The Power…It’s Electrifying


A couple months ago, we decided that the timing and circumstances were finally right for us to take the plunge and start using an electric vehicle.  A number of friends and family have asked about it, so I thought I’d put my thoughts down here for all to read.  Long story short: We decided to lease a Nissan Leaf.  We love the car and have even considered getting a second one.  But to be clear, EVs are not currently for everyone – yet!  We had been watching the Leaf since before it had even been released for sale in the U.S. in 2010, but a lot went into the decision to get an all-electric car, and specifically get the Leaf in particular.

Fundamentally, and incontrovertibly, gasoline is a limited resource that pollutes the air.  At some point, it will need to be replaced.  There are lots of opinions about how and when that will happen, but regardless, we need to find an alternative, so why not get ahead of the curve and do it now?  I won’t go into all of the advantages (or disadvantages) of using electricity as an energy storage and delivery mechanism, but some of the obvious ones include an existing delivery infrastructure and the ability to be cleanly generated at scale.

We could have gone with a hybrid car, or even a plug-in hybrid, but deep down we felt the right thing to do was to commit to the cleanest vehicle we could manage.  We wanted to show our support for what we felt was an important emerging technology.

Driving an all-electric is a surprisingly awesome experience.  First, it is noticeably incredibly quiet.  We had relatives visiting, and my 6 year-old nephew commented on this (without prompting) as soon as we started moving.  It’s so quiet that they have to add sounds (via external speakers) so pedestrians don’t get startled.  When we test-drove a Prius plug-in hybrid, this was a big difference – what a noisy car.  Second, it accelerates better than most gasmobiles.  Yes, it really kicks it out of the gate.  Third, it has no gears, so there are no funny shifting hesitations and all  the power is instantly available.  Fourth, it is much cheaper to refuel than gas cars, roughly a third the cost, and this drops even more if you have access to charging stations that are free to use.  Finally, it gives you an incredible sense of satisfaction to know that you, personally, are not spewing harmful gases into the air (especially if your electric company offers clean energy).

Clearly, an all-electric vehicle is not currently for everyone because the state of the art technology has some reduced functionality compared to gasmobiles: less range, longer refuel times, and a still-nascent refueling infrastructure.  Even with government incentives, the current EVs on the market do not quite make a compelling case when you look at total cost of ownership, although they are close.  All of these factors will change with time.  My guess is that either for your next vehicle purchase or the one after that, an all-electric vehicle will be a contender.  Right now, EVs are best as commuter cars (if your commute is less than about 35 miles each way, or, if you have access to a charging station near work, then about 70 miles), and for running errands around town.  Taking a long trip in an EV would be a real hassle.  But given that most households have over two cars, chances are good that at least one can be replaced by an EV, and the gasmobile can be used for any long trips (this is the route we’ve currently taken).  EVs are also mostly for homeowners, because of proximity to electrical outlets when the vehicle is parked at home.  We, of course, met all of these criteria, as do a lot of households.  I am also very fortunate to get free, fast charging from my employer, which makes it even easier to stay “topped-off” at all times.  Once we decided that it was time to replace one of our aging gasmobiles, an EV became the obvious choice.

As a car, the Leaf in particular is an excellent vehicle, even if you ignore the fact that it is all-electric.  It has all of the safety, reliability, and convenience features you’d expect from a new vehicle.  It also has a greatly designed  interior space (we like it much better than the Prius or the Focus), and some other cool features (like being able to control some functions like climate-control via an app).  It is solid, reliable, and drives just like a regular car.  Plus, it looks nice, is eminently practical, and priced right. Nissan has been a leader in the development of EVs, and has taken a big risk and put in a huge investment to be a pioneer. It’s clear they believe in the technology, and we wanted to show them our support.  Taken together, all of these factors made the Leaf the best choice for us.  We decided to lease the vehicle in anticipation of improvements in range and charging speed in the next few years.

