Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ten Months in Our Nissan LEAF and What's Up in the World of EVs

We've lived ten months and almost 9,300 miles with our Nissan LEAF and our relationship with our first EV continues to be a wonderful one.  Like most owners from whom we've heard on the My Nissan LEAF online forum, we've had no reliability problems with the LEAF.  The car continues to deliver smooth, fun and reliable acceleration and quiet cruising for our family of four adults and a small child.    Front seat space is especially good for a smallish car, and while the rear seat room is not large, it is comfortable for two adults and a child.  Charging the car is as easy as plugging it in in the garage like a cell phone at the end of each day's driving.  An on board timer takes care of starting and stopping the charging process after midnight each night, when our electric rates and the demand on the public grid are the lowest.  Most of all, the impression that everyone gets when driving our LEAF or riding in it for the first time, is "It's just like a regular car, except it's so quiet."

The driving range provided by the 24 kWh lithium ion battery pack is a reliable 70 to 80 miles under most driving conditions.  When remaining range is short, the car communicates to the driver in a variety of ways, making it very unlikely that we will run out of power.  In fact, we've never come close to being stranded.  Part of the reason for our confidence is that we quickly became familiar with the car's strengths and limitations.  We don't plan trips in the LEAF that are longer than it can deliver.  Sometimes we rely on mid-route charging from public charging stations or one available at the home of a friend.  Most public charging stations here in California continue to provide free electricity, though some will start to charge a fee in the coming months.  But the average day's driving for us here in suburban Orange County, California is less than 40 miles, so we don't often challenge the full range potential of the batteries.  When we have a longer drive planned to the West side of Los Angeles or to San Diego or the surrounding countryside, we take our hybrid Prius.

One of the great pleasures for me in driving a full battery-electric EV, though, is that because of the solar power that we installed on our home's roof five years ago, we are driving the car completely free of fuel cost, and mostly on clean, renewable solar energy.  This isn't totally free fuel, of course.  It is a payback of the $25,000 that we spent in 2007 to install the solar panels.  But in offsetting the cost of increasingly expensive gasoline, we are paying off that investment much more quickly than we would be if we were only getting the paltry wholesale payments of about three cents per kWh that the utility would be paying us for the excess energy that we generate.  And it needs to be remembered that those solar panels are covering our entire cost of electricity for our household AND charging the LEAF.  As I'll explain next, we may end our net metering year with a small cost of about $40 for all of that power use.  And in two or three years, we will have recovered that initial investment for the solar panels, and our electric power WILL be completely free.

Our January electric bill came in at $81 and was covered by our existing $124 credit balance, leaving a $43 credit balance going into the last month of our net metering year.  I expect next month's bill to be similar to last month's, and that we may end our year owing about $40 for all of our electricity use for a four bedroom home with five occupants and electric cooking.  Had we not had extra electricity use due to additional family members living with us for the past seven months, we would have ended the year with a credit balance and I'd be projecting a balance due of zero, even with charging our EV for what will be over 10,000 miles of driving.

I realized that readers may well want to know what charging a LEAF would cost them if they don't have solar power on their home's roof yet.  I did a few calculations and found that if we didn't have our solar power system, we would be paying about 13 cents per kWh for the night time ("Super Off Peak") charging that we do.  That adds up to about $40 a month for 1,000 miles of driving.  With the LEAF averaging about 3.2 miles/KWh measured at the wall plug, our electricity cost per mile would be about four cents, less than half what it costs us to drive our hybrid Prius and one fourth the cost of driving a gasoline car that averages 25 mpg.  Driving 12,000 miles per year, that difference adds up to a savings of almost $600 per year for driving electric rather than driving America's favorite hybrid, and a savings of $1,440 per year compared to that 25 mpg car.  And the LEAF is way more fun to drive than a Prius.  Believe me, we own them both. And It is a very freeing feeling never to need to take your car to a gas station, and to know that we are not sending petrol dollars to foreign dictators and corrupt governments and that nobody is drilling in our oceans so that we can drive a few miles.

