Me standing next to the all-electric Nissan Leaf in La Jolla, CA
Futurist Thomas Frey: I looked over at my clock and saw that it was 3:19 am, a time when most people would normally just roll over and fall back to sleep, but I was wide awake. And from past experience, I wouldn’t get tired again for 2-3 hours, so this was one of those crazy middle-of-the-night periods of free time where I could get something done, and my body didn’t really know I was awake. (Pics)
As I rolled out of bed, I was making plans to drive across a stretch of southern California in the new Nissan Leaf my friend was letting me borrow to retrieve the charging cord that the valet person at the Sheraton Hotel in Carlsbad mistakenly thought was theirs. Rarely have I seen a new 5 star hotel shoot themselves in the foot as badly as this one. More on this later.
The car had been charging several hours, so once I disconnected the cord and pushed the start button on the Leaf I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had 91 miles on the all-important range gauge in front of me. But, the enthusiasm was short-lived as two miles down the road I glanced down and saw that I was already down to 72 mile.
Google maps told me that the Sheraton Hotel was 24.8 miles away, so knowing the squishiness of the range gauge, I knew I didn’t have a whole lot of miles to spare.
The all-important range gauge
Unlike gas-powered cars, where a low gas light means you have to start looking for a nearby gas station, running out of electrons on the Leaf means searching for an outlet that you can plug into and waiting for hours for it to recharge.
Two nights before, after spending a grueling hour in California commuter traffic driving from La Jolla to Carlsbad, I arrived at the Sheraton Hotel with a total of 32 miles left on the car. The car had driven splendidly and the on-board navigation system was nothing short of a lifesaver as I worked my way seamlessly through this unfamiliar territory.
As I began the check-in process at the Sheraton registration desk, I was blown away by the number of roadblocks the front desk clerk was throwing in front of me. At issue was his insistence that I give him a credit card to charge the room on, even though the company I was working with had reserved and paid for the room on their card.
The problem I have with allowing hotels to swipe my credit card, even though they say they won’t charge anything to it, is that they put a hold on large amounts of money, often as much as $500. They always say that they will remove the hold right away, but in most cases the hotel doesn’t release the hold for several days, often times up to a week or more. Since the company that hired me to speak had contracted to cover all my expenses I didn’t think I would need to carry a credit card with a larger spending limit on it. They had already told the hotel they were covering my room and left their credit card on file. The event was also taking place in the same hotel I was staying, so the clerk could have let it go knowing they could talk to the company the next day.
Normally I’m much more laid back on these types of issues, but the hotels was making things my problem and they simply didn’t need to.
As it turns out, the hotel would not let me check in without swiping my card and putting a large hold on it. Adding insult to injury, they placed me on the back side of the hotel with a view of dirt piles rather than an ocean view on the front. Since I now had limited funds to work with, I had to decide what to do for dinner.
The car showed I had 32 miles left, so I used the navigation system on the car to locate a nearby fast food restaurant and found a Carl’s Jr only a mile away. I thought I might be able to burn a couple more miles and still make it back on the original charge.
Instead, as I drove out of the parking lot I watched the miles instantly drop to 29, and by the time I had returned, it was down to 24 miles, far too little to chance the 24.8 miles I would need to drive the following day.
So what actually happens when the Nissan Leaf clicks down to zero miles? I didn’t have a clue. Was it like a gas gauge on other car where you can still squeak out a few more miles or do you simply die a silent electron-free death along some lonely stretch of highway?
My only option was to find a way to plug the car in. I noticed a feature on the navigation system where it lists the nearest charging stations, so I hit the button and found the closest one was 19 miles away. Hmmm, no help there.
So when I got back to the hotel I called the front desk and asked if they had any accommodations for plugging in an electric car. “No, not really. Sorry,” Was my reply.
For me it was a sleepless night as I worried about plugging the car in and making it back. I had wandered through the underground parking lot looking for a 110 volt outlet, but didn’t see any. I wondered if nearby gas stations would let me plug in and how much they would charge.
I found it hard to believe that the hotel hadn’t run into this problem before.
The next morning, after packing up all my belongings, I noticed the car had lost even more miles just sitting in the garage. It only showing 21 miles left on the gauge. So I drove to the valet station in front of the hotel and simply told them that I needed to plug the car in. I told them that I couldn’t leave until it was charged.
The valet attendant, eager to help, had me show him how to plug it in, and assured me he’d find a way to get it charged up.
Plugging in to a 110 volt outlet is a far slower charging process than plugging into a 220 volt charging station. But since my talk would take place over the next 3-4 hours, with even a short low voltage charge, I should easily have enough miles to make it back to the house in La Jolla.
The talk went very well. Some very good questions and an exceptionally bright audience. I love working with groups like this.
Four hours later I returned to pick up the car, only this time I was working with a different valet attendant. He saw the notes on the car, said that it was plugged in somewhere in the underground parking area, and he’d bring it up right away.
I was relieved. It had been charging for close to four hours, so now I could make it back with no problems.
I was so grateful that I handed him a $10 tip. He mentioned something about the cord, but the same front desk clerk from the night before had come out and was asking how my stay was, apparently feeling guilty, so I never caught what he said about the cord.
As I drove off, I realized that I only had 37 miles on the gauge. I just gave a guy a $10 tip for 16 extra miles. On this car that would be the equivalent of a quart of gasoline. But it was enough to get me back, so I shrugged it off.
Once again I fought my way through the relentless California traffic and drove into the garage with a total of 16 miles remaining. Turns out I could have made it after all….. maybe.
