Let me say at the outset that I don’t yet own an electric car, so I’m not a member of the club and don’t know the secret handshake. But since I spend a considerable percentage of my waking hours interviewing and bantering with card-carrying owners, I think I have the lingo down. And there’s a pattern!
EV owners tend to be true believers, which is what any movement needs. So here’s a few things that LEAF, Volt, Mitsubishi i, Tesla Roadster and even Wheego owners have said to me. I have yet to meet a seriously dissatisfied electric car owner (though judging from some of what I’ve seen online, there are some out there). Note: I’m leaving out what people also say about their concern for the environment. That’s kind of a given. We’ve yet to get to the point where people are buying electric cars to save money:
I only drive 30 miles a day. EV owners are always at pains to explain that they’re daily commutes are well within the car’s capabilities. They seldom admit to range anxiety, and I never hear of them complaining about the grandma’s house problem—what to do if they need to take a 300-mile trip. In fact, a new survey of EV owners finds that a majority have a plug-in vehicle as their only car. The corollary to this is boasting of the number of miles you’ve covered on a single charge.
I love how quiet the car is. EV owners celebrate the gentle whirr of their electric motors. Non-believers actually get nervous about this, thinking the cars are going to sneak up on people. They’ve been turning one of the chief virtues of electrics—no engine noise—into a negative. It’s even led to pending federal legislation, the result largely of activism on behalf of the blind community, that will require plug in to emit some kind of sound below 30 mph.
Electric vehicle consultant Chelsea Sexton doesn’t see the point: “The goal shouldn’t be to make [electric cars] louder but to aim at sucking decibels from all vehicles….Cleaner, quieter transport means higher property values in often economically depressed neighborhoods adjacent to freeways and high-traffic roadways, to say nothing of the health of the families living there and public dollars saved from not building sound walls and other noise abatement measures.” The bottom line, she says is that the driver of all kinds of vehicles “have the responsibility not to hit someone.”
Charging is easier than getting gas. The onerous task of plugging in looms large for some people, but the people who actually own the cars say it’s freed them from the tyranny of gas stations. They love “fueling up” for pennies per gallon equivalent in the garage, then driving past the $4 a gallon signs. They don’t have a problem setting the timer so the car plugs in during peak times and charges off-peak. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate how big a change it is for most people—whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers all pumped their fuel.
Electric cars have 100 percent torque at zero rpm. They don’t always put it that way. Sometimes, I get, “It takes off like a bat out of hell” or “I leave muscle cars in the dust.” Basically, they’re talking about their cars’ zero-to-30 time. It’s where the EV shines, and why it works so well for quarter-mile drag races. On the short course, it’s unbeatable.
“It’s been X days or months since I burned any gas.” The exact form of this statement varies, but the fact that people say it speaks of a sea change in American driving behavior. Once you’ve plugged in, you don’t go back. Driving gas-free miles appears to be incredibly liberating, like giving up smoking or getting released from jail. A variation of this is plug-in hybrid owners who make a point of saying how little they use the gas engine. Jay Leno is like that with his Volt. “I’m thrilled that almost all of our local city driving miles are electric—with no gas or tailpipe emissions,” says Gina Coplon-Newfield, who heads the Sierra Club’s electric vehicle initiative and recently bought a plug-in Prius. “Like all EVs, our car is quiet, smooth, and much gentler to the planet than our last car.”
Lots of Good Things
There are lots of other things that come up—the $7,500 federal income tax credit they got, the fact that they’re the first in their town or on their block to plug in, and what happened when they attempted longer trips.
Jackie Eskin, who recently bought a Nissan LEAF in Fairfield, Connecticut, summed up what owning an electric car is like in an email to me. “I am extremely pleased with my LEAF. I love that it might help affect our foreign policy and make us more self-sufficient. And I love that it is zero emission, and I don’t have to buy gas or oil or transmission fluid, etc. But, incredibly, I love that it is such fun to drive. I’m so glad that all these people, you included, are working to make this work for all of us. I’m happy to be part of this revolution.”
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