So that the average prospective LEAF driver can get a better idea of the potential costs of driving an EV, I've gone back and edited the "numbers" sections of all of the monthly blog posts since we've been driving the LEAF, and I've added the estimated electricity costs for driving the LEAF if we hadn't had our solar power system.

What is Happening in the World of Electric Cars?
One year ago, we were excitedly waiting for the deliveries of the first of the new wave of affordable, mass produced electric cars, the Nissan LEAFs and the Chevy Volts.  A year later, the EV movement is gaining a lot of momentum and new electric cars have been introduced and some are beginning to be delivered.  I really enjoy watching these developments and I try to stay aware of the special features of these fascinating new power trains, including pure battery electrics (BEVs), hybrids, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), and even hydrogen electrics.  Here are some of the new developments in the field of alternative power train cars.


BMW has begun shipping the first of their ActiveE electric sedans.  The ActiveE is BMW's second research project that puts experimental EVs in the hands of early adopter consumers to learn about the power trains and how drivers will use them.  The ActiveE is a modified BMW 1-Series coupe that combines a 32 kWh battery pack with the power train that will be used in BMW's upcoming i3 production EV, due in 2013.  The ActiveE/1-Series is the smallest two door coupe that BMW imports to the US, and the trunk space is reduced even further due to the intrusion of the drive motor.  BMW is only leasing these cars, and only for a two year period, for $499 per month plus tax after a down payment.

I test drove the ActiveE and found it really fun to drive.  It has the great steering feel and handling that is characteristic of the brand, and the acceleration felt quicker than the LEAF.  Regenerative braking is very strong, and it will take some practice for new ActiveE drivers to learn to find the right touch for the accelerator pedal to keep from having the pedal act as a toggle switch from acceleration immediately into strong braking.  This strong brake regeneration is valued by many EV drivers, and especially drivers of the MiniE, BMW's first customer research car.  On a test drive, though, and lacking any practice in the car, I found that I was thrown forward in my seat as I backed off the pedal after aggressive acceleration.  My impression is that the ActiveE, and perhaps the upcoming BMW i3, need a driver control that adjusts the level of regeneration for various kinds of driving.  At over 4,000 lbs, the car is certainly heavy, and the performance can't match that of the gasoline version of the 1-Series.  But compared with the LEAF, you sit lower in the car, and the handling and steering are really compelling. With a battery that is 33% larger than the LEAF's, even with 25% more weight, early reports lead me to believe that the driving range of the ActiveE will reliably be a full 100 miles under most driving conditions.  The BMW is an attractive package and I admit that I allowed myself to daydream about leasing one for the two years offered, or perhaps sharing a lease with a friend.  But it wasn't a practical idea and we have better uses for the money, so I dropped that idea.

Driving impressions in the following article from the New York Times:

BMW's upcoming i3 will be their first dedicated production EV, and part of their new "i" brand.  The i3 will be a very special car, designed and built from the start to be a very effective EV.  It will be a four seat, four door hatchback with a passenger compartment built of carbon fiber for lightness without sacrificing strength.  It will have the same drive train components as the ActiveE, but a smaller battery to achieve the same driving range with the lower weight of the i3 body.  BMW is said to be planning to add an optional model with an on board gasoline powered generator to provide extended range.  I really like BMWs and I am very interested in the i3 as a choice for our next EV after the lease of our LEAF is over.

BMW is also working on an i8 model, a very impressive looking performance coupe similar-looking to the 6- Series, that will be a plug-in hybrid.  I'd also be interested in the i8, but I expect it to be very expensive.


Coda is getting very close to selling its first car.  This new small company is setting up its dealer network, and the first cars are expected to be sold in San Diego County.  The car itself is based on a gasoline car that is made in China, but without its gasoline drive train and associated parts.  This rolling body and chassis is shipped to California for installation of the batteries and electric drive train by Coda.  Though the original specifications of the car included a 36 kWh battery pack and claimed driving range of 150 miles, Coda has now announced that its base car will have a smaller 31 kWh battery and a range of 125 miles.  This base model saves the customer $2,650 off the price of the model with the larger battery.  Both models are expected to have real-world driving ranges that are better than the competitor Nissan LEAF, with its 24 kWh battery, but proof of this expectation will have to wait for testing under real world conditions.  The Coda also boasts an on board charger that has twice the power of the one found in the LEAF, meaning that with the proper sized wiring, circuit breaker and EVSE (charging dock), the Coda can put twice as many kWh into its battery per hour of charging as the LEAF can.

