By Deborah Petersen
Fremont, California, resident Shinya Fujimoto bought his Nissan Leaf during heady times for electric-vehicle fans.
It was spring 2011, when there was so much anticipation over a shipment of these all-electric vehicles from Japan to the West Coast that someone climbed aboard a chopper, shot photos of the cars on shipboard on their way to Southern California and posted them on a blog popular among plug-in vehicle owners.
“These people were crazy,” said Fujimoto, who admits to being such an enthusiast that he keeps Excel spreadsheets to illustrate the savings his Leaf has brought over the petrol-powered vehicle he drove before. (It’s been about $100 to $150 per month, he said.)
When Fujimoto’s shiny baby-blue Nissan finally arrived in July 2011 — after delays caused by Japan’s tsunami — he already had a key piece of equipment waiting for it: a home charging station.
“I wanted to make sure I got it before I got the car,” said Fujimoto. His 240-volt Blink-manufactured station was installed a month before the car arrived.
Technically speaking, the charger itself is in the vehicle, and the plug-in station designed to deliver the charge most efficiently is known as the Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment, or EVSE.
Generally, electric vehicles, or EVs, can be charged by plugging in the car’s charging cable to a regular household outlet, which in most cases delivers about 120 volts. But EV owners refer to the juice flowing through such “Level 1” stations as a “trickle charge.” A Level 1 power source takes up to 21 hours for a Nissan Leaf, for example, to go from zero to a full charge. A preferred Level 2 AC charger, which delivers from 208 to 240 volts, takes eight hours or less. That is why an EVSE that is more efficient than a level 1 outlet is found in more and more homes of EV owners.
In general, preparing a home for a charging station is as simple as wiring the residence to power a clothes dryer, said Jason Smith, San Francisco regional sales manager for ECOtality. His company oversees the EV Project, which installs chargers for free to qualifying Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners in some parts of the US.
Level 2 EV chargers, he explains, require a 40-amp circuit breaker, which most of today’s homes already have. “The primary consideration is that there is a spare breaker on your main panel,” Smith said. If so, “the installation is quite routine.” He added that the work should be done by a licensed electrician, and the installation requires a permit from the community where the EV driver lives. Older homes may require an electrical system upgrade, adding to the cost. Also, permit costs vary from community to community.
These days, charging stations can be purchased at hardware stores in the US, as well as at Amazon.com. But before selecting a station, EV drivers need to check their owners’ manuals and contact their auto dealers and utility companies to make sure their units are fully compatible with their cars, take full advantage of their charging capabilities and are likely to remain usable in the future, as EVs continue to improve.
Boning up on electricity basics may make shopping for a station easier. Those who do so find that voltage refers essentially to how much electricity is available, and amperage to how fast that electricity is delivered.
The 2013 Leaf, for example, will have a 24-amp charging capability, upgraded from the 2012 model. So if a driver of the 2013 model were to purchase a 240-volt, 16-amp station, the vehicle would charge slower than it could with a 24-amp station. Conversely, an EV with a 16-amp charging capability will charge no faster if attached to a 24-amp station.
Stations can also be purchased directly from manufacturers such as Blink, whose Level 2 home model retails for $1,495. Blink’s Level 2 stations are also being installed at workplaces and in public spaces such as parking garages as part of the EV Project. ECOtality has installed a few of Blink’s “Cadillac” charging stations, fast 480-volt DC chargers can deliver a full charge in just 25 minutes.
Long charging times and relatively short mileage ranges from a single charge are the biggest factors that drive potential customers away from EV ownership at present. The Tesla has the longest range, but it comes with a higher price tag than the competitors.
Under the programme, which is funded in part by the US Department of Energy, 6,500 chargers have been installed in homes throughout the US. The amount covered for installation cost is as low as $400 in some regions.
To receive a charging station for free through the EV Project, the homeowner must agree to share data from it with the federal government. Data collected so far from the stations of Leaf and Chevrolet Volt (a hybrid plug-in model that also uses petrol) drivers since 2009 covers 63mn miles of travel and offers a wealth of information on EV trends, including an increase in use of chargers away from home, according to Smith. The EV Project is winding down but is still accepting applications.
Of his own installation, Fujimoto said, “It was very seamless for us.” Still, it was not without challenges. The application process took three months, and when the station was installed in June, the first one did not work when tested. But the installer replaced it immediately with another from his truck, and that one tested OK.
Jack Brown, who drives an electric BMW ActiveE, had a ChargePoint CT500 station installed at his Aptos, Calif., home for free by taking a different route. He received it through a programme funded by the California Energy Commission, but he was expecting to pay $400 for a permit and inspection earlier this year. In the end, however, Brown decided to add solar panels to his home, too, and he negotiated a deal with no out-of-pocket expenses for the upgrade of his electrical panel and installation of the solar PV (photovoltaic) panels, which generate power for his own use and potentially an excess for the electric grid. SolarCity leases the PV panels that have been installed to Brown for $160 a month.
ChargePoint, like Blink, has a network of level 2 chargers in commercial use. Both manufacturers issue cards that drivers use to activate the chargers. Both also offer smartphone apps and websites that can alert drivers to whether a charger is currently being used by another vehicle or not. These Web tools also notify the companies if a charger malfunctions.
Today, EV owners remain a tiny minority among drivers in the US, and the early adopters make up a tight-knit community that shares information on blogs and online forums. Some even share their electricity. Brown has listed his home charging station with Recargo and PlugShare to let other EV drivers know it is available to them, if needed.
