Leaving the Leaf: When Anxiety Becomes Anger

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Nov 16, 2011

Nissan Leaf (Nissan)

What's the biggest problem with electric cars? As any blow-dried TV anchorman or ordinarily intelligent house cat can tell you, it's lack of range. Because once you run out of juice, there's literally no going back. Exhaust your battery charge, fella, and you're looking at hours, maybe as many as 8, 9, 10, 11,12 of them or more -- if you don't have a faster, 240-volt charging station handy -- to revitalize your battery, your ticket back to the warm embrace of hearth and home. Or, if you're in a real hurry, you might have to walk.

That's not the worst thing in the world, though you wouldn't know it to read the reams of hostile ink being spilled lately on electric cars, now that there actually is one -- the Nissan Leaf -- that's worth buying, with more in the wings. What electric cars' sternest critics forget to mention is the fact that most of the millions of journeys undertaken each day are short. You won't run out of juice and you won't find yourself stranded, your bones left for coyotes and crows to pick over. Depending on where you live and what you do, the typical electric car's range -- somewhere between 60 and 100 miles -- might easily cover all your day's chores: shopping, kid-schlepping, bar-hopping and more. Then again, it might not.

Range isn't a problem when you don't venture too far afield. And there is a quiet pleasure, even joy, in never having to buy gasoline. But you can't take an electric car on vacation, unless you're planning on spending your holiday at a nearby shopping mall, ideally one with its own public recharging facility. Or if you tow your electric car to your destination, the way Nissan delivered a Leaf to my house -- on a trailer.

Nissan Leaf dashboard display. (Wikimedia)

And then there's what happens to you when you do like I did last week. I borrowed a Leaf, and attempted to commute 25 and 30 miles, each way, in and out of New York City each day from my suburban micro-manse. Most days it worked out great. I logged almost 300 miles in a week without buying a drop of gasoline. I enjoyed the silent running of a well-screwed together electric car, (some I've driven in the past were glorified telephone booths) and the appreciative thumbs-up I received from right-minded citizens, many, it ought to be noted, in rather large and thirsty European sports utility vehicles. But, hey, if my ride makes them feel better about themselves, well, why not? Maybe one day they'll have a car of their own that isn't an eco-embarrassment.

Nissan Leaf charging station. (Wikimedia)

One downside was having to wedge the Leaf every night into my ungenerously-sized garage -- ideal for my 1966 MG 1100 but not much else -- to plug it into its charger. This architectural limitation of my 19th century home makes it hard to say how much of a residual irritation factor can be attributed solely to my crappy garage. But then there is this thing about running out of juice. They call it "range anxiety." Being the sort of person who delights in squeezing the last tenth of a mile out of a tankful of gas, I didn't think I'd suffer from it much and I didn't. Once again, this put me at odds with many of my colleagues in the automotive division of the Fourth Estate, whose nervous Nellie articles and hand-wringing blog posts about their fears of running out of battery charge make for a hilarious, big sissy counterpoint to their usual chest-thumping rants about 450-horsepower Camaros coming up shy on power and their irritation over being unable to switch off traction control systems that inhibit their ability to spin their rear wheels during hard cornering.

Entering my week with a Leaf, I thought the range criticism was just the noisome combination of knee-jerk internal combustion lovers and the inevitable oil company plot to keep the public hooked on dino-juice. And I still think these are elements, but I must confess it's a more serious criticism than I'd realized.

I discovered as much a few weeks back when the East Coast was slammed with an October surprise of a freak snowstorm. Lights, action, reversing camera: While I prepare to drive back to the burbs one Saturday morning after a night in New York City, it started to snow. So I put on the wipers…and an indicated 45 mile remaining range instantly shrank below 40. Then I put on the heater and the defroster and drove a few miles and it was down to 25 miles. Headlights took it down a little further. And suddenly I was technically out of range of home. Where, being a dope, I'd left my charger. Not that this mattered much, because for the charger to have any utility, (no pun intended,) first I'd have had to find a place to plug it in, and then I'd have to spend the rest of the day and part of the night cooling my heels before setting off back home.

While a feint wisp of nervous perspiration might have been detected on my brow, I was able to keep it in perspective, because I surmised (rightly, it turned out,) that I could grow available range by leaving the highway and 60 mph speeds behind, for secondary roads, 30 mph speeds, and periods of no wipers, defrosters or headlights. While this was sub-optimal from a safety standpoint, at least we would make it home.

But my family members, green wannabes who'd only moments earlier been applauding me for hauling their proletarian asses around sans essence, were suddenly calling me a raving sociopathic dipstick for willfully putting their lives in jeopardy, blithely running the risk that we might run out of juice miles -- ok, maybe only four or five miles -- from home. In the end we made it, with four miles of charge to spare. But range anxiety had turned into range rage and I spent the rest of the weekend in the doghouse. If I bought a Nissan Leaf now, I'd probably need to plan on sleeping in it, too.

Which is an over-reaction on the part of my loved ones, I think, though it does bring me back to my original point -- the biggest problem with electric cars is range. If you travel mostly short distances, or if you own one or two or three other cars, or if you don't mind walking, the Leaf is for you. Once charging stations are widely available, once charging times are reduced -- bring on the flash chargers --things change mightily. But for now, this one's for early adopting types, the resolutely unattached and the emphatically unscheduled.

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