On the "con" side of its balance sheet, though, Coda has to deal with the facts that it is a new company that has never sold a car before, that the car is utilitarian looking, both inside and out, and that the car's pedigree is Chinese.  I personally find the car uninspiring to look at and the interior materials that I encountered in a pre-production car at last Fall's Alt Car Expo in Santa Monica, and in cars that were on display at the LA Auto Show were hard and inexpensive to the eye and to the touch.  The base price of the Coda before incentives is about $38,000 including destination charge.  This is for the model with the smaller sized battery pack.  This price compares closely to that of a 2012 Nissan LEAF SL, which has a smaller battery, on board charger and range, but which is made by a global manufacturer with many decades of track record in making reliable cars.  The 2012 LEAF SL also has a Quick Charge port that the Coda lacks.  The LEAF has a more modern and attractive design, to my eye, with an interior and electronic displays and features that seem more modern and higher tech.


Also a new California company, Fisker has already delivered cars to the first customers on its waiting list.  The Karma is a stunningly attractive four door "coupe" with long and low lines.  This is one concept car that has made it to the streets in a form very little different from the version shown at the auto shows.  The Karma is a plug-in hybrid, but unlike the Chevy Volt, the gasoline generator only charges the batteries and never mechanically drives the wheels.  Karma pricing begins near $100,000 and goes up from there if you delve into Fisker's option list for upgraded interior materials. 

At a curb weight of 5,400 lbs including its 20 kWh battery pack, it isn't surprising that the Karma can't boast world-beating acceleration or energy economy figures.  According to Motor Trend, even Fisker's most optimistic efficiency claims, determined by a prominent European certification agency, give the Karma a 51.6 mile electric driving range and fuel economy on extended range driving of only 26 mpg.  The EPA quotes significantly lower figures.  So the Karma can't be said to set the world on fire with its energy efficiency.  So what is the purpose of the car?  For its well-to-do clients, the Karma is a very stylish and handsome car that can go 32 miles or more solely fueled by electricity, and even when powered by gasoline, gets mpg that is better than any comparable luxury performance car.  I've seen and photographed the car in person, and I must say that I am glad to see a car this attractive driving our roadways.  It is truly a stunning car, both inside and out.

This year will be the most significant one yet for Ford's plug-in vehicle offerings.  As well as shipping  the first Focus EVs this year, Ford has been showing and announcing new plug-in hybrid offerings; the C Max Energi and Fusion Energi .

The Focus EV is available for reservation only in California and the New York/New Jersey areas at this time.  Deliveries have been pushed back so that the first cars may be delivered late this spring or early summer.  The car is an electrified version of the new and quite attractive 2012 Focus five door hatchback. The battery pack is 23 kWh, which compares with the Nissan LEAF's 24 kWh pack.  While the Focus EV lacks Nissan's Quick Charge feature for really rapid charging at special public stations, the Focus has a standard on board charger that is twice as powerful as that in the LEAF.  So regular home charging and Level 2 charging at the most common public charging stations will be twice as fast as charging at these stations in the LEAF.  For on-the-go charging, this is a significant advantage, requiring half the waiting time (read 3 hours instead of 6 hours for a full charge) at public stations while on short trips.  For regular overnight charging at home, though, owners won't notice much difference compared with the LEAF's charger, since both cars will charge from empty to full during most people's sleep cycle.

The Focus EV is priced higher than a similarly equipped Nissan LEAF, at $40,000 including destination charges for the base model Focus, versus about $36,000 for the base LEAF.  Leather seating is an additional $1,000, but other options are few.  The Focus seems nicely equipped, with a leather steering wheel and well considered electronic guides and entertainment and communication features, and I appreciate the option of leather seating, which isn't available in the LEAF.  Few people have had a chance to drive or even sit in the Focus EV yet.  I read one person's impression, and it was that the rear seating was more cramped than that in the LEAF, and that the rear cargo area is so intruded upon by the battery pack as to really impact its usefulness.  I'll be very interested to read more driving impressions and energy efficiency data when they are known.

