National Plug-In Day 2013: Upgrade Your Car

For the past 7 months, I’ve been averaging 135 miles to the gallon driving to and from work. I haven’t stopped at a gas station once or had an oil change either.  No, I’m not driving a moped, going “downhill both ways” or otherwise breaking the laws of physics. I actually haven’t changed my driving habits at all, and have been having more fun in a car since I did peel-outs in a ’79 Chevy Malibu back in high school.

I just made one change to my normal driving routine. I upgraded to a plug-in electric car, the Ford Focus Electric.

And it turns out I’m not the only person upgrading. Since 2008, over 133,000 plug-in cars have been sold in the US and the trend is accelerating. The most popular models are the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and the all-electric Nissan Leaf, but the Model S, an all-electric, American-made luxury sedan from Tesla Motors, has been on a tear this past year, outselling Buick, Lincoln, Cadillac, Volvo, Porsche, Jaguar and Land Rover in California.

My Experience So Far

In most ways, driving a plug-in has been exactly the same as a regular car. I turn it on in the mornings and then just step on the “gas” to go. Other than a battery gauge in place of the gas gauge and a subtle “Electric” badge on the side, you’d never know this was the biggest advance in automotive technology since we used the horse & buggy.

Plugging into a plug-in electric vehicle at home.

There are a few big changes, though. My family gas bill has been cut in half (we have a “regular” car that my wife drives.) Instead of stopping at gas stations, I simply plug in to a standard 110volt outlet when I get home. And I have to answer a lot of questions from people interested in making the switch to electric.


How Do They Work?

Instead of using gasoline to power an internal combustion engine (ICE) like most cars on the road, electric vehicles (EVs) have a large battery pack that powers an electric engine. In both setups, the engine powers the wheels. Early electrics had older battery technology and less-efficient motors, and therefore they were limited in range and acceleration. But with the shift to newer battery technologies like those in your laptop and super-efficient electric motors, plug-ins now have performance that rivals top sports cars. The Ford Focus Electric’s acceleration won’t win any races, but it’s definitely “zippy” and very fun to drive.

Tesla Model S next to a Ford Focus Electric

Plug-ins come in two different flavors: plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt or the new BMW i3, where a large battery pack and electric motor is combined with a smaller gas tank and gas motor, or pure electrics like the Focus Electric or Tesla Model S, where there is no gas at all. The hybrid versions provide additional range in long-distance situations, but are more complicated and have fewer of the advantages of pure-electric versions. In fact, the advanced engineering that went into the Model S makes it the safest car in the history of cars.

In addition, most electric cars have brakes which capture energy that would otherwise be lost during braking. In a regular car with a manual transmission, you can downshift and use the engine to slow down the car without tapping the brakes. In an electric car, the brakes are able to do something similar, but actually produce electricity in the process and store it in the battery, extending drive time between charges and making your driving even more green.

“Game Mechanics” Replacing Auto Mechanics?

One of the most fun parts of driving electric is the iPhone app that comes with the car. Though “cars with apps” is a trend that extends beyond electric cars, it’s not just about remote starting and locking/unlocking. With just a few taps, from anywhere in the world, I can see the current amount of charge in my car, my expected range and charging stations in my area. That’s in addition to being able to remotely start the car, unlock it, and turn on the heater or air conditioner. I can even set an alarm to tell the car to turn on and heat up or cool off 10 minutes before I leave for work — an excellent feature in cold New England winters.

Screens from the MyFordMobile app showing plug-in electric car performance and game mechanics.

But where the app really shines is turning the otherwise boring activity of driving into a game. There is plenty of real-time feedback in the car on the dashboard — how much charge I’m using per mile, how much energy is being recaptured by the regenerative braking system, and how efficiently I’m driving. But after choosing to opt-in to Ford’s MyFordMobile system, all of my driving data is uploaded to their owner database where it is analyzed and compared to other drivers.

Now I can compare my habits to the most efficient drivers out there and see where I rank on seven different driving factors. I log in several times per week to see where I stand in the leaderboards. I haven’t cracked the top 10 yet, but I’m working on it! As a product developer, I love seeing companies add technology and gamification to everyday data and turn it into something that actually changes behavior for the better. There are a lot of companies besides Koko doing this in the digital health & fitness space, so it’s good to see an older industry like automobiles embrace the future.

“But How Far Does It Go?”

Ford Focus Electric dashboard battery status view.

There are two questions people ask when they ride in my car. The first is “it’s so quiet – how do you know it’s on?” (There’s a little green light.) The second is some variation of “How far does it go? What if you run out of charge?”  That was one of my first questions when investigating plug-ins too — I guess we all have deep-seated fears about running out of gas on a lonely stretch of road late at night.

In theory, it’s a scary thought. There’s even a newly-coined term – “range anxiety” – that describes the stress you feel watching the battery gauge and wondering if you have enough charge to make it to your destination and back. Imagine that your battery dies. Even if you pull over and find you’re near a gas station, they can’t help you. In the best case, you’re stuck asking a complete stranger if you can run a really long extension cord to their house. In the worst case, you’re calling a flat-bed tow truck for an expensive lift to the closest dealer. Believe me, I’ve considered both of those scenarios!

Real-world Range

But in practice, any initial range anxiety I felt has faded, and quickly. I’m not planning any cross-country road trips, but with the battery at full charge each morning, I can drive between 80 miles and 100 miles round-trip. That’s more than enough for three trips to and from my office or one trip into Boston and back with a few side trips or wrong turns.

Ford Focus Electric free charging at a ChargePoint station.

While I happen to live only 12 miles from my office, according to the US Department of Transportation, 78% of commutes are less than 40 miles, meaning that plug-in electric and plug-in hybrids are practical for a large percentage of the population.

And as the number of electric cars on the road grows, there are new networks springing up to support them by providing rapid charging while out-and-about. The ChargePoint network has over 13,000 charging locations. While that’s less than a tenth the size of the over 140,000 gas stations in the US alone, consider that the first gas station was built in St. Louis in 1905 — nearly a 100 year head start! The electric charging network will only grow in size and speed as more people switch to electric driving.

Not For Everyone?

Plug-in cars aren’t for everyone, however. If you want 0-60 in under 4 seconds, if you actually like popping the hood of your car and spending most of your Saturday tuning an engine, or if you just like having to stop every 300 miles and paying $3.50+ per gallon to fill up, plug-in hybrids and plug-in electrics probably aren’t for you.

But if you’d like a smarter way to drive — and save a lot of gas money at the same time — stop by your local dealer to check out how the same technologies that power your smartphone can change how you drive. Or rent one — Hertz is adding the Model S to its rental fleet!

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About Michael Wood, Chief Fitness Officer
Michael Wood, CSCS, is Chief Fitness Officer at Koko FitClub, driving the development of integrated strength and cardio training and nutrition programs for Koko members nationwide. A nationally acclaimed fitness expert, Michael has conducted research as a Senior Exercise Physiologist at the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and has lectured at Boston University and the University of Connecticut. He has been named Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” Personal Trainer, and made the Men’s Journal “Dream Team” list of the nine best trainers in the U.S. Michael and his family live in North Attleboro, MA.

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