EV Does It

by Carolyn Chase


he old U-Haul slogan "Adventures in Moving" always made me think that the U-Haul folks at least had a sense of humor about their business. Adventure is about the last thing I like to cultivate when moving. The same could be said about driving. Driving is an activity you want to enjoy as much as you can to get yourself from point a to point b - with a minimum of hassle and expense. A minimum of pollution also should be added to the list.

Transportation affects the commerce and the environment in many ways. Impacts begin with the mineral extraction and production of the raw materials that go into the parts of the car. Most of the impacts occur when vehicles are driven due to the pollution in their exhaust and pollution associated with retrieving, refining and supplying the fuel.

Nearly two-thirds of America's overall global-warming contributions come from cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles. Half of the oil used in the United States is consumed by cars, trucks and buses. Cars drive an indisputable land use pressure. In the urban United States, automobile-dedicated land uses consume close to half of the land area of cities; in Los Angeles the figure approaches two-thirds.

According to the "Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists," household uses of transportation, ranging from recreational boating to cars to passenger air travel, are responsible for 28 to 51 percent of air pollution and greenhouse gases, and 23 percent of toxic water pollution. Our use of vehicles even poses a significant threat to wildlife through the fragmentation of habitat and use of land for roads and highways. "Urban sprawl" is development that is characterized primarily and usually exclusively with cars in mind.

Speaking at UCSD in early July, Hal Harvey, Executive Director of The Energy Foundation, noted that "The average car is only about 18% efficient. It's pathetic. It's an insult not only to the environment, but also to human ingenuity. With a few intelligent things we could come close to doubling the efficiency of existing motors. If you increase the efficiency of the whole package through other design changes to decrease drag and improve materials use, there's no reason we can't get further increases. Energy waste could be reduced by 80% in the transportation sector."

So, for those of us who are "car-dependent," the biggest single thing we can do to reduce our contribution to air pollution, toxics pollution, and global warming is to target and reduce our vehicle-related impacts. For many, this would mean replacing their second car with an electric or other alternative fuel vehicle. Many can find ways to reduce trips altogether.

I have already made a lot of progress on the trip reduction front. My husband and I both work at home and though we still own two vehicles, both are now driven less than 10,000 miles/year. Our next step was clear: get into an electric car.

So there I was at the GM Saturn dealership, picking up the most environmentally-friendly car ever offered to American consumers, the entirely electric EV-1, for an extended test drive. With a "Green Score" of 57 in the Green Guide to Cars and Trucks this is the best there is "almost in the marketplace" at this time. For a point of comparison, the Green Score of the highest scoring conventional vehicle is the Chevy Metro with a 38.

The EV-1 looks a lot like a regular car, unless of course you pay attention to cars. To folks who care about cars, it's recognizable right away. For others, the only giveaway to it's special nature is the small and tasteful silver lettering on the back right-had tail that says "ELECTRIC." The other major difference is it's low profile tear-drop like design. For most people, it's too subtle to really stand out, but this is just one of many small differences that require getting used to. The EV-1 is an odd combination of the familiar and the new.

You never really notice how dependent you are the specific designs of the technology around you until it changes - and then, watch out. According to my local sales rep, "Most people are afraid of new technology." Not me.

This is also a car with an "attitude" and you need to have the right attitude to love it. That being said, it doesn't take much. Like all new technology, there will the glitches and issues with the things you wish they would have done differently.

More than once I caught myself pulling out my keys to start the car - but the EV-1 is keyless. You punch in your security code to unlock it and again to start it. Like a big blender, you just push the buttons to turn it on.

My very first trip in my EV-1 was to the recycling center at the Miramar Landfill. I had barely parked it when a guy driving a fork lift stopped traffic to ask me about it. A few minutes later, the weighmaster came over to peer inside. I was quickly learning the rap and what the most common questions are. The consensus about this car is that's it's cool.

My two-week test drive was full of close encounters with a wide range of people. The last one was a bit too close. One of the unrealized secrets of electric cars is their superior acceleration. It turns out that an electric motor will toast a gasoline engine going from zero to 60. I discovered this little feature when I was able to easily beat out an SUV who attempted to cut me off while changing lanes. It's a waste of energy to leadfoot any car, but it's nice when you need it.

In two weeks of use, the only negative comment I got was the slightly wry observation about having scored "a $40,000 golf cart." I invited him to step up to the line and I would be happy to show him what my "golf cart" could do.

The EV-1 is quiet and extremely responsive. You cannot even understand how insulated you are in a regular car from the excesses of fuel consumption until you experience something different. Gas cars are truly designed to maximize your fuel use. The only feedback you have is an inaccurate gas gauge estimating from full to empty. The EV-1 on the other hand, has instant and continuous feedback to the driver about your energy use. Add this to the fact that your total driving range may be only 40-50 miles and your own attention level really goes up.

About the coolest thing about electric cars is your ability to recharge them when you drive. Whenever you go down hills or use the brakes, the energy gained is recharged back into the batteries. And when you park it, you just plug it in! Just the time and trip reductions in not going to a gas station are significant.

This zippy two-seater isn't a car yet for everyone, but it is the best choice for market leaders seeking to help drive us into a better future with much cleaner cars. If you'd like a test drive, let me know, because I just took delivery of my very own EV-1 and I'm more than happy to show it off.