The C-Max Energi small van and Fusion Energi mid-size sedan will have a hybrid four cylinder engine and a battery pack large enough to drive on electric power for at least 15 miles before falling back on the hybrid electric power train.  Hopefully, this all-electric range will be closer to 20 miles, but I had hoped for something closer to the 40 miles that some Chevy Volt owners are getting.  A 40 mile electric range would match our family's average daily driving range very well.  With an electric range of half that figure, we would be using gasoline every day, rather than being able to drive mostly on solar electric power, which is our goal.  The C-Max Hybrid and Energi models should be available at the end of 2012 or early next year.  The Fusion Energi will be available in 2013.

General Motors: 
GM has announced concepts for a small fully electric car called the Spark and a Cadillac PHEV coupe based on the Volt platform, called the ELR.  Both of these cars may be introduced to the US during 2013.  See the links below for details.

But for 2012, the Volt will continue as GM's only US plug-in car.  I've said before that I like the Volt.  It performs well, it has a very useful 40 mile electric range, I like the available options and some of the interior materials, and it represents a triumph of engineering.  But the Volt has been the subject of some recent unfair bad press that I want to respond to.  

The NHTSA reported that a Volt caught fire several weeks after it  was subjected to crash tests. This news caused a flood of negative commentary about the Volt on certain news outlets, claiming that the Volt is a fire hazard and unsafe.  The reality is that the Volt in question did not have its battery discharged after the accident as GM recommends, and that the fire took place three weeks after the crash test.  An investigation showed that the fire was caused by the interaction of leaking battery pack coolant fluid with circuits that were part of the battery pack.  source  No Volt fires have taken place on public roadways.  No Volt fires have taken place at a crash site.  No Volt fires have taken place within 24 hours of a crash.  No people have been harmed by a Volt fire.  No other mass produced EVs have caught fire after a crash or a crash test.  GM announced a retrofit campaign to strengthen the battery pack area of the Volt to address the issue. NHTSA deemed the retrofit a sufficient solution.  It should also be pointed out that fires occur in hundreds of thousands of gasoline cars each year, both following crashes and even in uncrashed cars. source  From these facts, I have no concerns about fire safety in the Volt or in any other electric car, and I would buy a Volt without hesitation.

In other news about the Volt, GM has announced an updated model for 2012 in California that has a revised engine that meets CARB standards and will allow the Volt to qualify for HOV lane stickers and a CARB rebate.  While recent sales of the Volt have been slow, it is possible that California buyers are waiting for the new model.  That makes sense to me, because HOV lane access is a very popular perk to California drivers who commute on the state's traffic-clogged freeways.


Honda is stepping lightly into the field of electric cars, in a similar way to BMW's approach, by starting with a lease-only vehicle that can be seen as a test and research project to give Honda more information about the acceptance and usage of EVs in consumers' hands.  Honda has chosen its well respected Fit small car as the platform for this project.  The Fit EV will carry a 20 kWh battery pack, 19 kWh of which is usable, compared with the LEAF's 24 kWh battery, about 21 kWh of which is usable.  The driving range should be similar to the LEAF's 75 to 80 miles in usual suburban driving conditions.  But the Fit brings some attractive hardware to the party.  Like the Ford Focus EV and the Coda, It has a 6.6 kW on board charger that will charge the car at twice the speed as the charger in the LEAF, and it has some interesting driving modes, including Sport, and an Econ mode that allows the car to coast without activating brake regeneration.  I've read that the car is a lot of fun to drive, feeling faster and giving more steering feel than the LEAF.  See the article from Plug In Cars linked at the end of this section for a review.  The Honda Fit EV will be available for three year leases only, and at first only in California and Oregon, apparently, for a base price of $399 per month before taxes and licenses.  No information about a down payment has yet been published The Fit EV is a compelling choice for someone wanting to lease a fun to drive and efficient EV in California or Oregon.

