If you live in the greater Seattle area and own an all-electric or hybrid car, congratulations!
You’re part of the vanguard that has made Washington among the Top Ten states in the nation during 2012 for gas-saving (or gas-eliminating), environmentally friendly vehicles.
Washington has taken to the new-generation cars like the proverbial duck to water. The reasons are many: a tech-savvy, environmentally-aware population, a relatively affluent population, and strong efforts by both public and private interests to make the all-but-inevitable transition relatively painless.
Perhaps you’re getting ready to make the plunge. If so, what should you consider when you’re thinking about having one of those shiny new toys parked in your driveway — if, in fact, you even have a driveway? And if so, which of the many new technologies — plug-in all-electric vehicles (EVs), electric/gas hybrids or some other variation — should you buy?
Roughly 43 all-electric, plug-in hybrids and diesel-powered vehicles will have U.S. introductions through 2015. (Edmunds’ overview of current and future vehicles is here.)
That’s the good news. But to Seattleites still wedded to the relative simplicity of gas-powered vehicles, the learning curve for understanding the technology of today’s new EVs and hybrids is steep. And then there’s sticker-shock.
According to Dan Davids, president of the nonprofit PlugIn America consumer group, today's forward-thinking cars fit into four categories;
(Please note these are “Cliff Notes” descriptions; virtually every major car manufacturer is developing new combinations of these technologies.)
- Pure gas engines. Many purely gas vehicles are achieving high mileage rates such as the EPA-estimated 40 miles per gallon Ford Focus, but the car companies generally know that some form of hybridization will be needed in the future.
- Gas-powered hybrids require no external electric charging, but use both a gas engine and electric motors powered by the gas engine to power the car. The original Toyota Prius is not only the best example of this technology to date but is well in front of the EV/hybrid pack when it comes to sales.
- Plug-in electric/gas hybrids use both electrically charged motors and gas motors in various combinations to power the vehicle. Some schemes run on batteries and have a gas generator providing extra electricity to the electric motor powering the car, such as the Chevy Volt; others use an electric and a gas motor to directly power the vehicle such as the new Ford C-Max Energi.
- Plug-in all-electric vehicles (EVs) run purely on batteries charged by electricity from the nation’s power gird. Electricity can be acquired from charging stations either in your home, or chargers now being installed on some highways, in public facilities, and commercial buildings. While the cleanest-running vehicles, they also have limited range. Charging times, especially on the road, may present problems to some. The Nissan Leaf, as well as the $80,000 Tesla Model S, Motor Trend’s 2012 car of the year, are examples.
“On the surface,” said Davids, "the learning curve may appear to be steep, but once you actually drive one of these, you’ll find them easy, simple and enjoyable to live with.”
Of the four categories, all-electric vehicles offer the greatest promise to end our dependence on gas and improve the environment. At the same time, they remain the most problematic in public acceptance, according to several experts.
Washington is among the nation's better prepared states with both public policies and public-private partnerships in place designed to aid the future of all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles.
By the end of 2012, electric EV charging stations planned for the tri-state West Coast Electric Highway, stretching from the Canadian border to San Diego along Interstate 5, will be completed throughout Washington and Oregon. Charging station installations along a second “green” highway, U.S. 2 between Sultan and Wenatchee, are also done. Federal funds have been used for both projects.
According to a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) spokesperson, drivers of all-electric vehicles along these highways now have access to Level 2 charging stations roughly every 30 to 40 miles, enabling them to take long drives without “range anxiety”: e.g., the fear of running out of electricity with no place to power up. Level 2 is the de facto 240 volt AC engineering charging standard for virtually all plug-in electric vehicles' full charges, which take four to six hours. (Most electric vehicles use the same electric port on their car to fully charge their EV at home with Level 1 charging: basically 110 volt AC household current.)
In Seattle, the city has installed 66 Level 2 charging stations: roughly two-thirds to power city fleet vehicles, the rest in public garage locations, including Seattle City Hall, Seattle Center, the Downtown Seattle Public Library, and other similar locations. As of late October, noted Sandra Pinto de Bader, of the Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, the city's Department of Public Works had issued an additional 555 charging station permits, of which 142 were for businesses.
Some businesses, such as hospitals, are installing on-site chargers, so that EV-owning health care providers can be sure to have power available for their trips to and from work.
According to Jeff Doyle, state Department of Transportation director of public-private partnerships, the department is playing a major role in promoting these technologies because the state’s highway system produces almost half of its greenhouse gas emissions — and the state Legislature has mandated that WSDOT must both reduce the system’s emissions and control the number of miles that people drive.
If driving miles can’t be reduced, he said, then the miles that people drive must be cleaner miles: thus, the state currently backs electric vehicles and electric fueling stations because it is both market-ready and the least-costly infrastructure to install. “We’re not trying to push people one way or the other,” he said. “We’re just trying to help the private markets in all types of clean vehicle technology.” Future technologies could include hydrogen, bio-diesel or compressed natural gas.
Not everyone agrees with the state’s highway-centric concept. According to Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com, support for home charging may be a smarter proposition for state expenditures. “I think that is a better place for the government to help out than trying to promote interstate travel because I don’t think the battery range and charge times are there yet,” he said. PlugIn America’s David said research from Nissan indicates that motorists who drive the all-electric Nissan Leaf are only driving 26 miles per day, which may make the large-scale installations of public chargers seem less critical to the success of electrical vehicles.
In addition to helping foster low-mileage driving, the state and its public-private partnerships are trying to smooth out other details: conflicting laws, new signage, appropriate taxes for gas-free vehicles and other issues. The road is still a little rough.
Doyle pointed out the following example. State legislators offer a sales tax exemption on electric cars, but have been less successful in defining the specifications of what constitutes an “electric car.” The Chevy Volt qualifies under federal regulations as a candidate for a federal tax break: Its large battery makes it an electric car. But since the state defines “electric car” as one powered only by electricity, and the Volt has a small gas engine — even though it only powers the car’s electrical engine — the state offers no tax credit for the Volt.
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