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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

What will it be like to own an electric car in 2011?

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electric car, hybridVery few people really know much today about the experience of owning an electric vehicle of course, given that EVs are not widely available. Nissan hopes to change this by the end of the year when its fully electric Leaf debuts. However, owning an electric vehicle promises to be a lot different than owning any other type of car, different even from plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt set to arrive later this year as well.


The main difference is, obviously, that an electric car has no backup power (such as the plug-in Volt's gasoline combustion engine). If, for example, you find yourself in your Leaf with an empty battery miles from home, it'll be a bit like running out of gas, except that in an old-fashioned car you could walk to the nearest gas station or call AAA or a tow truck for help. Re-charging an electric battery requires a power source and, although there may very well be roving re-charge trucks deployed from service stations in the future, this won't be a great backup plan in the near term.


The 13,000 people who put down $100 deposits for the first Leafs to roll off the assembly line need not despair. Plans are underway to ensure that these forward-thinking motorists have the juice they need to safely get from one power source to the next.


Here's how the car companies, power utilities and car-charging infrastructure providers hope it will work:


The experiences might vary a bit, but for the most part as you hurry out the door to, say, work or school, you'll unplug your fully charged electric car and hit the road. Your car, by the way, will have been charging in your garage or driveway from a 220-volt outlet over a period of six-to-eight hours, most likely while you were sleeping. If you chose instead to "trickle charge" your car using a normal 110-volt outlet, don't expect the battery to be fully recharged.


If your car is a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, and you were one of the first 4,400 buyers eligible, you'll have charged your car using a home charging station from either ECOtality, Inc. or Coulomb Technologies. These will have been given to you and installed for free, thanks to grant money from the Department of Energy's Transportation Electrification Initiative, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is expected to save Volt drivers about $2,000.


Drivers of the fully electric Nissan Leaf, which goes on sale in Japan, the United States, Portugal and the Netherlands starting in December, will likely get their home charging stations from either ECOtality or AeroVironment, Inc. ECOtality plans to provide free home-charging stations and installation for up to 4,700 Nissan Leaf owners in markets where its EV Project operates, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Houston. AeroVironment, which will install South Carolina's network of EV-charging stations,  is instead relying on the 50 percent federal tax credit up to $2,000 being offered for those who buy its charging dock and use its trained installers. A 220-volt home charging station is expected to cost about $2,200, excluding any wiring upgrades that homemakers need to make.


Recharging batteries while away from home will be a bit of a challenge, at least until the highly anticipated "fast-charging" kiosks are installed in service stations, parking garages and elsewhere. These charging stations promise to recharge most (although not necessarily all) of an electric car's lithium-ion battery in about a half hour thanks to a 480-volt connection. It's not clear, however, how drivers are supposed to occupy themselves for those 30 minutes or so while their car is fast charging. It would be poor form to leave your car alone at the charging station while you go shopping, particularly if someone is waiting behind you for access to the charger. This would be like abandoning your clothes in a Laundromat dryer while others are waiting, with baskets of wet clothes, for your return. If a queue forms for a fast charging station, then "re-fueling" your car will be more like waiting in line for an oil change or car wash than it would be for a fill-up at the gas station.


Image ©iStockphoto.com/ Lya_Cattel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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