Monday, November 21, 2011

In Which We Drive Electric

So Modo has an all-electric, plug-in, car.

[Modo's full-electric car]

It's a Nissan Leaf. The car was purchased by Modo, without any subsidy (the BC gov't has recently introduced a rebate program for these things). They put it at City Hall because their data shows that the users in that area typically only drive the cars for 10-20km. And this kind of car is ideal for those users.

We booked it for an afternoon shopping excursion this past weekend. The car lives at Vancouver City Hall, so it was in fact an excursion for us to go and get it (and then drop it off as well!). But we really wanted to try it.

The car was fun to drive, but the most surprising thing is how much it just resembles a regular car, both inside and out. The biggest difference is that there's no key! The Modo fob lets you unlock the car, and there is no ignition key. Just a power button. Another button for the parking brake, and a selector for the gear. The car is very zippy - lots of acceleration. And it is dead silent. Just a little electric whine every now and then. What amazed me was that there are seat warmers - this seems ill-advised, in an electric car! Maybe I'm over-analyzing, but seems to me that if I drive in the cold and dark, with the heat on full and the lights blazing, my range will be

[just turn it on!]

Inside, the car has a lot of displays, some of which can be quite distracting. There's a "rear view camera", which shows what you are going to hit (or, more hopefully, what you WON'T hit) as you are backing up. The danger here is that you wind up staring at the screen and not out your rear window, which is probably what you should be doing...then there are all the screens with range and performance displays, which for a conehead like me are incredibly distracting.

The car is plugged in to a special charging station at City Hall. Someone had used it before us, so it wasn't fully charged when we picked it up - out of a "maximum charge" of some 150km, we picked it up with about 125km left.

[plugged in...]

We drove it to Sapperton (where we live), and then off to our usual grocery shopping. After running all our errands and driving it back, the charge left was about 25km. At this point, we called Modo and let them know that the next person would probably have to be put into a different car unless they weren't planning on going very far. The car needed a charge, and it does take several hours to charge fully again. Note: I don't believe we drove100km. There isn't a one-to-one correspondence between the estimated range remaining and the distance you've driven, because it depends on the mix of highway/city driving, regeneration on hills, etc. But still, clearly, as suburbanites, we shouldn't be taking this thing on a regular basis because it screws those people booking it after us. This is not the car you should be booking for a trip to Whistler!

Oh, and while we're on the topic of mileage, this car's odometer is calibrated with the onboard broadcasting system, so Modo knows how far you've driven it. No need to fill out any paperwork! Just fob out and leave when you're done!
But you do see the limitation on these vehicles: the range. It is like driving around with 1/8 tank, and no gas stations around; kind of anxiety-inducing. So, like I've said before, unlike hybrids, fully electric cars are not drop-in replacements for the family car. Even in a fleet like Modo's, the use has to be carefully planned, and for Modo it can work because they have a large range of alternate vehicles at the Leaf's location.  I see that Car2Go is in the process of launching a fully-electric (SmartCar) fleet in San Diego and also in Amsterdam. They have a different use model, one that doesn't require you to leave the car back at it's "home" location, so I am quite curious about how they handle the charging aspect.

The other big barrier to these vehicles is price. The Leaf costs on the order of $40k (for a small-sized car: like a Toyota Matrix or something)! This is way out of reach of most folks. Because the car is so new, there isn't much data yet on reliability or battery life, but I'm guessing it isn't 10 years. So a larger organization can afford these, but not your typical family.

All that said, I think this is great advertising for Modo.


  1. Hey Reena! I really enjoyed reading this. You had a question about the impact of the seat heaters on the battery/range. There are separate batteries in the car: one for the driving and one for the accessories. The manual in the car would have details on how the accessories battery is affected.
    Thanks for this post! Glad you enjoyed the experience.

  2. Great Post! I've heard from Modo Member Services that the reasoning behind Nissan installing seat warmers is because it takes less energy to heat the individual versus the whole interior of the car.