As the author of the new book "High Voltage" and a long-time electric vehicle watcher, do I actually drive an electric car? Er, no. I drive test cars from the automakers, a different one every week. A subcompact will be followed by a huge SUV. That’s probably the one perk of this job that virtually everyone wants, particularly because they come with a full tank of gas. But does it excuse the fact that I’m not an early adopter? Not really, though I can plead my status as a poor, ink-stained scribe.
I write about how cool electric cars are, then urge my neighbors to buy them. I’ve driven every electric car there is, but I’ve always given them back. It reminds me of a famous Onion headline: “98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.”
Here’s the point: Christian Ruoff wrote this in the new issue of Charged, the indispensable magazine for EV folk: “I recently attended the 2012 IEEE Electric Vehicle Conference where a man posed a revealing question to the expert panel and 500-plus attendees. 'How many of the people in this room own an electric car?' I watch as 99 percent of the audience slouch down in their chairs. His follow-up, ‘Well, who then do you expect to buy them if not us?’”
Kristen Helsel, the EV guru at charging station pioneers AeroVironment, called today to say that her company is busily expanding the Pacific Northwest’s plug-in highway. Nine new fast-charge stations are going in along the I5 corridor. She pointed out that soon electric car drivers will be able to travel the length of the west coast on battery power, pausing for half-hour charges every 100 miles.
So do you drive an EV, Kristen? “I do not drive one,” she admitted. “But the good news is that 30 percent of the group I work with drives plug-in cars. We have lots of BMW ActiveEs, because we work with that program. We also have the Mitsubishi I, and some Nissan Leafs." That's a Leaf at right, photographed in my driveway. (See, I drive EVs, just don't own one.) Helsel adds, "The important thing is that the EV driver now has a range of choices.” True, but I wanted proof — how about a photo of the AeroVironment parking lot? She did send one in — that's it at the head of this column.
Inspired, I sent out an email to every EV writer, company CEO, press spokesman and advocate I could think of. The replies trickled in. Brad Berman, who launched HybridCars.com and PlugInCars.com, wrote back to say, “Hell, yes, Leaf!” And he does, too. Brad’s part of a California contingent that includes Felix Kramer, who founded CalCars.org. Felix has not only a Leaf, but a Chevy Volt, too. That’s commitment. Also on that list is Paul Scott, the Plug In America guy who not only advocates for and drives a Leaf, but also sells them at a dealership in downtown Los Angeles. He’s driven 105,000 miles on that car and a Toyota RAV4 electric, all on “sunlight-generated electricity.” He has solar panels.
John Voelcker, who helped me on my "High Voltage" book and is a mainstay of Green Car Reports, has a good excuse: He lives in Manhattan and commutes to work by walking 15 feet. If he didn’t live in the least car-friendly city on Earth, he might buy one. “I’m probably not a good case — the suburbanites are the ones to ask,” he says.
Rob Peterson, a stalwart General Motors spokesman for the Chevy Volt before being recently reassigned, wrote back to say he doesn’t actually own a car, but pilots a company vehicle chosen by the company. He says, however, that “we all need to practice what we preach,” and adds, “I will tell you that there are several GM engineers who have bought the product they designed — effectively, they put their money where their mouth is. This may seem normal, but the Volt does not qualify for the employee discount program. These folks are buying it because they believe in the car that much.”
GM execs who own Volts include: Doug Parks, executive director of electric vehicles (the car is driven by his wife); Steve Girsky, vice chairman (wife’s car); Dan Akerson (CEO), Jon Lauckner (wife’s car); and many lower-level engineers. No less than three communications staffers drive them, too. I have to wonder about that “wife’s car” thing, though.
Steve Burns, the CEO of Amp Electric Vehicles, proudly “drives every day” one of his company products, an AMP MLe, which started life as a Mercedes ML350 before conversion to electric.
Eric Evarts, the senior associate autos editor at Consumer Reports, writes some of the best stuff about electric vehicles. It turns out he’s like me, but his cars are bought by the magazine. Does he drive an EV? “Sometimes yes; usually no,” he said. “I drive whatever’s new, has a full tank of gas, and preferably satellite radio.”
Karen Schaeffer, a writer and member of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), responds, “I certainly don't drive a hybrid — I don’t think most journalists can afford them!” (Especially with all the consolidation in the industry, right? I’m sure you heard that the New Orleans Times-Picayune is going to print a paper only three days a week, in a sign of the times.) Journalist Miranda Spencer adds, “With green journalism salaries hardly in the one percent, I’m not sure we’re the ones who should be expected to be early adopters!”
Bruce Ritchie, an SEJer who writes for the Florida Current in Tallahassee, says that his neighbor, who works for Nissan, just bought a Leaf. I’m not sure you get points for what your neighbor does, though. He adds, “We did own a Prius we purchased in 2003, but we sold it at 2007 at a great price when everyone else panicked about gasoline prices. My wife and I now primarily use mass transit but we have one SUV we bought in 2005.” He isn’t apologizing, but he does say that he may buy a Leaf “when it can exceed 150 miles on a charge.” The best vehicle, he says, “is the one not purchased — or driven.”
Jennifer Weeks, a Massachusetts-based freelance environmental writer, drives a Prius, bought 18 months ago “when our 16-year-old Geo Prizm rusted out.” A Prius is definitely a step in the right direction, and many respondents said they now drive a hybrid but have their eyes on a Leaf or a Tesla Model S.
Christy George of Oregon Public Broadcasting points out that she and her partner share a 1997 Honda Civic. Come to think of it, sharing a car, even a non-electric, is a very clean solution. Even greener is my old friend, freelancer Erica Gies, who lives in San Francisco and gave up her gas guzzler years ago in favor of mass transit and car-sharing programs. She, in effect, doesn't need an EV —but she can get one through her cellphone. "Mostly I get around on foot, bus or bike," she said.
And that brings me to the pretty green car that actually is in the family, a 2007 Honda Fit. It was bought new for less than $15,000. On a good day it gets better than 30 mpg, and it is great at hauling stuff that even SUVs can’t carry. Like just about everybody I talked to, I’d love an electric car and really do plan to get one. Maybe a Leaf, more likely a Volt. If money was no option, I’d go for a Tesla Model S, a car I love. I’m sending my first daughter to college next year, and the other one follows in 2014. So other people get to be the early adopters.
Relate: 7 electric cars to watch in 2012
MNN tease photo of leafy green car: Shutterstock