Take a Little Trip

Personal experience is key to understanding alternative vehicle technology.

By John Eichberger | September 2015

With so many new technologies coming to market, it can be challenging to really develop a solid understanding of which ones may or may not have legs. For example: Are EVs (electric vehicles) a viable technology? I will admit that I've been a skeptic due to the logistical challenges facing EVs (range, recharge times, access to chargers, etc.). But I also believe in experiencing these technologies firsthand to develop a well-rounded opinion.

While visiting some friends in California, I took a spin in their Fiat 500 EV. Interestingly, they were not in the market for an EV. They were connected with a group of racing enthusiasts who helped create a swell of demand for the Fiat 500 EV at ridiculously low lease rates that allowed my friends to acquire the vehicle for nearly nothing, and actually save money each month. So they took advantage of the opportunity and have been thrilled with their decision.

I hopped in it and drove around for an hour or so and can see why they like it. Fiat's EV gets about 80-90 miles per charge, and because my friend is able to use a series of Level 2 chargers at work, they don't need to plug in at home.

As far are driving experience, it is a great car. I have driven other EVs and they all have something in common-incredible torque off the line. If you want a vehicle that can zip, EVs can zip. And the 500 is just simply a fun car to begin with.

Yes this car was fun and for my friends it is economical, but is it practical?

The ability to recharge at work is a significant benefit, but not everyone has that opportunity and it could increase demand for at-home electricity. However, a couple years ago my local utility in Virginia offered a significantly reduced rate if I purchased an EV and charged it overnight during non-peak hours, so the cost of electricity would be negligible and could have lowered my overall electricity bill.

Fiat's 500 EV range doesn't pose a hurdle for my friends. They live about 40 miles from where we met up, and when I got behind the wheel it still had more than 50 miles of range. For longer road trips, they do rely on a gasoline-powered vehicle, which at this time I think remains essential for the EV-driving family.

Another positive for EVs is the availability of rechargers in the market is growing. According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), there are more than 10,000 electric charging stations and more than 26,000 chargers in the United States. The common in-market unit is a Level 2 charger, which can add 10-20 miles per hour of charge time. While this is not equivalent to petroleum refuel time and range, for the EV driver it might be enough. And according to a soon-to-be-released Fuels Institute consumer survey, most consumers drive about 220 miles per week, or about 31 miles per day. So maybe EVs are practical for most consumers too.

It's easy to be dismissive of a new technology, especially when you look at the challenges it might face. And when you consider that the U.S. Department of Energy does not expect EVs to gain even 1% market share by 2040, it's even easier to be dismissive about EVs. However, the presence of EVs on the road is increasing, which reduces the impression that the technology is just a fantasy. Today, AFDC reports there are 11 model-year 2015 EVs available in the U.S., and five other vehicles sold as model-year 2014. As more of these vehicles hit the road, they are becoming less of an oddity. Consider this: My one-year-old daughter will never know a market in which EVs were not at least an available option, and that is a major development worth recognizing.

If we are going to honestly evaluate new opportunities, we have to get into the market and see what is going on for ourselves. I drive 110 miles round trip and my office building does not have a charging station, so right now most EVs would not satisfy my needs. Now that I've driven a few EVs, know people who drive them on a regular basis and recognize that range is increasing; an EV is no longer totally out of the picture for me.

The lesson: Don't pass up the chance to get out from behind your desk and try new technologies. The more we understand, the better positioned we will be to adjust our strategies and capitalize on emerging market opportunities.
Read more from the September Issue of our Fuel for Thought newsletter.