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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Cars

Air Date: Week of

In California, which has the strictest air pollution standards in America, the private electric car is gaining ground. Reporter Jeff Hoffman spent a day with a Bay Area family who gave up a Volvo to test-drive Honda’s new electric car.


CURWOOD: Private electric cars, out of vogue since the turn of the century, are coming back on the market in California. The state is under a mandate to reduce polluting vehicles over the next 4 years. Range is still the big problem, but these cars do boast sharply improved high-tech batteries. And with a small number of working parts, electrics are easy to maintain. So far most car makers are selling or leasing to government or corporate fleets, but GM and Honda have launched pilot programs aimed at ordinary consumers. Reporter Jeff Hoffman spent a day with a San Francisco family helping to pioneer the EV market.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Right. Now, Jean is picking you up in half an hour, at 8:30; no, in 15 minutes.

HOFFMAN: It's breakfast time at the Braunstein's. Steve, Willa, and their 2 sons live on a quiet street of Victorian houses 5 miles from downtown San Francisco. As with most young families, the logistics of getting to work, school, and the grocery, is a big part of daily life.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: (Speaking above her small son) If Alice gets dropped off at Chris's house, then you have Alice, Max, and Chris, and then you can't take Ely.

HOFFMAN: But morning conversation here hasn't quite been the same since last February, when the Braunsteins decided to sell one of their 2 Volvos and lease a Honda EV Plus minivan.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: The person that's driving the furthest within the range of the EV on that particular day is usually the person that gets the EV, because it's much cheaper to run and we just want to put as many miles on it as possible.

HOFFMAN: That might seem counter-intuitive, since the EV-Plus goes only about 100 miles on an overnight charge of its batteries. But Steve, a bassoonist for the San Francisco Symphony, says that's more than enough to meet their needs.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: It's very rare that a day will pass when we drive more than 75 or 80 miles, which is well within the range of the car.

HOFFMAN: Today Willa will drive the EV across the San Francisco Bay to a Berkeley clinic where she works as a part-time X-ray technician. It's about a 30-mile round trip. Steve goes to get the EV ready.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Push the button.

(Opening and shutting sounds)

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Close the little hatch. And we're ready to go. That's easier than stopping at a gas station.

HOFFMAN: Oh yeah. For sure.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: (Laughs) I haven't stopped at a gas station since February 27th.

HOFFMAN: The EV-Plus dashboard provides continually-updated information on charge and range to make sure the driver doesn't get stranded. Honda does provide free towing with the $450 monthly lease, but the Braunsteins have never run out of juice on the road. Steve says not burning fossil fuels makes him feel better about driving.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: You know, I'm not out there in the inflatables with Greenpeace, but we try to do our part. When I make lifestyle decisions I try to think about the environmental consequences.

HOFFMAN: The EV charges with what looks like a big paddle that connects to an industrial-strength device the local utility installed in the Braunsteins' garage. Under the hood it has an electric motor and a pack of batteries where the gasoline engine would be. It has no gears, just a stick for forward and reverse. And of course there's no tailpipe. Otherwise, it looks and performs like any well-designed van. Honda built it from the wheels up as an electric. Earlier EVs were mostly converted internal combustion vehicles with extremely limited range and questionable reliability.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: I wanted to do a conversion 10 years ago, but that didn't quite work out. It was a lot of work to end up with a vehicle that was homemade, basically.

HOFFMAN: Honda pays for insurance and takes care of all maintenance. Subtract the cost of gas, add about $40 to the electric bill, and the EV-Plus ends up costing about $350 a month to operate. About the same as Honda's conventional Odyssey minivan. With the kids' lunches under control, Willa's set to go.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Ready for the big boom? Here it comes.

(The key turns in the lock, some beeps sound)

W. BRAUNSTEIN: We're ready to run. That's it.

(Electric powering up)

HOFFMAN: Indeed, the first thing one notices riding in an EV is how quiet it is. There's just a gentle whirring noise so pedestrians and other drivers often don't hear you coming.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Steve and I have both tried to be very aware when we drive the car that people are programmed for a certain rumble of an engine, and that you don't have this rumble. And you're not programmed to listen to this high-pitched sort of dentist squeal of this EV.

