Observations on One Year of Driving Electric
I am a gadget guy — an early adopter of new technology — which means I have a garage full of abandoned electronics that either never worked or did something that I did not need doing. But it also means I get the good stuff before anybody else. In October of 2017 I bought an electric car. I have now owned and driven it for a little over a year.
Cars are not ordinarily my thing. For years, I drove Toyotas because Toyotas are cheap, reliable, and I didn’t have to think about them. They got me where I needed to go without drama, and that was all I asked of a car. I drove my Toyotas until the mechanic said that the next repair would cost more than the value of the car, and then I unloaded it on some ne’er-do-well relative to tinker with. I then bought a new one. I don’t tinker with cars.
Although not a car nut, I have been fascinated with electric cars since I first heard about them. I followed the news about electric cars produced by Tesla and Nissan, and told myself that when the Nissan Leaf started getting over a hundred miles of range I would buy one. Tesla was interesting to watch but not an option for me because Tesla sells in the luxury car market and I am not a luxury car person. As I write this, a Tesla model 3 that you can actually buy costs $50,000. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, cost what I was willing to pay and was a car that I saw driven by regular people on the streets where I drive
When the range on the new Leafs topped a hundred miles on a charge, I moved the goal posts and told myself I needed a hundred and fifty. I was waiting for that to happen when Chevy came out with the Bolt. It was a plug-in electric with 238 miles of range. Some magazine that car people care about called it the car of the year. The price of the Bolt was right, and it came with a tax credit that made my accountant happy. The time had come for me to go electric.
Stage 1: How Cool is This?
I get a serious kick out of taking home a new cell phone. Bringing home a new electric car was that on steroids. Electric cars have touch screens, menus, settings, technical manuals, setup procedures and all the things that an aficionado of retail electronics needs to keep himself busy. There were color schemes to select, display options to try out, and cell phones to pair with the sound system. I was in heaven.
Next came the bragging rights. I installed a charger in my garage with a heavy duty cord that reached to my car in the driveway. My extended family all had to drop in to take a look at the new “electric car” in the family and take a test drive. My neighbors, seeing this new car with an electrical cord stuck in its side, stopped by to admire, comment and ask questions. Although Teslas and Leafs are distinctive enough in appearance to announce “I am electric,” the Bolt is not. Nevertheless, people with an eye for such things noticed it and approached me in parking lots to ask about it.
My electric car made me a player in public policy controversies. My conservative brother-in-law resented that fact that his taxes had contributed in the form of a tax credit to pay for my car. My frugal uncle quizzed me on whether, considering the total cost of ownership, I was really saving money by not having to go to the gas station, and my Subaru-driving environmentalist colleague suggested that when you considered the full cost of producing and eventually disposing the Bolt’s huge battery, the car was actually worse for the environment than his. Not really wishing to engage in public policy controversies, my responses were: (1) if the government will help buy my car, I will take the help; (2) buying new, as opposed to used, cars is never a financially sound idea but people like me do it anyway; and (3) I don’t know enough about the environmental debate to opine.
I joined a Reddit group that talks about the ‘Bolt’ experience. Although I did all my charging at home, I found and installed the right apps on my phone so that at any given moment I would know exactly how far I was from a charging station. My phone could also tell me the Bolt’s charging status, its current mileage, and even the current tire pressure. With a tap on a button on my Pixel XL the car would heat or cool the cabin so the interior would be at the perfect temperature when I climbed in.
It was all very cool.
Stage 2: How far will it go.
Everybody, including me, wanted to know how far my new electric car would go on a single charge. My other car, a Toyota Camry, had a gas gauge with with a little pointer that went down as my gas tank emptied. Despite the Camry’s sophistication in some areas, the technology for determining how far it would go was truly old school. The Bolt was the opposite.
My Bolt could tell me everything I could possibly want to know about my energy usage and how far it was likely to go before running out of electricity. Naturally, I set my dashboard to it’s geekiest setting with maximum and minimum range projections, average miles/Kwh and little light indicators that gave me instant feedback on how my driving habits were changing how far I could drive..
I set my Bolt for maximum regeneration — the technology that allows electric cars to recover energy when slowing down or stopping. I learned that in an electric car you can drive further in stop-and-go city driving than on the highway.
I was a little surprise to learn that keeping the cabin of my Bolt warm in the winter took a lot of energy and took a big bite out of my range, but keeping it cool in the summer did not. On normal days, however, my Bolt got exactly what Chevy had advertised — 238 miles on a full charge. I took a few out-of-town trips, carefully planning where I would charge along the route. On a couple of those trips, I didn’t need to charge but did it anyway just for the experience of doing it.
