Adventures & Misadventures of an EV in the Country (Part 1)

May 04, 2015

Now living in the country commentator Joe Lado asks, is an EV practical in a rural setting?

Most of you know me as a born and raised Washingtonian. I was born in Georgetown Hospital, lived my youth in the suburbs of Washington, DC in Maryland and as an adult in Virginia. I have owned or had use of plug-in electric vehicles for more than a decade starting with a production converted Pontiac Fiero with solar panels on it named Destiny2000 by its converter/manufacturer Solar Electric Engineering. I named that electric vehicle my EV SOL. With that vehicle I learned that even just having 50 miles as total range an EV was a practical car to own and drive. Over the hood of that vehicle I have preached to thousands of people the benefits of owning a plug-in vehicle. However, (pause) when people have asked me would an EV be practical in a rural community, I have always told them that plug-in vehicles don't meet everyones needs and having to travel long distances such as those found in farming and rural communities were not conducive to owning an electric vehicle. Keep in mind that my view was colored by my 50 mile range and that I was speaking from total ignorance having never lived in a rural community.

Now just might be the perfect time to test my ignorant assumption. You see I have moved to a largely farming, rural community. I have also put a gap in my plug-in driving. My EV SOL is in need of some serious repair and, frankly, I wasn't sure if I would be able to own an EV out here where the distances between towns are long and charging opportunities are minimal. Having been a super proponent of plug-in living, not having an EV felt very, well, uncomfortable. I knew that a plug-in range extended vehicle like the Volt would work fine out here since there are plenty of gas stations to keep that vehicle going even without plugging in. I felt that a plug-in hybrid or range extended EV wouldn't have been a real challenge to my assumption. A challenge would be to have a pure electric vehicle out here. I can't afford a Tesla model anything right now. The challenge would be seeing whether a more commonly sold EV, one such as the Nissan, Leaf, would test my assumption that pure electric vehicles are not suited for rural driving. If I owned an EV with a commonly available range of around 90 miles or so, would it work?

Surfing the Internet to my surprise I found that a Nissan dealer that was only about 55 miles away was having a spectacular sale on used Nissan, Leafs. This dealer had made a commitment to the Leaf and had plenty of new vehicles on the lot, as well as, a commendable inventory of used vehicles. This opened the door to the possibility to truly challenge my assumption. Because I was afraid that my suppositions were true I wanted to make sure I had an EV that had features that would compensate for its limited range. First thing that came to mind was DC quick charging. The nearest city to where I live was just inside my total range and I hoped that by having a quick charger this would allow me to go into the city, do business and enjoy the amenities, quick charge and return home. With the Nissan, Leaf the thing I was looking for was CHAdeMO quick charging.

Out here, chances are that the only charging available would be at my home. Since I was planing to use the EV a lot I needed a means to fast charge at home, or so I was thinking. I can't afford to install a DC quick charger at home, the Leaf, I felt, would need a minimum of a 6.6 kw onboard charger. My thinking was that the sooner the vehicle charged up at home after one of its long local trips the more available and useful the vehicle would be and the greater the chance that it would work as a practical vehicle in this rural community. The Leaf with the 6.6 kw charger could charge up from a fully depleted battery to full in about 4 hours provided that the station can match or exceed the 6.6 kw juice. After that there were things of comfort that I wanted, but nothing of significance. It was time to find a vehicle that fit my needs.

With sales information in hand and other errands to run in the big, far away city, with my wife navigating we made our way to look at some Nissan, Leafs. When we got to the dealer lot it was crowed with vehicles, but just as they said in their ads, there were dozens of Leafs to choose from. We found the sales person that I had contacted while making inquiries and we narrowed down the search to a few 2013s that met the criteria and were low in cost. Many of the vehicles that I had seen online had already been sold, a testament to the popularity of the vehicles in this northerly midwest city. We test drove a Brilliant Silver SL. It was nothing new to me. I had dest driven and have been given rides in Nissan, Leafs since 2011. I knew what it was like, so when the ride was over my wife and I decided that we wanted the vehicle. Several hours later we left with the vehicle and were heading for home. This is where the adventure really begins.

Being an experienced EV driver before we left home I had mapped out the route we were going to return on an online map. The shortest distance between the dealer and home was 55 miles. The route was simple and straight. My wife had suggested another route that was 75 miles long that would take us by the airport, a route she knew well and was comfortable with, but I felt that we couldn't risk it. This was a new vehicle to us, but it was still a used vehicle. I had no idea if the batteries would actually do the 90 miles. EPA's range rating of the Leaf was only 75 miles. The Leafs milage guesser read 90 miles, however, we were going to do all the miles on highways, the worst kind of driving for EV range. My preplanned route was going to be the way we were going to go because it was the shortest, period the end.

