By Xavier Guillaume, Director of Member Services, Buffalo CarShare:
Just two weeks ago, Buffalo CarShare (BCS), the non-profit organization where I work, added two (soon to be four) Ford Focus Electrics to its fleet through a grant from NYSERDA. Anyone (18+ and licensed for 2 years) can join the carshare program and reserve the cars by the hour. For this month only, it’s “Electric Month”, so people can join BCS for free ($20 savings) and try out our brand new 100% electric vehicles (EVs). We even have a humorous 30 second video in celebration of Electric Month.
We knew launching these cars would be tricky. Many folks are unfamiliar with how an EV works, so we made sure to test drive them extensively. However, we never imagined testing an EV would become such an adventure. It all happened last year, shortly after a 3-day carsharing conference in Boulder, CO. The BCS crew, including Director of Operations Mike Galligano, Board Chair Todd Salansky, and myself, decided to take in the sights by booking a car with the carsharing organization in Boulder called eGo. We wanted to go to Denver because the Presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney were being hosted that same night, and Todd and our friend Lauren from Capital CarShare needed to be dropped off at the Denver International Airport afterwards. We couldn’t have planned a better trip.
Mike suggested we book eGo’s full-EV, the Nissan Leaf. We knew we were obtaining 4 full-EVs the next year, so it was the perfect opportunity to test one out. Yet, as the Fleet Manager at the time, I protested using a full-electric car for our trip because where we were going was simply too far.
When using a full-EV, your range is somewhat limited. If the vehicle dashboard says you have 80 miles remaining, it’s more like 50-60. This probably seems illogical—imagine your gas tank gauge constantly lying to you—but it’s based on how the mileage calculator is programmed. The amount of miles remaining is an estimate based on your current usage. Whether you’re going uphill, downhill, fast, or slow the miles are going to fluctuate, and if you’re using air conditioning/heat or accelerating and braking quickly, it’s going to decrease your battery even more. Thus, if you’ve never driven a full-EV before, and there is only an 80 mile max range, I would suggest going 50 miles round trip. Unfortunately, we were going a little farther than that.
You might ask, what if the battery does die? Can you just jump-start it? Can you just swap in a new battery? The EV battery cannot be jump-started from another car and due to safety, it can only be inserted by a machine. Perhaps one day we will have robot battery-swapping stations, but for now, if you run out of charge you’re stuck with having to be flat-bed towed to the nearest charging station. Hitching the car will damage the vehicle or transmission.
Taking all of this into account, there was no way we would want to take a car from Boulder to Denver to the airport and back to Boulder. It was way too far; the risk was too much. Yet, Mike insisted, so we took the Nissan Leaf.
The car and the mountain
When we arrived at the car, we first made sure to remove the charging plug from the car and insert it into the charging station. Supposedly the vehicle has a sensor that prevents you from driving off with the plug attached, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Next, we unlocked the car with our eGo CarShare fob, but once inside, we couldn’t figure out how to start the car. After reading the instructions in the car, it wasn’t too difficult, just press down on the brake and push the power button near the dashboard. Just in case, however, I made sure to read every part of the instructions, so that we could avoid any mishaps from appearing on our adventure.
If you’ve never been to Boulder, I strongly recommend visiting; Boulder has gorgeous mountains within jogging/biking distance from downtown. Of course we wanted to check them out, and Mike suggested we take the long way to Denver by going through the mountains. This immediately made me uneasy. Would we really want to risk becoming stranded because we wanted to take the scenic route? Mike remained optimistic, so we decided to give it a try. If it looked impossible we could always head back. The sights were beautiful. Huge rocks surround you on both sides as you weave and make sharp turns going up the ridge. Trees and cabins dot the road, and a number of joggers and bicyclists go up the path. We decided to take a pit stop and take these amazing photos:
When we returned to the car, we thought it best to turn around. Since it was all downhill we didn’t have to worry about consuming any energy. When we finally reached the bottom we were at 70 miles remaining, which was enough ‘juice’ to get to Denver.
A night in Denver
Getting to Denver was a breeze. The Leaf came equipped with GPS and it was basically a straight shot from Boulder. When we finally arrived, we had about 30 miles remaining on the car. This was hardly enough to get us to the airport and back to Boulder, so we knew we had to charge the car in Denver. It takes about 4 hours to fully charge the Leaf, so we had to find a station ASAP. Fortunately, the car comes equipped with a charging station locator. Using it, we quickly found out the nearest charging station was just 3 miles away. Strangely, we were taken to a closed garage door with a discouraging sign: Charging station operational Mon, Wed, Fri from 11am-1pm. Why did our GPS locator fail to mention this in the description? It was 3pm and they were closed; we also only had 25 miles remaining at this point. The best thing we could do was head back on the highway and try to find the next closest station.
The next station brought us conveniently into the heart of downtown, which would allow us to charge the car and grab a beer during the presidential debates. After driving around lost for a bit, we finally found the parking garage where the charging station was located. Right away as we pulled in, we saw glowing blue Power symbol lights, which could only mean one thing, charging stations. It was a beautiful thing: three charging station all shining in a row. There was only one problem though, all of the plugs were taken. Since there weren’t any other charging stations nearby, we decided our only option was to grab a bite to eat and come back in the hopes that one of the three cars would leave. After dinner, a charging spot was finally available. We put the car in the spot, plugged in the charger, and crossed our fingers that it would get to a full charge in 2 hours because that was the amount of time we had remaining at this point.
