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USA: Overcoming Range Anxiety by Jerry Pohorsky

© 2010 by Jerry Pohorsky
Having driven electric cars for over 10 years, I have developed a good feel for what the cars can do and what they can’t do. My present electric car is a 2002 Toyota RAV 4 EV that was built from the ground up as an electric car by the factory in Japan. I am very happy with this car.

The car has over 115,000 miles on the original battery pack and I drive about 12,000 miles a year. The batteries that make this possible are called Nickel Metal Hydride. Newer electric cars use Lithium batteries which are even lighter and more powerful. These Lithium batteries have special safety features to eliminate the problems that once caused a few fires in laptop computers and cell phones.

As President of the Silicon Valley Electric Auto Association (www.eaasv.org), I receive lots of invitations to display my electric car at various events such as Earth Day, corporate commuting events, environmental health fairs, car shows, etc. I am often asked how far it will go a single charge. The answer is that it depends on how you drive. If I drove 75 MPH (hypothetical) on the freeway, it would only go about 60 miles. If I drive 55 MPH, it will go 100 miles.

Some people are already familiar with how many miles they drive each day and my answer usually satisfies their concern about running out of charge. This concern is commonly called “range anxiety”. Nobody wants to end up stuck at the side of the road waiting for a tow truck because the batteries in their electric car are dead . That’s why we call it an anxiety instead of a concern.

Other Electric Auto Association members have cars that originally ran on gasoline and have been converted to run on electricity. To keep costs down, they often use lead acid batteries. This makes the car heavy and results in slower acceleration and longer stopping distances. Worse yet, the range on a charge is typically just 20 to 50 miles. People who seem satisfied with an electric car that has a 100 mile range are often unlikely to buy a car that has less than 50 miles of range.

For the people who have a real need to go more than 100 miles a day, perhaps an electric car is not right for them. However many households have 2 or more cars, so the electric car can be used for shorter commuting and the gasoline or hybrid car can be used for longer trips. There are also some things that can be done to make longer drives possible in an electric car such as regenerative braking, increasing tire pressure and rolling up the windows to reduce drag.

Other ideas involve what we call “opportunity” charging at some point along the way. While there are some unplanned events that may cause you to drive to an unexpected location, most of the time you have a good idea in the morning where you will be going that day. Longer driving distances are possible if you can plan a charging stop into your driving schedule.

I am in the habit of resetting my trip odometer each time I charge, so at the end of each day, I know how far I drove. For me, the average is about 50 miles a day commuting to work and back during the week, and a lot less on weekends. That works out to around 1,000 miles a month or 12,000 miles a year.

If I need to do a lot of extra driving, I make plans to plug into a public charging station during the day. These are often located at stores where I need to shop, so I can buy a few things, catch up on reading or email or maybe enjoy a meal while I wait for the car to recharge. It is not necessary to fully charge the car. I just need to get enough charge to make it home where I can plug it in and top it off while I sleep. Currently, most of these charging stations are free, however as the number of electric cars goes up, we will probably soon have to start paying for this electric fuel.

Some employers have outlets that their employees can use to charge their electric cars during the work day. If the car can fully charge in 8 hours or less, the effective driving range of the car is doubled. As more and more people buy electric cars, the demand for charging stations will increase and that demand will need to be be satisfied. In addition to workplace charging, many of these new charging stations will be located along commute corridors.

A similar thing happened when the transition from horse-drawn to horseless carriages (now known as cars) took place. Last century, more and more gasoline stations were added along commute corridors to meet the demand of motorists. Now, there are already several companies who are making and deploying electric charging stations in anticipation of the sudden number of electric cars hitting the road in 2011.

You may have heard of some of these cars already. Examples include the Nissan Leaf, the Coda, the Mitsubishi iMIEV, and the electric Ford Focus to name a few. Also there is the Tesla Roadster for those who can afford it.

Tesla and Toyota have teamed up to produce an all electric RAV 4 which will debut about 10 years after Toyota built the one that I drive today. Tesla also is working on a sedan which will cost about half the price of their roadster. They have set up shop in the former NUMMI automobile factory in Fremont, CA. that was previously used by Toyota and GM and was shut down earlier this year.

The Chevrolet Volt is sort of in a class by itself. It has an all-electric range of about 40 miles but it also has a small gasoline driven generator on board to extend the overall range to around 300 miles. The Volt or the new Plug-in Prius may be the answer for someone who regularly needs to travel more than 100 miles per day and doesn’t want to be concerned with finding some place to plug in.

I just took a test drive in the Nissan Leaf and was very pleased with the performance and features of the car. Some of those features are specifically designed to overcome range anxiety. The screen used for the navigation system also displays how many miles of driving you have left before the batteries are drained. If you turn on an accessory like the power-hungry air conditioner, that number instantly drops so you can see if you need to turn it back off to make it to your destination.

Another feature shows your current location on a large map of the area. Concentric circles in 10 mile increments around your location are drawn on the map. That way you can tell at a glance where you can safely go. The map also shows the location of public charging stations where you can go to plug in if needed. I was told that 90% of drivers travel less than 100 miles per day.

At the Nissan Leaf test drive, I was also told that there are plans to have public charging stations located along Interstate 5 from the Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border. One of the options you can get when ordering a Nissan Leaf is a fast charging connector that will allow the car to charge up to about 80% full in just half an hour. That will give you some time to stretch your legs, have a snack and refresh yourself before moving on.

General Electric (GE) recently made an online show about electric cars. It has a feature similar to the one I saw at the Nissan Leaf test drive where you can enter your home zip code, your work location, the location of your gym, school, shopping center, etc. to figure out how many miles you would drive going to those places.

Here is a link to that GE online show:
http://www.ge.com/thegeshow/electricvehicles/#ch1
Their trip length calculator may come up automatically or you may need to click on the item that says “So Near, So Good”. There are several other interesting video clips at that same website, so enjoy the show.

By the way, GE is one of the several companies making charging stations for electric cars. Other companies include Coulomb Technologies, ECOtality, Clipper Creek, Leviton and AeroVironment (AV). The AV charging station is the one that was on display at the Leaf test drive I took.

The Leaf also has has internet capability so that it can display the state of charge on a mobile device such as an iPhone. You can also use the iPhone to turn the charger on and off and set the climate controls in the car for a comfortable temperature when you start your drive. All of this can be done from the convenience of your home or office. So, rather than feeling anxiety, you will feel relaxed and in control. That way you can be green and drive electric without worry.

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Jerry Pohorsky is President of the Silicon Valley Chapter of the (non-profit) Electric Auto Association (EAA), a volunteer position. He also serves as chair of the EAA Plug-in Hybrid Special Interest Group and is on the 4evriders.org board of directors. He has been driving electric vehicles since 1999. He has bought, repaired and sold several electric vehicles and has been an adviser to other electric vehicle enthusiasts.

Jerry has written several articles for the EAA Current EVents monthly newsletter and served a 3 year term on the EAA Board of Directors. He also appeared briefly in the Sony Classics movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, and delivered comments to the California Air Resources Board during their Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate Public Hearings in 2003.

Jerry has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electronic Engineering from Cal Poly State University (San Luis Obispo) and a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from Santa Clara University. He is currently employed as a senior test engineer working in Newark, CA. Previously, Jerry worked as a test engineer at Sun Microsystems, Siemens Communications and IBM. He is also a partner at www.eeVeeMotors.com – a company that is offering an all-electric 2001 Honda Civic conversion for sale.

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