Lodi resident Richard Harty is one of roughly 100 people in the country currently driving a zero-emission Nissan Leaf. The physical therapist was interested in buying an electric car for more than four years, but finally found one he liked in 2011. The Leaf is the first mass-marketed, battery-operated vehicle in the United States and became available in December.
“I love how quiet the engine is,” he said Wednesday. “I can hear birds singing when I drive to work in the morning.”
Since purchasing the vehicle in January, Harty has put more than 700 miles on it. While the Leaf has its shortcomings, such as a limited range and recharging locations, Harty said it’s a perfect second car for light commutes and is at home in Lodi. Since the city has a such a compact footprint, Harty said he is able to run errands and return home without experiencing anxiety about being stranded. The vehicle produces no emissions and requires no gasoline. The Leaf’s price tag is $32,780, but federal, state and county rebates drove the price down by about $15,000 for Harty.
Charge and drive
With the keys in his pocket, Harty opens the door and activates the vehicle’s push-start ignition. The keys have a special chip which enables Harty to activate certain functions of the vehicle when standing near it. As the car starts, the engine’s gentle hum is drowned out by a musical chime similar to a computer booting up as lights on the dashboard are illuminated.
Despite electric vehicles’ reputation for being weak, Harty said the Leaf has strong torque and he has driven it up to 90 miles per hour. However, driving the 107-horsepower vehicle harder reduces its efficiency and battery life, he said. Unlike hybrids, which use a combination of gasoline and electricity, the Leaf is 100-percent electric.
Using a standard 110-volt electricity outlet, Harty can recharge the Leaf in his garage. When drained, the battery will take 20 hours to recharge. However, Nissan also sells 220-volt chargers that can refill the battery in eight hours for $2,000. Commercial 440-volt chargers can top a battery off in 30 minutes and will soon be available at some Costco and Walmart locations. In the meantime, Harty will occasionally go to the Nissan dealership in Stockton where he purchased the vehicle for a quick charge.
Gizmos and apps
The Leaf also has a smartphone application which enables Harty to warm the car’s interior on cold mornings and gives him real-time updates on his battery’s range. Like some other vehicles on the market, the Nissan Leaf uses regenerative braking to recharge its battery. Whenever the driver applies the brakes or coasts, the electric motor acts as a generator and recovers some of the energy created by braking, storing it in the battery.
Harty’s model also features a small solar panel on its rear spoiler that helps recharge the car’s 12-volt accessory battery. It can travel 100 miles on full charge and features a digital readout that keeps the driver informed on its dashboard.
Besides being environmentally friendly, Harty said he enjoys the car’s interactive features. On the dashboard is an icon of tree that grows in sections as the vehicle moves. The gauge shows the tree growing as the driver operates the vehicle efficiently. If the driver is more reckless or energy-consuming, the tree will lose branches. The car also features a network with its drivers enabling them to compare their driving statistics with fellow Leaf-owners.
There is no award yet for who “grows” the most trees, Harty said.
“Right now it’s just for bragging rights,” he said.
A sign of things to come?
In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for 1 million electric vehicles to be on the road in the country by 2015.
Sales for the vehicle have so far been sluggish, but the Department of Energy estimated in a report released last week that 300,000 of the electric cars in 2015 will be Nissan Leafs.
Vehicles like the Leaf are something the California Air Resources Control Board would like to see more of, said Dimitri Stanich, public information officer for the board.
“San Joaquin Valley is in a desperate way for air quality and every step is an important contribution,” said Stanich.
CARCB’s figures indicate roughly 75 percent of California’s air pollution comes from automobile transportation. The board’s goal is to someday have all vehicles produce zero emissions.
But the green angle isn’t the only benefit to vehicles like the Leaf, Stanich said.
“The benefits he will enjoy go beyond emissions,” Stanich said. “The maintenance requirements are far less.”
The Leaf does not require motor oil or transmission fluid to check and maintain. Although the vehicle doesn’t have a transmission, it operates like it has an automatic transmission, Harty said. The vehicle can be set to park, reverse and drive and the driver isn’t required to do much more than operate the gas, brake and steering wheel, he said.
It also doesn’t require smog checks, something Harty is especially happy about.
“Smog checks are such a pain,” he said. “I won’t miss not doing that with this car. It seems like the only maintenance are the tires and brakes.”
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.