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Recharging and other concerns keep electric cars far from mainstream

Timothy Gill juices up his Mini E. When it got cold, he found that the battery didn't last as long.
Timothy Gill juices up his Mini E. When it got cold, he found that the battery didn't last as long. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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Many of the Mini E drivers are rhapsodic about the car's performance and the promise of environmental benefits, as is Heitmann. They have been, after all, willing to join a select group that pays about $850 a month to lease the cars and have a recharging wall box installed at their homes. But when Mini E drivers get together, their talk often turns to the art of maximizing the number of miles they can get with a single charge.

Their tricks: They slow down -- driving fast takes more power per mile because of aerodynamics and other factors. So some poke along at 55 mph on the highway as other drivers zoom past. In a pinch, they turn off the heater or the air conditioner, tolerating a chill or a sweat to get another mile. And they have learned that in very cold weather, they must further restrict their travels. When temperatures dip, the normal 100-mile range can shrink to as little as 80.

"I was shocked," said Robert Hooper, 44, a computer manager from New Jersey, when he realized how much his range shrank in the cold. When he considers the prospects of the 70-mile trip to his fiancee's house in the cold, he said, "I'm nervous."

Timothy Gill, 59, a software engineer from Maplewood, N.J., learned the hard way.

With a round-trip daily commute of 85 miles, Gill figured he could easily live within the official 100-mile range of the Mini E. And he did, until the first cold snap.

His next blog entry tells the story: "Towed! After only 87.8 miles. . . . Sheesh!"

The car companies staking investments on electric cars argue that such difficulties will soon be minimized. They say that the cars, now pricey, will be manufactured more cheaply as they are produced in greater numbers. Battery innovations will provide greater range at lower cost. The problem of the cold will diminish as heating systems are better-developed.

Perhaps most critically, they say, public charging stations will become far more common.

There are about 117,000 gas stations in the United States.

By contrast, a database of public recharging stations maintained by Tom Dowling, an electric-car enthusiast in California, lists 734 public charging stations in the United States, with the vast majority in that state.

Dowling said the comparison to gas stations isn't completely apt because most charging can be done at home.

But the lack of public charging stations is a widely recognized hurdle for the electrification effort.

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