The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 16, 2000


A Father's Day Special: Living with an electric car

Have you seen an electric car driving around town lately? Have you been stuck behind it creeping up the hill on Lowell Street? That was me, bringing the kids home from school, or doing some other errand within a 25-mile radius of our electric outlet.

Last November, my wife and I fulfilled a long-standing desire to have an electric car. (I can't say the big three auto makers have been particularly helpful in this endeavor.) We got the car partly for environmental reasons, partly to try something new and different, and partly to prove that the big three are wrong: electric cars are practical and people will buy them.

There are at least four electric or electric-gas hybrid cars commercially available now:

GM EV1 two-seat electric, available only in the southwest

Honda Insight two-seat electric-gas hybrid

Toyota Prius four-seat electric-gas hybrid

Solectria Force four-seat electric, assembled in Wilmington, Massachusetts.

For us, the choice was easy. The Solectria was the only one available in New England last fall. So, we went to Mirak Chevrolet in Arlington and bought one.

The Solectria Force starts its life as a Chevy Metro, purchased by Solectria as a "glider"without an engine or transmission. They are delivered to Wilmington where Solectria cuts a few holes and installs 13 12 volt lead acid batteries (156v, all safely shielded), various electronic black boxes, an electric motor/generator, and a battery charger. They only build 2 or 3 at a time, which means they aren't cheap. The base price of $27,000 could be far lower if they were produced in large quantities since there is nothing particularly expensive in the electric system. When we visited the factory, they were also in the process of converting a school bus and a delivery van. I've seen one of their vans in Montreal, the land of hydro-electricity.

How far can you go?

Everyone's first question when they see our car is: "How far can you go without recharging it?" The answer depends on how you drive, and how long you want the batteries to last. You can go at least 50 miles, roundtrip, as long as you drive carefully and stay off the highway. Unfortunately, discharging the batteries fully can harm them, so we usually avoid such long trips, unless we can recharge somewhere enroute. One good example of this is driving to Alewife where we can leave the car plugged in to recharge, and take the subway into town. Even if all the chargers at Alewife are occupied, preventing us from recharging, the roundtrip from our house to Alewife is safely within the range of the car. Actually, we use the car mostly for local errands, a typical trip being from 5 to 20 miles. As soon as we return home, we plug the car in and it recharges completely in 15 minutes to an hour. It is almost always fully charged by the next time we need it. The longest trip we do is to visit some friends in Plaistow, New Hampshire. That is 30 miles of highway driving one-way, well within the car's range as long as we recharge it at their house before coming home. As a couple of other examples, both Nashua and Newton are about 20 miles away, easily within round-trip range, even with some driving at highway speeds.

Recharging the batteries

To recharge the batteries, you simply plug it in to either a 120v or 240v outlet. A 20 mile trip requires about one hour to recharge at 240v or three hours at 120v. Either way, it uses about 35 cents of electricity. That is equivalent to more than 100 miles per gallon at current gas prices. (Unfortunately, I expect electric rates to increase substantially once deregulation is completely phased in).

We got the car with conventional lead-acid batteries, however Solectria offers optional nickel metal hydride batteries which will go 120 miles. They are extremely expensive, and quite unnecessary for us. If the question is "how far will the car go", then our answer is "far enough".

The lead-acid batteries are hidden inside metal boxes, half in front where the engine used to be, and half in the trunk where the spare tire ought to be. They have gelled electrolyte so they can't leak. I am told they are safer in an accident than a tank of gasoline.

No transmission

The Solectria drives very much like a regular car except it has no transmission (Hallelujah! I hate shifting) and uses regenerative braking. This means that when you take your foot off the gas pedal, the car slows down as the energy is converted back to electricity and put back into the batteries. If you drive carefully, you rarely need to touch the regular brake pedal. I expect the brake pads will last the life of the car! When driving slowly, such as in a parking lot, the car is almost silent. As you pick up speed, however, it starts to hum progressively louder and with a higher pitch. The regenerative braking also makes a hum with a different character. It is not silent, but is quite enjoyable, almost musical.

Lead-footed drivers

The car has plenty of power to jump away from a stop and to zip up hills, but several things discourage that type of driving. First, there is a meter right on the dashboard showing you how much electricity you are using. If gasoline cars had that (and if people cared about their gas mileage), then you wouldn't see so much jack-rabbit style driving. Using all that power routinely will shorten the car's range and the battery life. Solectria provides a way to help lead-foot drivers like me. A selector lever lets you choose among 3 driving styles: anemic, normal, and profligate. (Solectria calls them: max range, normal, and max power.) I routinely drive in the anemic setting which is a very relaxed way to get around. However, if someone is behind me, I switch to normal which provides plenty of power so the person behind has no cause for complaint. If you have been stuck behind me driving slowly, it's because I didn't notice you, not because the car can't go any faster. The profligate setting is required for driving 70mph on the highway; a very profligate thing to do in any car.

The car has an electric heater which is barely adequate and reduces the car's range by about one third. We, therefore, got the optional diesel heater. It is better than the electric heater, but not dramatically. It also smells and is philosophically embarrassing. I regret, somewhat, its purchase and do, sometimes, neglect to refill its tiny fuel tank. We used about 2 gallons of diesel last winter.

Back to our bohemian days

A Chevy Metro is not exactly a luxury car, but rather, a nostalgic reminder of our bohemian college days. It was, therefore, a little painful to pay a luxury car price for a car whose dome light doesn't come on when you open a passenger door and has none of the other remote control gadgets we've become accustomed to.

GM also makes an electric car, the EV-1 which is only available in the southwest, so it isn't of much interest to us. It achieves a long range (over 100 miles) with expensive batteries, lightweight construction, and only two seats.

The other two cars which have recently arrived on the market from Honda and Toyota, are hybrids which combine very small efficient and clean gasoline engines with batteries and electric motors to provide extra power when needed. You refuel both of them at a gas station and never need to plug them in to charge the batteries because the gasoline engine and regenerative braking do that for you. They both cost around $20K.

The Honda Insight is essentially a two-seat gasoline car with a five-speed transmission. The three cylinder gas engine runs all the time the car is moving and shuts off automatically when you stop and put the transmission in neutral. The battery and electric motor are used to provide more power during acceleration and to recapture energy during braking. Honda claims 65-80 mpg, but local Honda Insight owner Bob Luoma says he gets about 60-70 mpg. Either way, the car can help to clean up our cities' air.

The Toyota Prius is a 4-door car with a lower 40-50 mpg claim. From what I have read, the electric motor plays a more predominant role than in the Honda. While you are driving, the gas engine starts and stops automatically to charge the batteries or provide extra power directly to the wheels when needed.

"Mom's Taxi"

When people talk about electric cars, their major concern always seems to be the cars' range. The car manufacturers have been beating their heads against walls trying to meet the perceived need for more range. One big compromise GM and Honda have done is put only two seats in their cars. The car's range is not, however, the only deciding factor for whether it is a practical, usable vehicle. In our case, we use the car as "Mom's Taxi" and its range is more than adequate. But, if it only had two seats, it would be useless to us. It is important to not fixate on one attribute, but instead consider your overall needs and whether the car meets those needs.

2000 The Carlisle Mosquito