At the office we've been passing around the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, an all-electric vehicle already on sale in Japan and scheduled to make its American debut in late 2011. (Funny how those launch dates for EVs get pushed out six months as you get closer.) We're all excited to drive the future, but this little electric plastic bubble is causing "range anxiety." Will we have enough juice to make it to our destination and back? The i-MiEV originally was supposed to have a range of 80-100 miles, but real-world testing is coming in at only about 60 miles.
Before incentives, the i-MiEV will cost $30,000, though its drivability and fit and finish are closer to that of a golf cart. That's because at least half the cost of the vehicle is in the battery - a tough sell when the battery only gets you so far.
On a regular old gas engine, range anxiety kicks in at about an eighth of a tank. This is when normal people fill up, unless you're an 18-year-old with lint in your wallet. Still, if you pushed it, you would know you'd have 40 miles or so until you're walking down the turnpike with a gas can. But this is only where the fun begins with electric vehicles.
I ventured out of the office with the i-MiEV on a full charge. I calculated 15 miles to home, another 15 for errands and 15 miles back to the office. At 45 miles I figured I'd be okay, but a 15-mile cushion between me and an empty tank just didn't sit well. I don't have an outlet near my parking space at my apartment.
I needed to be in Santa Monica that evening. An Internet search revealed a charging station on the Santa Monica Pier. Voila! Problem solved - except that the charging station was in a parking lot that cost eight bucks, and the attendant wasn't so taken by the novelty of my vehicle that he was willing to cut me a deal. Ultimately, I found a 110-volt outlet in my garage in the maintenance workers' space, and I ignored the "No Parking" signs. This is first-adopter civil disobedience, not electricity theft.
Ultimately, I found a 110-volt outlet in my garage in the maintenance workers’ space, and I ignored the “No Parking” signs. This is first-adopter civil disobedience, not electricity theft.
All-electric sedans are not ready to replace internal-combustion engine functionality. (Let's see how the market responds to the more-expensive Chevy Volt with its range-extending gas tank. Indeed, GM is trying to trademark the phrase "range anxiety.") Fast chargers (full charge in a half hour) are a necessity. A day trip - for even the most meticulous route planner - is impossible without one. The charging infrastructure is being built in first-adopter cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, but it may be a few more years before you see them anywhere else. Even with charging stations along the way, charging time would need to be cut down to 10 minutes to make longer trips viable.
Range anxiety will be with us for some time. Unlike computer processing power, which is said to double every two years, lithium-ion battery technology has been flat in terms of power gains since 2003. Winfried Wilcke of Battery 500 Project, a consortium that aims to create a battery with a 500-mile charge, recently said the ability to charge your battery in a matter of minutes and then drive for hundreds of miles could be as many as 50 years off.
With technology limitations, the key for greater use of EVs initially is in getting route planning down to a science - facilitated, I'm sure, by GPS and software programs.
The key for fleets in the immediate future may be in work truck applications. Dedicated routes and the ability to fuel at a central depot (mostly universities, government fleets and large parcel delivery companies) make them good guinea pigs. The folks at Boulder Electric Vehicles, independent manufacturers of electric work trucks, claim that 80 percent of their clients do not need to charge during the day.
The point is that we need to work within EVs' limitations, not whine about them. These are exciting times in the world of electric vehicles - just get ready for the long haul.