Driving an Electric Vehicle

I leased a Honda Fit EV on January 28th, 2013.  When I drove it off the lot at the Honda dealer, it was the first time in my life that I have ever driven a battery-powered electric vehicle. (EV)

Honda Fit Web

I could say that it was electrifying experience, or that I got a charge out of it…but that would be really terrible punsterism.

The first time you push on the accelerator in an EV (can’t say “step on the gas”) is a revelation…totally silent, smooth and surprisingly strong acceleration.  Being used to an automatic transmission, I kept waiting for it to shift, but it never did.  It has a single speed transmission.  You push, it goes…instantly.  And that’s the second surprise:  When you push on the “go” pedal in a gasoline engine car with an automatic transmission, there is a slight delay…a half second or so…while the engine and torque converter spool up and the transmission clutches engage the selected gear.  With an EV, there is NO delay.   It just goes…right NOW!

This can be disconcerting.  When the light turns green, you apply pressure to the accelerator, and get that instant response, while everybody around you has that little delay.  You look in the rear view mirror and smile as the cars behind you get smaller very quickly, but don’t look too long…WHOA!…you almost ran into that car in front of you!  The quick reflexes of an EV require some adjustment in driving technique.  Suddenly, everybody else seems to be slow.

EV brakes are different.  They utilize regenerative braking by using the drive motor as a generator to slow the vehicle, reclaiming some of the energy expended to get it going, pumping it back into the battery.  In conventional cars, the brakes just waste that energy by heating up the brake system, dissipating it into surrounding air.  EV’s have those “friction brakes” too for emergencies, but driven intelligently, they are rarely used except to hold the vehicle stationary at traffic lights.

The brakes on the Fit EV work so seamlessly that the driver is never even aware of what is going on unless he is addicted to watching the “Power/Charge” gauge, as I am.  This gauge shows exactly how much energy is being drawn from the battery during acceleration, and how much is being pumped back in during braking.

The Fit EV goes one step further with regen braking.  The shift lever looks like the one in most cars…until you look closely.  Instead of PRNDL, the Fit’s says PRNDB.  B is for braking, and selecting it causes the regen brake function to work not only when you hit the brake pedal, but also when you lift on the accelerator.  It is meant primarily for slowing the car on downgrades, but I have found that it is also useful when driving in traffic.  If the car in front of you slows, just lift, and it’s like pushing on the brake pedal.  The more you lift, the stronger the braking.  Sometimes, it is still necessary to hit the “real” brake pedal, but most of the time I find that I only use it when I am stopped at a light or stop sign, and need to hold the car stationary.  The rest of the time, I brake by lifting.  At first it seemed counter-intuitive, but I found that I quickly adapted to it.

The result of all this energy saving is incredible efficiency compared to a conventional car.  A gallon of gasoline, when burned, produces about 36 kilowatt-hours (KWh) of energy.  In most cars that will take you around 25 miles.  In a Prius, maybe twice that far.

The Honda Fit EV battery holds 20 KWh, a little more energy than a half-gallon of gas, but it will take you about 80 miles down the road.

Right now EV’s are in their infancy.  The batteries are too big, too heavy and too expensive.  The first gasoline-powered cars weren’t that great either.  It took about a hundred years to get to the current level of refinement, performance and efficiency.  But in terms of energy usage, they are gross wasters compared to an EV.

Nobody knows how fast EV’s will develop.  The progress of science and technology is sporadic and unpredictable…sometimes moving at lightning speed, at other times it seems almost glacial.  But just one breakthrough is needed to make EV’s take off:  A better battery.

When that happens, the gasoline-powered car will go the way of whale oil lamps and buggy whips.

3 thoughts on “Driving an Electric Vehicle

  1. Congrats. We had a Toyota hybrid for a few years that had some of the features you mention. Regenerative braking only took a little getting used to, much as you imply. The torque curve of an electric motor is so far superior to that of a gas engine that it takes rather a lot of getting use to. Copnsumer Reports gave the Tesla model S the highest ranking of any car it’s ever tested. Its luxurious AND fast and has a very reasonable range. I agree that a battery or other electric storage breakthrough is needed. I think one of the daunting problems lies in the necessity for expensive materials for super efficient batteries. I suspect in my gut that organic or polymer materials will be developed in the future take the place of the rare earths and expensive stuff-just a guess.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lew.
    The Tesla is indeed an exciting car. I think their corporate strategy…to start at the high end and work down to low-cost vehicles…is really smart. By the time they are ready to produce a small “people’s car,” battery technology will improve (hopefully) to the point where such a car can be cost-competitive with petroleum-powered cars.

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