The author’s son ready to charge the electric vehicle. Photo: Gareth Shute
The author’s son ready to charge the electric vehicle. Photo: Gareth Shute

BusinessFebruary 20, 2018

What it’s really like to own an electric car

The author’s son ready to charge the electric vehicle. Photo: Gareth Shute
The author’s son ready to charge the electric vehicle. Photo: Gareth Shute

You plug in your phone at night, why not the car as well? Gareth Shute describes the joys (and dramas) of being an EV owner.

We were just coming down the hill to Piha when I realised our car wouldn’t have enough power to get back to the city. There’d been 100-kilometres on the clock when we started, but I hadn’t taken into account the hills and the weather.

It was a cold, foggy night and as soon as I’d turned on the AC to clear the windscreen, the car’s estimated range dropped by 15km. I’d rolled down my window instead and had driven along the twisting Waitakere roads with frosty wafts of air curling around my neck. But the gradient of the road had risen steadily upward, sucking away our precious range at an alarming rate.

By the time we got to the party we were attending at the Piha Bowling Club, there was 45km on the clock and the distance back to Auckland was 40km. I felt a nervous twinge in my chest – I didn’t think we could make it. This is what they call “range anxiety” and has been the bugbear of the early models of electric vehicles (EVs). Current technology means it’s still difficult to cram enough power into the batteries for long distance driving. Manufacturers have tried to address the issue with long arrays of batteries held under the chassis – if you look at most EVs, you’ll notice they’re longer than regular cars – but to little avail.

In the end, I solved my problem in Piha by begging a local campsite owner to let me plug the car in for a couple of hours. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have bothered. Another quirk of electric cars is that they recharge when braking or drifting downhill (“regenerative braking”). The gradual rise of the Waitakeres toward the west now counted in our favour on the way back; as we cruised back down toward Auckland, the range on the counter began to rise.

Charging in Te Kauwhata. Photo: Gareth Shute

This episode took place back in late-2016 when we first purchased a Nissan Leaf 2011 (cost: NZ$17k; maximum range: 130km). Back then, there were only around 1000 pure electric vehicles on the road and I found myself waving whenever I passed another on the street. For a few months, we kept our old petrol car as backup, but the only time we used it was to check the engine was still running, so we finally sold it.

The first shock of owning an electric car is finding that when you turn the car on, it makes no sound whatsoever. Even when driving, electric cars only emit the softest hum. At one point, I drove up behind a group of teenage boys walking down the centre of a quiet suburban street and had to roll down the window to call out for them to move aside.

After the Piha experience I became more bold. I did the round trip to Splore last summer (topping up at Takanini) and, a month later, we holidayed in Maraetai where we charged up by running the cord out the kitchen window (we have a power lead that plugs directly into a regular wall socket, though charging takes much longer).

The furthest we’ve made it is Hamilton, which required stopping at WEL Networks’  Te Kauwhata fast charger on the way. It’s great that lines companies are now providing free charging points, though they often put them wherever their nearest substation happens to be. In the case of Te Kauwhata, that means being stuck in the midst of the rural countryside for 20 minutes without much to do.

The company setting up charging stations outside of the main centres is Chargenet, who want to create an electric highway across the country. There is also an opportunity for small businesses like B&Bs and cafes to appeal to EV owners by offering onsite charging then listing themselves on the Plugshare app.

In Newmarket. Photo: Supplied

Range anxiety will soon be a thing of the past. The 2018 model of the Nissan Leaf can go 240km on a full battery, and Tesla’s newly released mid-priced model (US$30k) will have 350km of range and the option to expand this to 500km. Once cars with this capacity become available as secondhand imports in three to five years’ time the appeal of electric cars will become overwhelming. Last year a million EVs sold worldwide, but this is estimated to double in 2018 and China has announced the goal of having a million EVs on its roads by 2020.

Government energy efficiency agency EECA have calculated that driving an electric car is equivalent to paying 30c per litre for petrol (i.e., 15% the cost of running a similar sized petrol car at current petrol prices). Why would you spend $60 at a petrol station, when you can charge at home for $9? This is especially true if you sign up to an electricity company with cheaper night rates or one which charges less outside peak times (the burst of power usage between 6pm and 9pm is one of the main reasons power companies still need their coal plants, so any good greenie would be limiting use during that time anyway). Plus electric vehicles have fewer moving parts so the cost of repair and servicing is much lower (for example, there is no oil to replace).

On the downside, electric cars remain expensive. A secondhand Leaf similar to our one will set you back up to about $15,000 (roughly two to three times the cost of a similar petrol car) – a high upfront cost that will take years to recoup, depending on how much you drive. Car batteries also degrade over time, losing range, so the resale value will most likely dive after around ten years of life. Nissan have plans to allow consumers to replace their car batteries and reuse the old ones as part of their xStorage home battery units, while the Australian firm Relectrify is creating a system that can work with a wider range of ex-car batteries. It remains to be seen whether these plans will work, or whether recycling of old batteries will become more economical.

These days, the novelty of seeing electric cars on the streets has begun to wear off. There are over 6000 on our roads at this point and I no longer feel such a strong compulsion to wave every time I see one go past. My son was very young when we first bought our electric car and he is fascinated when we pass a petrol station – he’s never been inside one, and now the chances are he never will.

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