Aside from their experimental hydrogen powered, lease-only program in California for their B-Class wagon and their involvement in the woefully slow Smart ForTwo EV, Mercedes has only two plug-in  EVs on the near horizon, the very exclusive SLS AMG E-Cell Gullwing, link and a B-Class E-Cell Plus extended range plug-in hybrid that may be part of Mercedes' 2013 US lineup.  This PHEV may have a larger electric range than the Ford and Toyota competition, and good gas mileage on the gasoline engine.  Packaged in a flexible wagon/van design, this small Mercedes could be a strong competitor.  See the link below from Green Car Reports.


Having begun deliveries on their small, four seat EV, the Mitsubishi i, just recently, Mitsubishi is looking  to add a PHEV to their lineup.  The "i" is the smallest, least expensive, and highest efficiency mass produced highway capable EV available for sale in the US.  The PHEV will be based on the next Outlander and may have a four cylinder engine plus two electric motors, one in the front and one in the rear for all wheel drive operation.  This new PHEV may be available in about one year, in the spring of 2013.  See the article from Motor Trend below.

2012 is a big year for Tesla.  Their spectacular Model S sedan will begin shipping in July according to Tesla President Elon Musk.  And an even more amazing SUV, the Model X, was introduced in February.

The Model S is Tesla's first car made completely in-house, and as such, will be under a great deal of scrutiny when the first cars are delivered.  This is a very beautiful large sedan, sized slightly smaller than a Mercedes S Class or Audi A8, with large lithium-ion battery packs placed under the floor of the car.  The battery packs range in size from 40 kWh to 85 kWh, which Tesla claims will result in driving ranges from 160 to 300 miles.  Base prices range from $57,400 to $92,400 before incentives and rebates, and then extend to $105,400 for the top of the line Signature Performance model.  The cars will be very quick, with 0-60 mph times as low as 4.4 seconds according to Tesla.  Tesla is making good use of their opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper by designing very good space utilization into the car.  Not only will the Model S have a storage area under the front hood, but the rear hatch area can be optioned with small rear-facing seats for children, making the car a seven-seat sedan!

The really unique thing about Tesla's new designs that separates them from all of the other EV makers is the large capacity of their battery packs, and therefore the cars' longer driving ranges.  Most other makers are designing for a 70 to 100 mile range between charges for city and commuting use.  But Tesla, with target ranges of 160 to 300 miles, is trying to make an EV  that can work well as the primary car for most families.  Tesla is also developing a network of fast charging stations called "Supercharger" stations, that can put enough energy into the car's batteries in 30 minutes for 160 miles of travel.  Typical of Tesla, these stations will not conform to any other standard and will be proprietary to Tesla.  Even Tesla's home charging standard is incompatible with other EVs, and to charge the large batteries of a Model S to make use of the car's full range potential, a homeowner should plan on adding a 70 Amp circuit to his power panel as compared with the smaller 30 to 40 Amp circuits recommended for other EVs.  The cars will be able to charge at public charging stations, in most cases only at 30 Amps or so, using an adapter from Tesla.

With much fanfare, Tesla took the wraps off their third car, the Model X SUV early in February.  The Model X uses the same chassis and battery packs as the Model S sedan, but adds an additional front mounted electric motor for the all wheel drive option.  The really big news, though, is that the Model X has a modified gull wing design for the rear doors.  These so called "Falcon Doors" swing upward from the roof, but also contain a flex joint to allow the doors to rise in a compact manner in the tight quarters of parking lots.  Said to require no more space above the car than the top of an SUV's open rear hatch, the doors should be able to be opened inside most home garages and parking structures.  I'll be interested in seeing the results of tests of this claim.

