But, first, a few words on nomenclature:
“Electric vehicle” refers to an all-electric, battery-powered car or truck. It uses no gasoline, diesel or bio fuels. You plug it into regular house current (120 volts) or into a special “quick-charge” station (240 volts) to charge the batteries. Regular house current allows you to recharge batteries in 15 to 22 hours. Depending on the model, a quick-charge station can do the job in three to eight hours.
Electric vehicles are part of a larger family of “electrified vehicles,” which include gas-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius; extended-range plug-in electric models such as the Chevrolet Volt; and a bevy of electrical-assistance vehicles such as the Buick Regal e-Assist.
The difference between electric vehicles and their electrified brethren is range. On a single charge, electric vehicles can run for 60 to 100 miles, at speeds up to 100 mph, before needing to be recharged. Electrified vehicles have internal-combustion engines that work in tandem with their electric components, or take over completely after battery discharge, to deliver “distance-to-empty” driving ranges of at least 300 miles.
Both electric and electrified vehicles make sense in their intended applications. Both reduce oil consumption and mobile-source air pollution.
The term “mobile-source” is important. There is no expenditure of energy without waste being created somehow, somewhere. Electric vehicles don’t burn fossil fuels. But the power-generating plants that charge electric-car batteries consume lots of the stuff — coal and oil — to do their work.
My argument here is that we are better off with electric and electrified vehicles than we are without them. I am convinced of this after several years of driving many of the all-electric and electrified models currently available worldwide.
It is a matter of intelligent choice — meaning that you should know in advance of purchase exactly what you are buying when buying electric and why you are buying it.
Consider, for example, this week’s subject automobile, the all-electric, rear-wheel-drive 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV SE.
I last year drove that car as a prototype and was mildly impressed. It didn’t help that the model given to me at that time had the steering wheel on the right-hand side, appropriate for motorists in Japan and Britain.
The 2012 production model driven for this column was more accommodating to the U.S. market — with the steering wheel on the left and a full array of power-sucking amenities (air conditioner, premium sound system, onboard navigation with high-definition backup camera, power windows and door locks). It had comfortable seating space for four adults.
The i-MiEV carried me everywhere I wanted to go in my Northern Virginia community with speed and agility. It was safe and comfortable. I even drove it round-trip (14.5 miles) from my Arlington home to the District of Columbia in a rainstorm with unruffled confidence.
I’d be happy with the i-MiEV if all, or the bulk of my driving, involved local commuting. I never bought an ounce of gasoline in nearly 200 miles of driving. I didn’t pollute my neighborhood’s air with tailpipe emissions. The car was small and maneuverable enough to park trouble-free at the local shopping center. And its cargo capacity—13.2 cubic feet with its 50-50 split rear seats up, 50.4 cubic feet with those seats folded—was enough to bring home a week’s worth of groceries and other portable necessities of daily life.
Charging was not a problem as long as planning took precedence. If I finished my driving day after having traveled 40 or 50 miles, I knew that I had about 12 to 22 miles left in the i-MiEV’s lithium-ion-battery-powered 49-kilowatt motor (66-horsepower gasoline-engine equivalent, 145 foot-pounds of torque).
I was recharging that battery with house current, which meant plugging it in as quickly as possible after my driving day was done. Usually, by the next morning, I had enough juice to roll gas-free another 62 miles, which is the i-MiEV’s effective driving range per full charge.
The car makes sense for people—most of us—who seldom drive more than 50 miles per day and who do most of that driving along familiar, dedicated routes. It makes sense for small businesses with specific delivery times and routes . . . and easy access to a quick-charge station. It certainly makes more sense than running gasoline-swigging delivery vehicles on routes that can be handled by something like a Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
But if logic played a primary role in the auto business, we would not need a national energy policy. Electric and electrified vehicles would be strategically useful in congested urban areas, where smog is a major problem. They would make sense on business and educational campuses, and in intra-business transportation schemes where fossil-fueled vehicles unnecessarily consume lots of money and repair time.
With a sensible national energy policy, diesel fuel, which is 30 percent more efficient than gasoline, would be priced lower than gasoline instead of the other way around. Gas-electric and plug-in extended-range hybrids would be more widely used by individual consumers and companies. There would also be more use of alternative fuels, perhaps with electric drivetrain combinations.
But not much of that is happening, at least not quickly. Cost is a factor. For example, the i-MiEV SE — one of the least expensive all-electric vehicles available — carries a suggested retail price of $31,125, which works out to $23,165 after a promised $7,500 rebate. But the price remains a disincentive for a small car with a limited drive range that, by its very nature, demands that drivers do some planning before they take off.
That is why sales of electric and electrified vehicles remain in struggle mode, down to 3,500 models sold in April from 4,000 vehicles sold in April of last year. To really get going, sales of those models require a stronger governmental commitment to the development of a publicly accessible quick-charge infrastructure and more sensible policies on the pricing and taxing of fossil fuels. It would also help if the federal government promised its electric-car tax rebates up front, at time of new-vehicle purchase.
Hey, I can dream, can’t I?