuel anxiety—a concern about using any gas at all—for the first year, and was worried about messing up my stats, but I've gotten over it now and drive it like a normal car."
Although these early adopters represent only a small snapshot of the global EV ownership experience, the cars appear to be meeting—and in certain cases exceeding—expectations. More stories will certainly come to light as an increasing number of EVs hit the road.