Fujimoto has opted to keep his garage charging station private. “I’m not that much of an electric (vehicle) advocate that I would allow strangers to come by,” he said.
Even so, Fujimoto said he loves the EV life. “People have to really experience it to understand — to really understand what I mean.” — San Jose Mercury News/MCT
Tesla Model S a truly
competitive premium sedan
By David Undercoffler
The Tesla Model S may be a silent car, but other automakers will no doubt hear it coming.
In its first crack at a premium sedan, the Silicon Valley electric-car maker has matched or beaten the likes of the Audi A7 or Mercedes-Benz CLS — products of a century of German engineering. Similarly packaged as a sleek four-door coupe, the Model S delivers the performance and polish implied by its $89,770 price.
All that’s missing is the roar of internal combustion.
Ask the folks at Tesla Motors Inc how they pulled this off and they’ll say Tesla isn’t a car company. It’s a tech company, headquartered in a hive of innovation that helped lure the sharp minds who conceptualised the car from an outsider’s perspective.
Founded in 2003, Tesla produced its first car in 2008, the two-seat Roadster. It sold about 2,400 of them before halting production last year.
The Model S represents Phase 2 of the Palo Alto, California, company’s outsized ambitions. Unlike the Roadster, which was built on the chassis of a Lotus sports car, Tesla built the Model S from scratch. It’s a showpiece of the start-up’s design prowess, targeting a demanding and well-heeled niche of customers.
The third and crucial phase — if the Model S can secure the company’s survival a while longer — will be to create an affordable mass-market car. That’s no small feat, given that the electric-car market, littered with past failures, accounts for just one-tenth of 1% of US auto sales. (For all the accolades showered on Nissan’s Leaf, the company has sold just 20,000 of the cars since 2010.)
The company last month reported another good-not-great quarter, renewing concerns about its ability to quickly churn out enough electric vehicles to sustain the company for the long term.
Tesla said it has more than 15,000 fully refundable deposits on hand. But the company’s performance has raised concerns that it will need a new influx of cash this year. The cash that produced the Model S was gathered during the Roadster era. Tesla secured $465mn in US Department of Energy loans and went public on the Nasdaq Stock Market. It also started collecting Model S deposits and sold minority stakes in the company to Toyota and Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz.
Now it’s up to the Model S to bring in more cash.
Nearly a week spent in the car’s high-tech cockpit suggests that Tesla has a legitimate shot at making automotive history with truly competitive electric cars.
If Tesla is a technology company, the evidence starts with the car’s innovative infotainment system. The 17-inch touch screen controls nearly everything — including navigation, stereo, climate control and driving settings. As clear and touch-sensitive as an Apple iPad, the huge screen can easily accommodate multiple functions at once.
You can view the Google Maps-based navigation on one half of the screen while fiddling with radio controls on the other. Or swap the two. Or close one of them and bring up a new function - say, the phone or the Internet browser. Or just expand one function to cover the whole screen.
Contrast that to a car company making technology: Ford has produced its Sync system about as long as Tesla has made cars, and yet Sync remains eons behind in sophistication and ease of use.
But the most impressive technology resides in the guts of the Model S. The car overflows with torque, that delicious by-product of electric propulsion. Despite a portly curb weight - a comparable Audi A7 weighs about 400 pounds less - the S clears zero to 60 mph in a mere 5.6 seconds.
Our test car, rated at 362 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, uses an 85KW-hour battery to power the rear wheels through an electric motor. The battery comes in the premium version of the Model S - the only one currently produced, with a base price of $81,820, including delivery, before any state or federal tax incentives. Additional options on our test car included the tech package, an upgraded sound system and air suspension.
Tesla has promised two less expensive versions of the car with smaller batteries, meaning decreased power and range.
Power in the premium Model S comes from roughly 1,000 pounds of lithium-ion cells - all integrated into the car’s floor plan, an innovative setup giving the Model S a low centre of gravity and a stiff chassis. The underside of the battery pack forms the underside of the car.
In eager driving, the S doesn’t feel exactly light, but it carries its weight well, with no excessive body roll in turns. Drivers can use the touch screen to select one of three different steering modes, although the most aggressive ‘sport’ setting proved a little too firm in most driving situations.
The brakes on the Model S are plenty strong, and fortunately are not the regenerative variety you’ll find on most gas-electric hybrids, which have a mushy, grabby feel.
The trouble is that repeated demonstrations of the car’s prodigious power utterly destroy its range. Tesla says this model will go 300 miles on a single charge. The EPA puts that number at 265 miles. Over four days of testing the car, we managed only about 160 miles in heavy-footed driving.
All Model S’s will charge through a 120V or 240V outlet. Tesla says the former needs roughly 46 hours to recharge fully, while the latter needs eight to 10 hours. Buyers can reduce these times by adding a second on-board charger for $1,500 and buying a high-power wall connector for $1,200. Tesla is also installing 100 of what it calls supercharging stations in the US and Canada by year’s end. They’re free for Tesla owners, who can add half a charge in about half an hour.
Established automakers should be paying attention, but they shouldn’t be surprised. In a blog post dated August 2006, Musk laid out his three-step vision for Tesla. Step 1: Build a sports car. Then use that money to build an affordable car. Then, finally, use that money to build an even more affordable car.
Steps 1 and 2 are done, with mixed results. The Model S is hardly affordable, nor does it guarantee safe passage to Step 3. But strip away the financial drama, and all that’s left is the best electric car ever made. — Los Angeles Times/MCT
Shinya Fujimoto’s electric Nissan Leaf parked in his Fremont, California home.