We were to leave the dealer just about rush hour and the streets were going to be clogged. My wife and I decided that we would go out to eat and wait for rush hour to subside a bit before heading home. The sales person made a suggestion for a restaurant and so we decided to go there since it was only a mile or two away. He gave me instructions on how to get there and away we went. I didn't put the route home into the navigation system because we weren't going home just yet, we were going to eat dinner. I followed the instructions, go right on the service road, left on to the road that goes over the highway, left on the highway, then right (what I forgot was he said the right after going under such and such bridge after such and such road). I didn't expect that I would be flustered by this new city's highway system. Nearly immediately after leaving the dealership I found myself on a wrong superhighway with few exits. I looked in my rearview mirror and the car behind me appeared to be my wife driving behind me. I looked to the first exit, which was a several miles down the road, to turn off and refigure my route. I began to worry about how these extra unplanned miles were going to impact the trip home. At the first exit I began to signal that I was going off the road and when I entered the exit lane the vehicle behind me didn't move into the exit lane. I jumped back on to the highway and wondered what my wife was thinking by not following me. Looking in my rear view mirror I noticed that my wife's car was driving erratically going way off onto the shoulder. Was my wife trying to signal me to stop on the shoulder of the road? Suddenly, a vehicle raced past me and pulls into the lane right in front of me that looks identical to our family vehicle, the one my wife was driving behind me. Then I realized that the vehicle I thought was my wife's car was not my wife's car, my real wife was now in front of me and not driving erratically. I assumed she wanted me to follow her since we were now on an unplanned detour. However, she was driving much faster than I was and I, nervous about the range, kept trying to drive a little slower to help with the range now that we were in uncharted territory. Eventually the distance between us was filed with other vehicles with my wife's car far ahead of me. Exits are coming and going and she was not leaving this highway to stop.

Eventually, I see her pull off at an exit and I follow her making sure that it is our vehicle and not one that just looks like our vehicle. She pulls into a small strip mall that has a couple of restaurants in it and I pull in next to her. She jumps out of the car and says, “How did you get behind me since you pulled off back a few miles?” I returned with a puzzled look on my face, “I followed you off the exit from the highway.” It turned out that she had been so far a head because she also thought that the vehicle behind her was me and that I was keeping up with her fast pace. We laughed ate dinner and told each other the trip so far from our particular vantage points. She moving fast to get around the vehicle that was similar to her's because it was driving erratically and was worried that the driver was drunk and would either hit our “new” car or crash in front of her. She told me how she was panicked when the vehicle she thought was mine exited the highway behind her. She thought that I was having car troubles and pulled off the highway to find a place where she could call me and come and get me. She, being more familiar with the highways here having grown up in the area, knew that I had gone on the highway that was her suggested 75 mile route home. She assumed that since I had gone onto that highway that I must have decided not to stop and eat and just drive her route home. When she pulled in front of me and took the possition to lead our tiny caravan that was her assumption, we were going home on her route, and that is why she wasn't stopping at the exits. At this point we were near the airport and doubling back would only add miles to the trip. The shortest distance home from our current stop was the rest of her route. I didn't know if we would make it, but I had driven electric before and knew I could extend the range a bit by applying hypermiling techniques and crossing my fingers. There were no guarantees that this adventure was over.

We set off on the road again, and with rush hour traffic, my desire to go slow and my wife's desire to keep to the speed limit separated us again. The only difference being that once past the airport the scenery became familiar. I recognized landmarks and strip-malls and places where my wife and I had been. That familiarity helped keep me calm as the miles and minutes that seemed like hours went by. At least if I didn't make it home I could call my wife and tell her where I was with some certainty. I stuck to my hypermiling as best as I could while keeping up with traffic as best as I could. When I got to the place where we, on her route, transitioned off the superhighway to travel on smaller roads I knew I was almost home.

As I got to the smaller roads I saw in front of me the vehicle my wife was driving turn into a bank parking lot. I followed her in and when we got next to each other she told me she was pulling off the road to wait for me to pass. (She was confident that I would make it that far.) She asked me how my miles were doing and I looked down at my guestimator and we had about 30 miles of range left. For me this was kind of a Loaves and Fishes thing because I knew we had already gone more than 60 miles guestimated when you subtract the 30 miles guestimate where we were now from the 90 mile guestimate where we started from. However, I also knew that we were less than 30 miles from home, and we would be on local roads that are typically kinder on EV range mileage. I relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the trip home.

When I pulled into my driveway I had 16 miles left on the guestimator and the low battery warnings had just appeared on the dashboard. For curiosity sake, I looked at the trip odometer on the Leaf and it showed we had traveled 80.1 actual miles from leaving the dealer. Add to it the 16 miles I had left that would mean that this Nissan, Leaf had somewhere around 96.1 miles actual range. That would mean that the range circle around my home was significant. I could easily go places with in 40 miles from my home and not have to think about whether I would need a charge to make it back home.

So the first test to my assumption that a rural living location is not a place to have an EV has been tested. Can you make it back from the dealer to your home on a single charge while being directionally challenged? The answer is yes. Even when you don't go your carefully planned route there is enough range on a Nissan, Leaf to get you home and then some. I know that question of the dealership and coming back home wasn't really part of the equation, but it certainly became a lesson learned.

Next blog will be on charging an EV on a regular 110v outlet in a rural setting. This is because my purchase of the Leaf was done in some haste to take advantage of the special prices the dealer was offering at that time. Because of the snap purchase of the vehicle I didn't have time to purchase and install a 6.6+ kw charging station ahead of time as I wanted to. So, charging, the adventure continues.

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