In the real world of everyday driving, however, the range issue doesn’t come up much. It wasn’t long before the thrill of getting maximum miles from every kilowatt was gone. I now pay no more attention to the charge in the battery of my electric car than I do the gas in my Toyota. I live and drive in an urban area. The Bolt fills up at home; the Camry fills up at gas stations. It is an unusual day I have to think about either one. If, however, I know I am going to drive more than 238 miles, I take the Camry.
Stage 3: Damn, these things are fast.
When I was reading up on electric cars there was a lot written about torque — that twisting force that makes wheels turn — particularly low end torque — that twisting force that makes cars accelerate quickly from a stop. I knew that Teslas were fast, but I wasn’t going to buy a Tesla and I didn’t really care about fast cars because I live in a community that has speed limits. When I first had the Bolt, I was so concerned about range and saving electricity, that I drove like a little old lady to maximize how far I could go even though I was only going five blocks to the grocery store. All the talk of fast cars and low-end torque had nothing to do with me.
Once I got used to regenerative braking, I took to one-pedal driving. One-pedal driving is like driving a highly responsive and powerful golf cart. You hit the accelerator and it goes; you let off on the accelerator and it slows to a stop. But unlike a golf cart, you can make the Bolt accelerate like a rocket. Once I was finished with worrying about range, I learned how fun the Bolt was. I discovered the button labeled, “sport mode,” which is a software adjustment that makes the accelerator pedal highly sensitive. Suddenly, my little hatchback was a dragster that could out-accelerate anything on the road except Corvettes and, of course, Teslas.
Out on the highway, I discovered something else about torque and the Bolt. The acceleration from sixty to eighty was as responsive as that from zero to twenty. It was a beast in those uphill passing lanes.
Driving an electric car is fun. I didn’t realize quite how fun it is until the day my wife had the Bolt and I took the Camry. I had always considered my six cylinder Camry the power car in my family. After driving the Bolt, it felt sluggish, as if there was a water balloon between my foot and the gas pedal. It made me wonder if the reason I had never cared about fast cars is that I had never driven one.
Step 4: The Joy of No Maintenance
I kept one of the Toyotas I owned in my younger days for twenty years. By the time I passed it off to a relative, I was on my third clutch, my second radiator, my third starter, my second alternator, my second catalytic converter and my umpteenth set of spark plugs. I had filled it with gas once every two weeks and changed the oil eighty times. When I bought the Bolt, I felt some glee in knowing that this car didn’t need any of those things. The engine has one moving part.
The manual that came with my car sets out the maintenance regimen. The first scheduled maintenance on the drive train is at 150,000 miles. I have never kept a car that long in my life.
In the year that I have owned the Bolt, I took it once to the dealer for a software update that Chevy said I should get. I put air in the tires once when the app on my phone told me the pressure had gotten low. I take it through the car wash now and then and I plug it in every other day or so. No trips to the gas station. No trips to Jiffy Lube. They say I should change the cabin air filter now and then and refill the window cleaner, but I haven’t done either one yet. The windshield wipers will wear out and the tires will go bald, but it appears that the days of cultivating a close and lasting relationship with my mechanic are over.
Step 5: And yet, it is still only a car.
A year has passed with the Bolt, and I am still not a car guy. Nobody in my neighborhood cares any more that I drive an electric car and nobody has accosted me in a parking lot for a long time. I seldom check in on Reddit with other Bolt owners any more. All the screens in the car are configured the way I like them and I seldom use the always-on connection between the car and my phone.
I have stopped caring about how far my Bolt will go on a single charge. It goes far enough for what I do. Looking for charging stations on a long out-of-town trip is a pain, so when a long drive becomes necessary I take the Camry. That isn’t often because when I want to go somewhere far away, I fly.
I zipped around in sport mode for about a month, but now I forget to turn it on. I probably still accelerate after red lights faster than I used to, but not by much. Getting where I am going twelve seconds faster is simply not a priority in my life. Shooting uphill in a passing lane still gives me a bit of a thrill, but it doesn’t come up that often.
As for maintenance, it is hard to love something for the things you don’t have to do to it. The car has slipped into the background of my life. It is there when I need to go somewhere and doesn’t require attention when I don’t. It is a car. You either love them or you don’t. If, over the next few years, it turns out to be unreliable, I will come to hate the car the way I hate anything unreliable. If it turns out to be reliable, however, I will appreciate it, but I won’t love it. It is still just a car. Some people love their cars. I don’t.