Range Anxiety – the diary of an EV newbie

June 28, 2022
7 mins read
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Episode 1, in which GARY STEEL bites the bullet, buys his first electric vehicle, and discovers the real meaning of “range anxiety”.

I’d been vacillating for months. The cost of living was draining the lifeblood from our low-income family.

We needed to step away from the price nightmare of petrol consumption and the increasing financial load that comes with the maintenance of older cars.

We’d been necessarily thrifty for years but living rurally, we needed our own transport, and bicycles just wouldn’t do. We couldn’t afford even a modest EV with the proceeds from the sale of our two millennium-era cars, so we took a calculated risk. We drained the remainder of our savings – supposedly a protection layer against emergencies – and drummed up just enough to purchase an EV that wasn’t going to run out of charge in the middle of the boondocks. Theoretically, the saving we made in just a couple of years would pay off the price of the EV.

 

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But here I was, plonked in the seat of the Nissan Leaf I’d scoped out on Trade Me, about to put it through its paces and I had no idea how to drive it. I’d done a load of research on EVs, but it had never occurred to me that I would need lessons on how to drive the thing. I freaked, but after a little instruction from the seller and a chance to sit and gather my composure, I soon acclimatised to what had at first seemed like the doo-dads in an alien space pod. It turned out that I just wasn’t accustomed to modern cars with push-button starters and keyless entry and cool stuff like that.

I had driven the family in our gas-guzzling Subaru Forester the three hours from our home in the Kaipara to Te Atatu, where a young couple were reluctantly waving goodbye to their Leaf, because they were buying a townhouse with no car access to a plug with which to trickle-charge their EV. They had opted for a hybrid instead. Two cars would be driving in convoy back to the Kaipara after a stop off for the night at a good friend’s house in Helensville.

The 24KwH 2014 Nissan Leaf would – the previous owners said – drive for up to 130 kilometres on a suburban road, but results might vary on rural routes. I was extremely angsty about its ability to get all the way back up North without conking out in some dire wasteland, and I had a very restless night after making various calculations as to the best roads to take to the locations of charging stations on the way.

Normally, we take the quiet, scenic State Highway 16 when we’re travelling home from Auckland, but by our calculations, we needed to opt for State Highway 1 on this occasion. I had planned only to charge in Kaiwaka but at around 100kms it was too risky a proposition. Instead, we headed for Orewa, where I experienced first-time fast-charging jitters. I had to wait around 20 minutes for a woman who was sporting a brand spanking new Leaf with a range in excess of 250kms and was charging her shiny car just because she could.

There are two types of charging ports but the one that fits the Leaf is called a CHAdeMO (apparently an abbreviation of CHArge de MOv, whatever that means) and as I’d already signed up online to ChargeNet – which provides most of the fast chargers – it was all splendidly automated (apart from sticking the plug in the port and yanking it out again 20 minutes later, that is).

Our first fast charge cost the princely sum of $7.75 and stopped when it got to 80 percent of capacity, because apparently the last 20 percent takes an age. This gave me something new to worry about though, because the car was charged to 100 percent when we picked it up. If fast chargers only charge to 80 percent, that means reduced range. Eek!

From Orewa to our next and final charging stop in Kaiwaka (65kms) I found that I was at last relaxing a little, and even starting to enjoy the challenge of extending the charge. I’d found when heading out to our accommodation in Helensville the previous afternoon that the hilly back roads had a huge impact on the battery; something I just hadn’t anticipated. I had thought that if the gauge said 97kms that the car would actually travel for 97kms before the battery gave up the ghost. But with EVs, that’s not the case and a hilly road can impact hugely on the distance the car can travel on a charge. But now I finally gained some confidence and got into the swing of it.

