By Austin Brown (July 27, 2017)
When I moved to Washington, DC in 2008 to work at the Department of Energy, I went carless. I had gotten frustrated with what felt like constant hassle and bills, and had no desire to deal with owning and parking one in the city. DC made it pretty easy to thrive with transit, walking, biking, (eventually) ride-hailing apps, and a few well-wheeled friends for longer trips. At that time, there were essentially no options for plug-in electric vehicles on the market. The Tesla Roadster was just beginning its run, and while I admired the car it was well out of my price range. I hoped out loud to my new colleagues that by the time I was in a life situation requiring vehicle ownership, electric would be a viable option. I got my wish and then some.
Last Thursday I picked up my first-ever new car – a shiny red Chevy Bolt. I don’t want this post to end up as a free advertisement for Chevy, but I do want to gush a little bit. The main reason I went with the Bolt is that it offers a game-changing 238 miles of range. This makes a host of trips that were previously only possible with a Tesla totally doable, even without the gas engine range extender of its (frustratingly) similar-named sister car the Volt. Mine has already taken me on a 210 mile trip to go hiking, including freeway driving and lots of hills, and returned with more than 40 miles of range remaining – and a few pounds of dust to show I’ve broken it in a bit.
So far, 500 miles, 2 long hikes, many shorter milk runs, and of course 0.0 gallons of gasoline used. For the transportation nerds, it’s gotten an average of 4.2 miles / kWh (and that’s with the A/C running and mostly 65-70 mph highway miles). For non-transportation-nerds, trust me, this is high; in miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent, that’s around 140 MPGge, and (with my electricity mix) about one quarter of a normal gasoline car’s GHG emissions. The emissions will also drop as California and the grid overall move to cleaner electricity.
The driving also feels great, with the addictive responsiveness of electric on full display. If you’re never driven a modern electric vehicle, I highly recommend giving it a try – gas-powered vehicles will forever feel sluggish in their response to the pedal. Another amazing feature of electric is regenerative braking, where the motor essentially operates in reverse during deceleration to return energy to the battery. It’s obvious this saves energy, but what is less obvious is how beneficial this is to the brakes. The Bolt can operate in a mode where taking your foot all the way off the accelerator goes into high regeneration, meaning the brake is only needed for unexpected or emergency stops. In 500 miles+ I think I have had to use the actual brakes perhaps a dozen times.
I am impressed by other things about the Bolt, but as I said, this post is more about EVs generally. What the vehicle means to me broadly is that we’re rapidly approaching a point where going electric isn’t a sacrifice and doesn’t even need to be a statement. There are now dozens of models available in a variety of ranges, drivetrains, and form factors – with plenty more on the way. The past month has seen a spate of announcements from automakers and even countries showing that, in their view, the future of the car is electric.
We’re not done. EVs are still a small market share, and face real challenges. Even in California, many people aren’t even aware that EVs are for sale. Despite generally strong reviews and owner accounts so far, the Bolt hasn’t been flying off the lot yet – its first five months of sales were comparable to other new EV offerings, though it has picked up some steam in the last couple of months. Societally, EVs also face an equity challenge – they are seen as cars for the wealthy. Part of my job is working with my colleagues and collaborators to figure out how to make sure that great options are available to everyone.
So, reasons for optimism, but still plenty to do in the race to a fantastic and sustainable transportation system. My next hope is that my next car will once again be not having to own one – but this time because electric, shared, automated vehicles will be a full reality.
Probably goes without saying, but this post represents my personal views only and does not reflect on any employer past or present.
(This article was originally posted online at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies)