In the late 90’s, my wife and I—then two engineers working in the automotive industry—flew to Los Angeles for a wedding. While waiting in line to rent a car, we noticed a poster showing that we could rent GM’s electric car, the Saturn EV1, for only dollars more per day than other cars. We decided to go maximum geek and try one out. That week, we learned a few things, like driving an electric vehicle in L.A. will get you noticed, and parts of L.A. have a lot of hills (and even more traffic).
We also learned a term called “range anxiety”—the fear that comes with knowing your car has limited range with no quick way to recharge. Our first inkling of what was to come was during the rental process, when the counter agent gave us a map of charging stations around the metro area and a card with the number for an emergency tow service just in case we exhausted the car’s range. Despite the fairly impressive availability of public charging stations, we spent the week driving with one eye on the map and another on the remaining range.
Our range anxiety reached its peak during the wedding service at a church on a hilltop, when we realized that we would need to descend the hill and climb the other side to get to the reception. Sadly, I asked a cousin to drive with me back to our hotel so that we could switch to a gas-powered car.
Enter the Volt
A decade later, my wife and I decided to try again. This time, we signed up for a three-year lease on a Chevy Volt. This car is GM’s next attempt at electric propulsion and promised an end to range anxiety. For those unfamiliar, the Volt is an electric vehicle which also includes a gas-powered engine (in GM parlance, the “range extender”). The concept is that the range extender will power the vehicle after the 40-mile electric range is used-up. Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman during the time of the Volt’s development, discussed how 80 percent of Americans traveled less than 40 miles per day and would never require a drop of fuel.
Does the car live up to the hype? Yes. We have been driving the Volt for almost two months, and the car’s range has never been an issue. During a typical day’s commute, we do not use any gas at all. In fact, we have not yet had to put any gas in the car. Even better, on the one day each week when we have a 100-mile round trip, we don’t worry at all about our range—the range extender seamlessly jumps in, and we drive on. In 1828 miles, we have used a little more than seven gallons of gas (roughly 250 miles for every gallon of gas).
There are a few downsides to the car. Because it has both a full electric powertrain and a gas engine, the car is more expensive than a similar traditional car. However, this is more than offset by the fuel savings we enjoy. In back-of-the-envelope calculations, our cost for electricity is one-tenth our cost for the equivalent gas. Also, due to what I presume is the need for battery space, the car has a true four passenger capacity with no middle seat in the rear. Having three children, we wish this was not the case.
Now that I think of it, we are experiencing a new kind of range anxiety. We love and drive the car so much, we will easily exceed the 12,000 miles per year that we choose for our lease. Oh well, we will solve that problem with our next Volt!