Owning An Electric Car & The Neighborhood Effect

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A month ago, I had no intention of owning an electric car. But that changed at the end of July when my wife and I decided to purchase a used Nissan LEAF. I live in the smallest town in the smallest state in the nation. “Podunk” is too grand a term for the hamlet I call home. Unlike San Jose, where EVs are as thick as Red Sox fans on opening day, there are none where I live or anywhere near where I live, for that matter. I am pretty sure I am the only EV owner within a 10 mile radius of my home.

Nissan LEAFThat means my friends and neighbors know nothing about EVs so I have become an ambassador for the electric vehicle lifestyle. The other day, I encountered a neighbor coming down the road as I was heading into town. We stopped beside each other to exchange pleasantries.

The LEAF has no identifying markings on its flanks other than the words “Zero Emissions.” I watched my neighbor struggling to identify the car. I think he almost blurted out, “Say, Steve. What year Zero Emissions is that?” “It’s a Nissan LEAF,” I said helpfully. Blank stare. “It’s electric,” I said. Same blank stare. He drove on, obviously befuddled. I get that reaction a lot.

Rhode Island requires all cars to get a state inspection every two years. I took the LEAF to the local auto repair shop to get a sticker last week. “It’s a Nissan LEAF, ” I said. Blank stare. “It’s electric.” Same blank stare. When I left, the technicians were searching for the tailpipe to insert the exhaust emissions sniffer. Good luck with that, fellas.

When I picked the car up later, the owner told me the inspection process requires a 1/4 mile test drive. He admitted somewhat sheepishly he might have gone a little further than that, since mine was the first electric car he had ever driven. My range meter showed about 10 miles less charge available than when I dropped it off. I suspect he may have leaned on the happy pedal more than a few times during that 1/4 mile!

That’s OK. He is someone who is deeply immersed in the local car scene and knows just about everyone who lives in the area. There’s a good chance he will share his impressions of driving the LEAF with most of them. It’s called the “neighborhood effect.” Nobody wants to be the first to try new technology. But once someone else in the neighborhood does, fear of the unknown subsides and people become more receptive of the newfangled oddity in their midst.

When Quaker Oats introduced Life breakfast cereal in the 1970s, it created an ad campaign that illustrates exactly how the “neighborhood effect” works. In this example, the LEAF and I would be Mikey.

The most frequent objection I hear is that the car doesn’t have enough range. When I explain it is adequate for 90% of my driving needs and can go several days without recharging, they begin to see how an electric car could fit their needs as well. You can almost see the light bulbs turning on in their heads.

I did have my electrician run a 220 volt line to the garage. The LEAF only draws 16 amps, so it still takes a while to top up the battery, but the process is noticeably faster when plugged into a 220 outlet than it is using a conventional wall outlet. The battery still has all its bars and the battery temperature gauge hardly ever varies from the middle of its range. That will probably change in the winter!

Driving the car is just a delight. It’s quiet with adequate power and a comfortable ride. With every trip beyond the local area, my confidence grows that I am going to get where I am going and home again without running of electricity. I don’t even think about it anymore. I like that the seats are higher off the ground than in the Civic I used to drive, which makes it easier to get in an out of the car. I also like that it was easy to sync my cell phone with the car using the built-in Bluetooth connection.

Oddly enough, the looks of the LEAF are growing on me. I used to think it was a little goofy but now I like it just fine. The other day I was able to haul a table saw and a bunch of building materials thanks to the hatchback and fold down rear seats. It’s been a while since I owned a hatchback. I had forgotten how convenient that extra door can be.

Having the first electric car in town is like having the first rooftop solar system. It helps get others thinking about new technology and how it might fit into their own lives. Just driving it around town helps break down the barriers that keep my neighbors from considering an electric car of their own. Maybe by this time year, there will be two electric cars in Chepachet, Rhode Island — a 100% increase!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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