I’d heard from the anti-EV brigade how horrible it was on hilly bits watching as the steep inclines literally sucked the goodness out of the car’s battery. But there are usually two sides (at least) to a story, and there’s definitely an upside to this one. Yes, at first it’s a shock. On a hill, you can sometimes count the kilometres in seconds, but on a downward slope, the battery actually gains charge. So, as long as there’s an equal amount of up and downhill, you can keep the gauge fairly consistently the same for as long as it takes.

The big thing I learned on that first trip was to be light-footed. I’ve been a fuel-economy-influenced driver for some time now anyway, and I know that even in a petrol car anything over 90 is going to eat up more gas. In an EV, if you’re concerned about making it to where you’re heading, then you learn to glide. You don’t jam down the accelerator, you travel at sensible speeds even when you’ve got typically belligerent Kiwi speedsters on your tail, and going downhill you let the engine brakes work for you to generate more battery power while going lightly on the foot brake.

The other thing I discovered – and had confirmed later by the very useful local Facebook Nissan Leaf group – was that when driving after the car is fully charged the available kilometres falls more quickly in the first 20kms. This is disturbing at first, but you get used to it. In other words, it won’t take long to fall from 130kms to 100kms but will become quite static (if I drive carefully) below that point. (I would point out that owners of different models/years might have varying experiences in this regard).

The car still had a fair amount of puff left in it – around 50kms worth – by the time I reached the next charging station at Kaiwaka, but I needed every extra little bit of energy for the final fling all the way back to our beach hideaway near Dargaville. It needed to get me 91kms. Or, at a pinch, I could do another fast charge at Dargaville itself (78kms).

The Kaiwaka charging station was out in the open behind a Gull petrol station and the weather was inclement. Annoyingly, these ChargeNet machines lacked the LCD displays of the Orewa one, so I had no idea what was happening once I plugged it in. Until, that is, I discovered I could monitor the whole thing through the ChargeNet app on my phone. Typical old-man confusion scenario. This time, the fast charge cost me $12.

It turned out that the last 12kms of the journey were the toughest, and that from the turn-off to our residence the road had a slight incline that I’d never noticed before. As I discovered in the following days, driving back into Dargaville the road has a slight downwards gradient and almost no battery power is lost in that direction. But on that first long, tense trip home, the last few kilometres were the hardest. When the display got to 25kms it started flashing a “low battery” signal at me, which continued flashing at 20kms, when with a massive sigh of relief, I pulled into the home garage and switched off the engine.

Range anxiety is a thing with EVs because it’s in your face. With a petrol car, the gauge is rather subtle and unobtrusive and not at all accurate. You just know that when it gets low you can probably squeeze x-more miles out of the tank before it needs filling. If there were as many EV charging stations as there are petrol stations then range anxiety wouldn’t be such an issue. But it’s true that if – like us – your budget means you can’t afford a new EV then you’ve always got to plan ahead, and know your routes and distances.

I’m still not sure if this Nissan Leaf is right for us. Despite the exterior’s rather modest appearance, inside it’s very nice indeed, with quality material on its seats and a good stereo system. It’s beautiful and smooth and – of course – quiet to drive. It’s surprisingly roomy, too. Unfortunately, while it will get us where we need to drive most of the time, it just won’t do for long family drives or holiday trips. And that’s the rub. We want to be a one-car family but may need to “buy a bomb” to get us further afield, or swap it for a hybrid.

While the government EV incentive scheme is a great idea, it’s only benefiting the middle class and those with overflowing coffers who can afford the latest Leaf or Tesla. It seems insane to me that a Nissan Leaf with a range of only 90kms or so could be selling at Auckland used car co’s for $15K or more, even with the subsidy. That range – which reduces exponentially with hilly terrain – will only reduce over time.

Even though I thought I had done due diligence and researched EVs fairly thoroughly before purchasing my first one, I’ve discovered loads of rather key facts and helpful hints since I made the decision to drain my bank account. I’ll share some of those in my next column. I’m not going to dress up my experience. I’ll name the pros and cons as I see them. But I do urge any prospective EV buyers to look beyond the typical EV buyers’ guides because there’s a lot to learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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