But the comment about the electrical cord flashed across my mind again, so as soon as I returned I looked in the trunk only to find… nothing. The cord was missing. Who could possibly think the cord didn’t go with the car?
I wanted my $10 tip back!
I immediately called the hotel and got the exact same front desk clerk I had been working with all along. He apologized for the valet and said he’d look for the cord and call me back.
Thirty minutes later he called back to say he had found the cord, but all the overnight delivery services had left for the day and the only way for me to retrieve the cord would be for me to come and get it myself. I told him it would have to be tomorrow because the car would once again have to fully recharge before I would attempt this trip.
This brings me back to where I started, with me making the early morning trip back to the Sheraton.
The whole trip back and forth took a little over an hour because most drivers were still sleeping. I retrieved the cord without a hitch, but as expected, the Sheraton was quick to ignore the screw-up.
Front charging port on the Leaf
This whole situation resulted from the interplay between a short-range electric car and a less-than-accommodating hotel on the edge of the car’s round-trip range. It was also complicated by me being an inexperienced driver who wasn’t aware of all the car’s helpful features.
In spite of the problems I had, I really liked the car. Overall, it was a very positive experience.
NOTE: It is now 8 days after this incident and the Sheraton still has a $259 hold on my credit card.
Back of the car
More about the Leaf
The Leaf is being billed as a zero emissions car, but in reality it is an “emissions elsewhere” car. Electricity comes from generators, and generating electricity at most power plants is not a zero emissions operation. It does, however, eliminate pollution along the roads.
The Leaf is a five-door, five-passenger city-car, but as with all back seats, that third passenger needs to be unusually thin.
A look under the hood
At the center of its power is a front-mounted motor producing 107 horsepower and 208 pound-feet of torque. Top speed comes in at just under 90 mph and Nissan claims a 0-60 mph time under ten seconds. It always seemed to have the power, speed, and acceleration I needed, making it feel like a solid commuter vehicle.
What matters most is range. Nissan claims the car will go for 100 miles per charge. However, if you limit each charge to 80% of capacity, the batteries will last considerably longer. That is the option my friend chose, and this was the reason I was dealing with a shorter range.
Unlike a gas-powered car that needs it tank refilled once every 7-14 days, electric cars need to be recharged nearly every day. It’s easy enough to do, but something you won’t want to forget.
If you don’t drive more than 70 or 80 miles per day, and research by Nissan indicates that more than 80 percent of us don’t, then the Leaf might just be the perfect planet-friendly vehicle for you.
Mouse-shaped shifting knob
One thing I didn’t know about was the “Eco” mode that can be switched on where the on-board computer automatically changes its programming to dial down the air conditioning and throttle back responsiveness while boosting regenerative braking, which reportedly improves driving range by as much as 10 percent.
The shifting knob did seem like it was designed backwards – push forward to reverse, and pull back to go forward.
Intelligent Transport System on the center console
Upon further reading I found out that the Leaf has some very geeky features. When your smart-phone is linked to its Intelligent Transport System, whose main purpose is to assist with what Nissan calls “range management,” owners can call the Leaf and instruct it to charge the batteries or turn on the air conditioner on hot days, and the car itself will call you back to let you know when it’s finished charging. But naturally it has to be plugged-in to take advantage of these features.
The Intelligent Transport System also shows you how much energy you are using and how many miles to empty.
Battery cells under the passenger compartment
The Leaf comes equipped with a 24kW lithium-ion battery pack complete with 48 separate modules housing four cells a piece. The number of cells is important because if one fails, Nissan can replace the individual modules without having to replace the entire battery pack. The Japanese automaker is keenly aware of the issues that could plague a mass-market EV.
When recharging, there are three different cables for three different charging options – 110-, 220- or 440-volt.
The missing 110 volt charging cord
The 110 volt charge is the most convenient, but it provides barely enough juice to top up the batteries after 20 hours of charge time.
The two other options are better. An electrician can wire a 220-volt outlet into your garage, thus reducing charge time to around seven hours total. The cost of the in-house charger runs around $2,200, but the Feds will take care of half that amount and Nissan will not only arrange for the installation, it’ll allow you to roll the cost of the setup into your monthly payments.
440-volt “Quick Charge” station
If you’re lucky enough to live around one of the 440-volt “Quick Charge” stations, you can get up to 80 percent of the battery’s capacity in around 30 minutes. Expect to see these popping up across the U.S. in the coming months and years, assuming all goes according to plan.
The list price is $32,780 for the base price (not including any government rebates), but if you want the backup camera and spoiler-mounted solar panel, you can get those options with the SL model for a $940 upgrade.
My friends said his car, after all of the rebates, came in at around $22,000.
Rear view camera
The rearview camera is a nice addition, giving you a wide view of what’s behind you. However, the solar panel, which adds a 12-volt trickle charge to the battery to supply electrons to the headlights, clock and a few low-power accessories, does not provide you much of a return on your investment. Even Nissan officials admit the solar panel is more of a marketing ploy than a functional addition. Even so, 85 percent of pre-order customers are opting to include the solar trim. Obviously it is more of a status play.
According to Motor Trend Magazine, “As the first kid on the electric block, Nissan has really made an effort to make the Leaf as appealing to as many buyers as possible. The car looks futuristic yet very approachable from the outside, and its interior is finished in a bright, stylish trim with wave-like contours and blue-hued illumination, emphasizing the car’s planet-conscious slant. Its seats are comfortable and head and legroom is sufficient.”
The car is initially being manufacture in Japan, but the entire operation is slated to be moved to Smyrna, Tennessee in 2012.