Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Day with the Nissan Leaf - Electric Transportation Land

With my in-laws coming in via train for Courtney's graduation, they decided to rent a Nissan Leaf, one of the few fully electric cars on the market right now, to get themselves around town while they're down.  For various logistical reasons, I had to pick up the Leaf a day early, and had 24 hours to use it as my primary mode of transportation.

While I am not exactly "in the market" for a fully electric car (my goals are more oriented towards driving as little as possible and living in a walkable, bikable neighborhood), I recognize that they will play an essential role in an overall shift in private transit if we ever want to kick fossil and foreign oil-based fuels.  Also, I am a bit of a technocrat, and I just love new things.

There are a number of fun features on the leaf, many of them designed specifically to give you good feelings while driving it.  From the cute sounds it makes to let you know it is on (there is no engine noise while idling, and hardly any while driving) to the little trees that "grow" on your dashboard display when you drive efficiently, the car is made to make you feel good about yourself for driving it.  And it works, a little.  Until it backfires.

When I picked up the car, the dashboard display informed me that I had about 89 miles of potential charge on the battery.  It comes up with this estimate based on the car's individual driving history, which is personalized to you if you own it but for a rental car is all over the map.  As I started to drive I was intentionally being as efficient as I possibly could, and I watched as the potential miles crept up as I drove.  From the starting point at 89 miles, I got over a hundred within 6 minutes.  But then I made a terrible, unforgivable mistake.  I was brash and foolish enough to drive over a hill.  The Leaf handled the hill just fine, acceleration and responsiveness were great, but the potential miles plummeted as I ascended.  As I climbed the hill, I had a sinking, anxious feeling that I would get to the other side and not have enough charge on the battery to get back!

That panic was unwarranted, as it turned out, the car had plenty of charge to get me where I needed to go for the full 24 hours, but in about 1 quarter mile of steep incline I used up 30 miles of potential in the battery.  As I was born and raised in a town that is all hills, with only one moderately flat street, it struck me that electric vehicles would be impractical for entire cities such as Laguna Beach, San Francisco, or any other topographically challenged locale.

Also, the  eighty to one hundred miles of potential on a full charge is more than enough for the average commute plus jaunt around town (unless you live in a sprawling mega-city like Los Angeles), but it is extremely limiting once you start thinking about traveling, or work that requires a lot of driving (sales jobs, couriers, or taxis e.g.).  So in the end, the Leaf can be an excellent commuter, if you live in a moderately sized city with no hills, but it does not provide the all around one stop shopping silver bullet to all of your transportation needs that internal combustion does.

But there never is a silver bullet is there?  The Leaf is a cool car, and fun to drive, but if we are serious about kicking foreign oil and fossil fuels, we still need better public transit, design for walkable and bikable cities, more programs like flex cars, and some internal combustion run on bio-fuels, methane, or some as yet undiscovered other renewable energy.  In other words, the solution will be a patchwork, involving all of the technologies that have been presented as silver bullets.  As it has been said by many others (Grist, Wired, to name a few) silver buckshot is the solution, and the Leaf is one attractive little pellet in that mix.


  1. Not the vehicle to go see the pals living in south hills of Eugene, but would be perfect for the flatness of Bethel.

  2. Amazing vehicle, hope that this vehicle costs gets lower so that it can be within reach of everyone. Time to switch from expensive and polluting petrol fuel to electricity.

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