I find Tesla's new designs exciting and appealing.  For me, though, the proof will be in the quality and detail execution in these brand new cars from a company that has never built a car from scratch before.  Many details of the prototype Model S sedans that I've sat in appear rough and very preliminary.  I hope that the final cars that are delivered will show much more professional construction details.  Especially in this luxury market segment, buyers are accustomed to finding body seams that are very precise, tight, and even, and ancillary controls that work very well.  The other concern that I have with the Teslas is that most of the controls are operated from the huge 17 inch  center touch screen.  I think that touch screen control may be too distracting for the driver as compared with dedicated buttons and knobs that drivers can operate by feel.  Even with vibration touch feedback in the screen (which I've never read that Tesla is even considering), I'm concerned that the driver will need to divert too much attention away from the road to operate ventilation, entertainment and phone functions, not to mention the fact that the Tesla screens will have the option to display Internet pages and Google Maps.  Also, the cars will be heavy, and I'm very interested to read about the energy efficiency of these large cars as compared with the LEAF and other EVs that are currently available.

Toyota executives have said that they believe that hybrid technology is the way to go for this period of time.  They believe that batteries are too expensive to put large ones into cars to provide long driving ranges.  Toyota's first PHEV is the Plug In Prius, available this spring.  With an electric driving range of  only about 13 miles, Toyota's aim is to augment the good mpg of their hybrid drive train with the addition of a small battery pack.  Because I have solar power at home and can drive electrically at low cost, I'm more interested in a PHEV with a long electric driving range so that we will rarely need to use gas.  For many families, though, the Prius PHEV will provide an extra boost of fuel economy that may reach 75 to 80 mpg or more for those with short commutes who charge the batteries regularly.

Toyota is also working with Tesla on an electric RAV4 for California and on an electric IQ, a very small car that competes with the Smart car in size.

The Numbers:
2011 Nissan LEAF SL Placed in Service: March 30, 2011
All Home Charging Done Using: 220 Volt Aerovironment/Nissan Level 2 EVSE
Home Solar PV System: 24 Sunpower 215W panels totaling 5.16 kW DC mounted on a 20 degree South facing roof.

Month:  January 2012
Total Miles at Month End: 9,273 
Miles Driven in Month:  1,099 miles
Electric Power Used for Charging in Month: 321.7 kWh (measured at wall power source, includes public charging)
Public Charging in Month, Power Use:
 32.9 kWh 

Charging at Home in Month, Power Use: 288.8 kWh
Energy Efficiency, Month of January 3.35 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)

Total Charging Energy Used, Lifetime, and Net Metering YTD: 2,908.1 kWh (Includes public charging)
Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  3.19 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  31.3 kWh/100 mi (wall to wheels)
Number of Home Charging Days in Month: 23
Most Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Day in January: 17.6 kWh  (4.8 charging hours)
Least Electric Energy Used at Home for Charging in a Charging Day in  January : 7.6 kWh  (2.1 charging hours)
Average Electric Energy Used for Home Charging in a Charging Day in 
January :  12.6 kWh  (3.4 charging hours)
Household Power Used for Month:  827 kWh (without car charging)
Total Power Used for Month:  1,116 kWh (includes car charging)
Solar PV Power Generated for Month:  538 kWh
Net Power Used or Sent to Grid for Month:  578 kWh net used
January Electric Bill, So Cal Edison, Schedule TOU-D-TEV:  
$81.03 (A charge in this amount will be added to our net metering total charge for the year.)
Solar Net Metering Year Total Cumulative kWh Used at Month #11:  2,556 kWh (Total of 2,556 kWh net used for the net metering year. This is total household and EV charging usage minus solar PV generation.)

Solar Net Metering Year Total Cumulative Cost at Month #11:  -$43.14 (Total cost is still a credit for the net metering year to date due to TOU rates)
Cost for Charging Car in January:  $0.00
Cost per Mile:  $0.00
Cost for Charging Car, Lifetime: $0.00
Cost per Mile, Lifetime: $0.00

(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost for Charging Car in January: $37.54)
(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost per Mile in January: $0.034) 
Average (Mean) Miles per Driving Day in January:  37.9 miles

Average (Median) Miles per Driving Day in January: 36 miles
Longest Day's Driving in January:  76 miles (charged at a public station mid-trip)
Shortest Day's Driving in January:  7 miles
Number of Times we Took the Prius Instead of the LEAF Due to Low Charge: Never
Unexpected Low Charge and Unable to Reach Destination:  Never