So I got an electric car, part 2 – the harsh reality

Hi again. You did read the first part before getting here, right? About me getting a fully-electric vehicle, so I can feel all ethical and moral about the environment?

Well, here comes the most surprising discovery – which didn’t hit me until I was behind the wheel for a few weeks. How ballsy it was for Nissan to take a risk and build a Leaf. Essentially, they designed a car that goes against most tenets that the car industry has been focusing on all these years. No engine. No transmission. No gas tank. No exhaust pipe. Think about how many parts DID NOT have to be made to get this off the assembly line. Think about how many traditional auto jobs were NOT required to make this happen. Think of the trips to the garage I DO NOT have to make. Yes, as a consumer, I’m happy. No oil changes, no leaks, no wasted weekends in my father’s friend’s garage tweaking something or replacing a part (that would cost me more if I went to my “own” dealership). But as a member of an industry (that’s currently in trouble), it’s admirable for Nissan to stand out and say – no, we’re not doing hybrids, and we’re not adding more parts and mechanics to our product. We’re simplifying it. We’re putting in technologies that our customers want (more on that later), and we’re removing oil dependency altogether. No. Fucking. Oil. That’s brave. Risky – but also very, very brave.

Instead, Leaf comes with tons of tech improvements which – while not groundbreaking – are usually reserved for luxury vehicles, or included at an extra $ cost. Small things – like GPS, and a regularly-updated map of nearby charging stations. Things like XM radio, Bluetooth and USB charging/playback functionality. Again – you see these on most cars today – but included ‘out-of-the-box’? Ready-to-use? Things like rear-view camera, programmable garage opener, heated seats and even a small solar panel on the roof. As a person trying to save money on a new vehicle, I probably wouldn’t be looking for these features, but they’re already included, and they’re oh-so-convenient, and intuitive.

The dashboard itself is another well-designed element that slowly reveals its purpose. The biggest number on it is obviously, the speed at which you’re going. That much is clear – you always need to know how fast you’re going. In fact, the speed/current time indicators are physically separated to the very top of the dashboard. But the second-biggest number on the screen (and it’s positioned just off-center to the right), is your range. And this is where Leaf (or any electric car, for that matter) is showing off its true potential and capacity. That number slowly goes up when you drive downhill, or are stuck in a stop-and-go gridlock. That number also quickly shrinks as you floor the gas pedal, while having all windows open, with AC at full volume, climbing uphill. It basically encourages you to drive better. Drive slower, use AC wisely, avoid unnecessary accelerations. It gradually, but visibly, changes your driving patterns. It’s one thing to know (somewhere in the back of your mind) that going under speed limit is not just a safer way to get around, it’s also fuel-efficient. But it’s completely different when it’s in your face. When that range indicator is staying unchanged, even if you know you already traveled more than 1-2km – it’s a cool feeling. And when it suddenly goes up, you begin to realize that indeed this is the new tech, a new way of driving. More responsible, more efficient. Greener. Yeah, the naysayers can just dismiss it as ‘slower’ driving, but the constant visual encouragement of optimal driving habits is right there, on the dashboard.

Don’t get the wrong impression – Nissan Leaf can ‘go fast’, and is quite responsive if you’re in regular drive mode (btw, there are only three driving modes – Reverse, Drive and Drive-Eco; self-explanatory). It is quite comparable to Civics, and Altimas – the torque is impressive. Especially since the car is so light. But if the whole purpose of the car is to be efficient, why drain the battery? You CAN go further, when you just slow down. And when you’re stuck in traffic and not moving – you’re not burning any fuel. You’re not idling and poisoning the air around you.

So, I’m driving around with my nose up these days, getting some approving nods from other drivers, and occasionally turning heads at intersections. Who knew, it would take a small, efficient, compact car to get noticed these days? Whatever happened to muscle cars and roaring engines to get impressed looks at red lights? Of course, as I (re)write this in the middle of a (Canadian, snowy) winter, likely most of the strange looks are of surprised disbelief – an electric car – in this weather – in Canada?!? But hey, it’s still worth it. I initially dismissed the cold-weather issue, and indeed, the battery charge does seem to be draining faster when it’s -15C outside. I was warned about it during the sales pitch. But even at a reduced range, I’m still capable of getting all my family members around, and come back home to recharge at night, and it’s still costing me pennies compared to gas prices today. Let’s see if in spring the battery capacity goes back to where it was.

So this is the present – saving 50-80 bucks a month (it not more), burning no gasoline, fewer trips to the garage, quiet car, super-convenient gadgets and turned heads. I still get around everywhere I need, and burn no fuel to do that. Occasionally, I rent cars for long-range, out-of-town weekend drives. I regularly check the map of charging stations, to see if I can make longer trips, with a couple of re-chargers along the way. The network is growing … slowly (more on that later). I’m living in the futuristic world, free of ‘terrorist oil’, courtesy of ‘our allies in the region’. Or am I? Part 3 is coming up – about the actual future for this type of transportation.

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