HOFFMAN: Willa says she's been extremely happy with the EV, which is surprisingly powerful and great for getting up San Francisco hills. But she concedes that because of limited range and size, the car isn't for everyone.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: You do have to have a certain driving profile for this car to work for you.

HOFFMAN: And the Braunsteins aren't about to give up their internal combustion habit altogether. For long trips and vacations, they still rev up the Volvo.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Hopefully they'll figure out a way to make these batteries a little more long-distance.

HOFFMAN: That advance could be a number of years away. While technology is improving, batteries remain the Achilles heel of electric vehicles. The nickel-metal hydride batteries in the EV-Plus are the best available, but they cost $20,000, more than a third of the vehicle's theoretical sticker price. That's one reason Honda and other auto makers are heavily subsidizing their EV lease programs.

BIENENFELD: We consider this really to be tuition.

HOFFMAN: Robert Bienenfeld is EV Program Manager for American Honda, which has put several hundred EV-Pluses on the road in California. Despite the losses the company takes on EVs, he says it's learning about consumer interest, which will help design and marketing. Car makers must sell thousands of zero emission vehicles, not only in California but also in New York and Massachusetts. Mr. Bienenfeld says selling that many EVs to consumers is going to be a challenge.

BIENENFELD: With the limited range which is offered by the batteries that are available today and in the near future, it does, unfortunately, look like a fairly limited market.

HOFFMAN: In fact, experts say the new EVs would make perfect commute vehicles or second cars for around-town travel. The average car only gets driven 35 miles a day, says Daniel Sperling, Director of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.

SPERLING: The real challenge is for households to make some minor adaptations in their lifestyle, in their perceptions of how they use vehicles.

HOFFMAN: Honda's Robert Bienenfeld agrees that EVs would meet most people's driving needs. But that's a moot point for auto makers, he says.

BIENENFELD: We can tell them all we want about how it meets most of their needs. And although that may be true, they still have the perception that it's less function for more money. They may need not need that functionality, but we buy cars for our maximum need, not our minimum need.

HOFFMAN: Other technologies in the pipeline may resolve the battery and range problems while meeting the mandate for cleaner air. Toyota and Volvo will soon introduce hybrid electrics, which run on batteries in city driving and switch to gasoline power on the highway. That would help reduce smogs, since gas engines are least efficient and produce the most emissions at low speeds. California recently agreed that auto makers could sell hybrids and get partial credit toward meeting zero emission requirements. Car makers are also at work on clean-burning fuel cells that power electric drive motors. Transportation scholar Daniel Sperling says EVs are an evolutionary step, and they'll share the road with other low-emission vehicles.

SPERLING: Right now we have essentially a transportation monoculture: all vehicles have to serve all purposes and have to go on all roads. And what we need to do is, and in fact we're moving in this direction already, is thinking about vehicles being more specialized. It's very uncertain at this point in time which of these technologies will be superior, which will dominate, and it will probably be a mix of those.

(Ambient voices)

HOFFMAN: It's afternoon and Steve is out doing some errands. The EV is getting a lot of attention. People honk, wave, and ask all kinds of questions.

MAN: You have the motors going?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Yeah, want to hear me rev it up? (No change in quietude) That's it.

MAN: That's pretty cool. (Steve laughs) How is it when you're driving it? Is it fast? I mean, can you go 60?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Oh, sure. It's electronically governed to go no faster than 86.

HOFFMAN: Honda might fret about how to sell EVs to other drivers, but the Braunsteins are sold on theirs. Ironically, they can't keep it; Honda wants it back for research. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in San Francisco.

MAN: Mind if I ask how much?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Four-fifty a month.

MAN: That's the same as my Suburban.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Is that right?

MAN: But a little worse gas mileage in the Suburban. (Steve laughs)



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