The great thing is, a lot of manufacturers are following Nissan’s (and to be fair, Tesla’s) lead.  The Honda Fit EV, the Ford Focus EV, and the Mitsubishi MiEV are all currently available in some U.S. markets, with offerings from Chevy (Spark), Smart, and others just around the corner and new EVs getting announced all the time.  Not only will this mean more choices for the consumer, but it will also put downward pressure on the pricetags, upward pressure on proliferation of charging stations, and drive innovation around range and charging times (e.g., battery-swapping facilities).

In short, EVs are a technology whose time has come.  To be sure, it will be a very long time before they are more prevalent than gasmobiles, and will likely never entirely replace them, but I see their widespread adoption as inevitable.  We’re still on the low-end of the technology adoption curve, with less than 100,000 on the road in the U.S. today, but I liken them to cell-phones circa 1997.  They are a proven, superior technology with support from the government and business.  In a decade or two, all of the technical downsides to EVs will have been addressed, and public opinion will have turned against gasmobiles to the point where people who still hang on to them will be considered quaint, anachronistic, or just plain irresponsible.  If you’re currently in the market for a car, I’d encourage you to consider if an EV is right for you.  Take a few test drives – I think you’ll be impressed.


5 Replies to “The Power…It’s Electrifying”

  1. Actually, it isn’t true that there is “an existing delivery infrastructure.” While it is true that you can get electricity in your home today, if everybody got an electric car, the existing system would be completely overwhelmed. The early adopters are lucky in this respect…they are lucky no one else on the block is also trying to charge up an electric car.

    Also, I’m a lot bit worried about the future if everybody has clean electric cars…there will be no more environmental arguments against paving over the planet! As a somewhat planner type, I prefer dense cities for humanity where we can walk and bike, and leave the wilderness wild. The car opened up suburbs and sprawl, and the electric car will do that in spades.

    But I agree with you 100% on one point…the internal combustion engine will be replaced in the near future.

    1. I am hopeful that a) not everyone will get an EV at once, and b) the gradual increase in adoption will place the necessary market pressure to force improvements in the electricity grid.

      As for everyone going EV leading to more sprawl, that may be a danger, but I’m hoping that self-driving, shared EVs will largely address this. Like you, I am a proponent of dense urban areas.

    1. Interesting. The problem I have with the analyses cited there is that they either a) assume a static world that doesn’t change over time, and/or b) don’t look very far into the future (really, only looking out to 2030?). So many of the underlying assumptions will change and be wrong (as I say above, not least because of market pressures), it’s kinda hard to really believe any predictions (one way or the other).

      Here’s a counter to Zehner’s opinion that’s much better worded and supported than mine:

      One thing I know for sure – gasmobiles directly pollute the air that the most people breathe and cause myriad health problems, and it is the worst in the most densely populated areas. It seems that a lot of these studies ignore this fundamental truth – by driving an EV, you literally keep the air that you and your neighbors breathe cleaner. I 100% agree with both the article and James that EVs are not a silver bullet, and that other solutions (dense cities, public transist, bike, walk, etc.) are necessary, but neither are those other solutions silver bullets.

    2. I have to agree here that there are serious problems with the piece, not the least of which is the use of comments like “It wasn’t very fast, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t safe” which is a red herring.

      I do think there are serious issues (ethical, waste handling and resource depletion in particular) related to the heavy-metal resources and that the lifetime CO2 emissions are of concern at the moment given current energy sources. But, the real issue to me is that to solve the carbon dioxide emissions problem, we need to get mobile combustion sources on to the grid where you can then scale the renewable and carbon capture technologies. It is true these are not there yet, but we have to keep moving forward on all these fronts at the same time, and assume things will come together. I really don’t like the idea that because everything isn’t in place yet we should just throw up our hands and give up.

      It is easier to operate a grid without renewables, but I like to think that humans can rise to a challenge. I still wouldn’t buy any property in Miami.

      Incidentally, I love my Prius and of course these sorts of issues have been brought up with it. However, the longer I drive it, the better things are on the lifetime balance sheet. When mine was approaching 100,000 miles a few years ago, I looked into the expected imminent demise of my battery and how much it would cost to replace. Not enough had failed to get any kind of a reliable estimate on when I might expect mine to.

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