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Range Anxiety: A pleasure-killer?

January 22, 2013

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It was less than a week after our first battery charging crisis, but my husband persuaded me to take our new 2012 Nissan Leaf on a Sunday drive. Besides a ride around the block, this would be my first real trip with my husband in his electric car.

The night before he had calculated the miles to two different possible hiking destinations. I wanted to explore some of the more obscure California state parks in our region. The first one was more than 60 miles away in Aptos. But after checking the limited number of battery charging stations that we could find along the route (one), we quickly nixed that idea.

Rancho Del Orso State Park, however, was in our range: 30 miles, and we could grab a bite to eat at a restaurant just up the road from there. Or, at least we thought it was just up the road from there.

Less than a mile into our journey, I looked at the dashboard, and the ever-changing magic number that appeared there: the estimated number of miles we had left in the battery charge based on our current battery consumption. I could not seem to avert my eyes from it. The vehicle was fully charged when we left the house, yet there was the number falling down and then up again.

My husband had warned me about this. The number which appears on the dashboard is based on the current driving conditions including speed, terrain,and air temperature. Therefore, every time we went up one of the many hills along Highway 1, the number would plummet. Then, during straight stretches it would rise again, and so would my relief. This Kicking Tires blog post elaborates on the problems Nissan as experienced with predicting range.

It was Sunday, it was daylight, the sun was shining so I  sat back and relaxed- after I did the math in my head. Even in the worst case scenario, we had plenty of charge remaining for the trip we had planned out.

The hike through the farmland once owned by the brother of Herbert Hoover was gorgeous, and the sun was sinking low in the sky as we got back to the Leaf, hungry for an early dinner. We had driven past the Davenport Roadhouse before, but we were a little uncertain just how far south (away from home) the seaside village was. We started the car, checked the amount of charge remaining, and decided that six more miles was our limit.

We used just about all of those six miles to get there. By the time, we finished dinner, the moon was shining bright over the Pacific Ocean, but it was cold by West Coast standards- 40 degrees F.

About halfway home, I noticed that my husband was driving below the posted speed limit of 50. Every now and then, he  pulled over to the side of the road to let the few other cars on the road pass. Driving slower extends the mileage you can get out of a charge. What was going on? The temperature was dropping into the 30s, and we were driving hilly terrain. Had we miscalculated?

Driving in daylight is one thing, but traveling at night, in the cold, along a deserted stretched of road where deer are more numerous than houses, and cell service spotty,  can  conjure up images of a  long walk to civilization should the car quit.

I looked at the mileage on the road sign, and compared it to the mileage on the dashboard. This is going to be close, but I reassured my obviously nervous husband “we’ll make it, no problem.”   The stressed look on his face disagreed. Then, the low battery alarm underlined that.

This range anxiety meter is one thing that other Leaf owners complain about.  Couldn’t the Leaf just spit out an average instead of re-calculating at every condition? The Nissan CEO acknowledges the problem, and there is some hope for improvements in the lower-priced 2013 model scheduled to go on sale in February. But few expect the average maximum number of miles per charge to exceed 80 miles: a number we surely would not reach on this weekend jaunt.

A reader of this blog suggested that one day we head out close to home, and drive our electric car on empty- much as all us gas-guzzlers do- to see how far we can push it. That way, when faced with moments like this, we might feel a little less anxiety.

In the end, we made it home safe and sound with a great story to tell, and fewer than three miles of charge remaining, at least according to the nagging dashboard. It was only then that my husband admitted that he had not even brought along the standard-issue 120-volt charging cable: a stopgap measure that would have allowed us to plug in to someone’s 120-volt outlet if they were kind enough to take mercy upon us.

Lessons learned?

1. Always bring the charging cable.

2. When you think that some place is just up the road, check your GPS first.

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