We headed over to a hotel where we could grab a beer and catch the presidential debates that were about to start. There were hundreds of people there, most of them from a substitute teacher’s conference, but others representing Myspace, which I was greatly surprised still existed. The debates were a debacle. President Obama remained passive throughout and Governor Romney won even though he planned on cutting PBS. Pretty much everyone around me looked shocked and appalled. In the back of my mind I wondered if President Obama was somehow affected by the high altitude in Denver.
It was night time by now, and we had to get Todd and Lauren to the airport right away. When we started the car, we were at 90% charge. I calculated our trip from Denver to the airport and to Boulder, and it was a tight squeeze. We only had maybe 5 miles leeway so it was possible, but I was worried. You really should give yourself 20-30 miles leeway, but at this point there was no time to coordinate a shuttle for Todd and Lauren to the airport. They literally had to get there as soon as possible. Unfortunately the airport is 30 miles from Denver, and it’s not exactly on route to Boulder either; however, we managed to drop them off in time.
The final stretch
When Mike and I put in the GPS directions to head back to Boulder, the console screen alerted ut that our destination was farther than the battery had remaining. We didn’t know what to do. There was no EV charging port at the airport. Sure, it’s a $5 billion dollar facility supposedly built for the New World Order, but they didn’t bother to put in an EV charging station. The only thing we could do was head back and hope we would make it. Driving with little power remaining felt like a video game, we had to be careful with our speed, not accelerating too quickly and braking as little as possible. To err now would mean we would be stuck on the side of the road for the remainder of the night.
We eventually decided our only option was to stop and charge the car along the way. We pinpointed where to go, and luckily it was just outside Boulder. We were able to make it with 2 miles to spare, which was both scary and exciting. The GPS ended up taking us to a sports facility. It was pitch black, and we searched for an hour for the charging station, but despite all of our efforts, there was not a charging station in sight.
Sitting in the car, we weighed our options. I suggested that we should try charging the car with the three-pronged outlet cord that sat in the back trunk. We looked around the parking lot for another 15 minutes trying to find an outlet, but of course there was none. Luckily I remembered seeing a gas station just a mile down the road, so we tried there instead. It was our last option with just 2 miles remaining on the battery.
When we arrived, we were thrilled to see a three-pronged outlet in the front wall of the gas station. The gas station attendant was more than happy to let us use it. I opened the cord that was in the back trunk, and I could tell from the plastic wrapping that it had never been used before. In other words, we were the first people to be this desperate. We plugged in the car and waited. After half an hour, we checked the car and saw that it only charged an additional 2 miles. We knew we had a long night ahead of us.
After waiting two hours, we checked the battery level and we only had 8 miles. According to the GPS, the last time we checked, the carshare hub was still 12 miles away. It was 3 a.m., and we were exhausted. Mike finally suggested we should just call a tow truck. When we went inside to see if we could order a tow, the attendant told us that our destination was only 7 miles away. Mike and I were stunned because the GPS said it was 12 miles away. It felt too good to be true, but the attendant was 100% positive that it was closer than that. The kind gentleman told his co-worker he was going to step out for a bit and show us how to get there. We arrived at the carshare hub in the matter of minutes with a few miles to spare. Mike and I couldn’t stop cheering, and we thanked the attendant several times. Plugging in the car with smiles on our faces, we saw the blue lights come on. The car was being charged.
Learning from our mistakes
The BCS team learned a lot from that trip. We discovered the challenges that our members might face adjusting from a gas car to an electric one. Starting the car is different and you have to pay attention to your miles. We knew how important it was to stress to our members the mileage limit and not to depend on a far off charging station to get them back. Once these physical limits are understood, EVs are really incredible. I remember how awe-struck I felt the moment it first dawned on me that our Denver journey used zero gas. With our country’s dependency on oil, this is such a major breakthrough. Now, BCS has two Ford Focus Electrics it its fleet (soon to be four) thanks to a grant from NYSERDA, and now, the people of Buffalo can share in that feeling of doing good for our planet. For that reason, BCS is allowing people to apply for the program for free and try out an EV. The $20 application fee will be waived until the end of August.
I believe one day these EVs will take off. Buffalo will have more charging stations, and we’ll see more EVs on the road. We won’t have to depend on oil so much, and we’ll enjoy cleaner air and healthier environments. We just need people to try them out. Luckily, BCS exists to allow people that opportunity. Not every city in this country is fortunate enough to have carsharing. It’s a great option: you don’t have to own and maintain a car, you save money, and you get to be more environmentally friendly. Already, we have almost 600 members sharing our cars since we launched 4 years ago. We’re a growing organization, and we’re doing great things. I strongly suggest joining as a member even just to show your support. Just make sure when you drive an EV that you’ve learned from our story. We made sure to make the mistakes, so you wouldn’t have to.
Special thanks to NYSERDA, NYSDOT and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus for helping BCS bring electric vehicles to Buffalo.