Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

fuel economy

A new kind of car

Our new Nissan Leaf

After much waiting, our new Nissan Leaf is finally here. I picked it up this afternoon. It’s definitely a new kind of car — not only is it fully electric, but in many respects it seems a bit like a computer on wheels. It goes faster than any computer, though. Driving on Oak Ridge Turnpike, I noticed that I was going too fast — my guess is that since there’s no engine noise, I wasn’t getting the auditory feedback that I’m accustomed to.

One thing that will take some getting used to is the fact that many of the major controls of the vehicle seem to be closely related to the controls for the radio — it’s all about communication, I guess.

The Nissan Leaf dashboard display is both totally familiar and totally strange.

The dashboard display behind the steering wheel includes the speed and the odometer reading (just like a gas-powered car), some interesting symbols that measure current power utilization — how hard the car is either using power or regenerating the battery while decelerating or braking, a display that looks like a gas gauge but indicates how much charge is left — measured in miles remaining on the battery, and a temperature gauge that shows the temperature of the battery. I don’t yet know what we are supposed to do if the battery starts getting “too hot.” There’s a coolant reservoir under the hood, but I still don’t know where the coolant circulates and what part of the car it cools (maybe it cools the battery — or maybe it’s part of the HVAC system).

There’s a touch screen with a complicated collection of displays — far more than in our Toyota Prius. I think that it’s probably best to ignore this touch screen while driving, as the Google navigation maps, energy use details, radio station displays, heating/cooling details, etc., could be very distracting. The touchscreen display is where I saw a readout indicating that the car was getting 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, on average.

Electronic display on the EV charger mounted on our carport wall.

Both the car and the plug-in charger are programmable devices that can be told when to charge the car (I don’t know which device takes priority if they have different programming), so the battery is scheduled to get recharged in the middle of the night, when baseload electricity generating facilities (nuclear power plants, plus some coal-fired plants) typically crank out more electricity than the grid needs. At this time, Oak Ridge residential customers pay the same price for that off-peak power as we do for peak power during the day, so we’re not saving any money by charging at night, but over the next few years that’s expected to change. TVA recently started charging the city a dual rate that has both a monthly usage (kilowatt hours) component and a peak demand component (based on the hour each month that the city had the highest usage). Over the next several years, they’ll introduce peak and off-peak rates, and the city will begin to pass differential rates on to consumers — encouraging us to shift the timing of some of our electric use. Until then, I guess we’re practicing for that future — and our car and our charger will be sending data to Department of Energy researchers to help them understand and model how electric cars will interact with the electricity grid and the transportation system in future years.


Saving energy and avoiding Toyota safety issues

One event planned for Earth Day 2010 in Oak Ridge is the “Oak Ridge Gran Prius.” This will be a rally event challenging participants to get the best gas mileage driving a Toyota Prius across town on a defined course — thus letting people (particularly public officials who make decisions on buying vehicles) find out what it’s like to drive a hybrid car. I think it’s a great idea, but lately whenever Toyotas come up in conversation, somebody mentions the safety recalls on various models. My household’s Toyota Prius isn’t subject to either the accelerator-pedal issue or the braking problem, but those recalls (not to mention the media attention they’ve gotten) are still troubling for just about anybody who drives any kind of Toyota — and is likely to discourage some people from adopting energy-saving hybrid auto technology.

One thing that’s been missing from the U.S. media is advice on what to do about these problems (other than taking the car to the dealer for a repair). The BBC website, however, has some good advice: How do you stop a car with a jammed accelerator? advises drivers to put on the brakes, shift the car into neutral (of course!) — and if those measures don’t work, switch off the ignition (but keep the key in place to avoid locking the steering wheel). We need more of that kind of common-sense practical advice…


Looking across the county line at Knox’s gas hogs

If we thought that Oak Ridge should cut back on fuel use by city vehicles, consider Knox County, where it seems (according to today’s News Sentinel) that there are 136 county-owned take-home vehicles (not even including the sheriff’s department), including 52 SUVs, 46 pickup trucks (most of them 3/4-ton Ford F-250s), and 6 “vans or buses.” That’s an eye-poppingly large number of take-home vehicles, and with typical fuel efficiencies in the range of 12-15 mpg, the vehicles that county officials drive are using up more of the county’s taxpayer money and emitting more CO2 and air pollutants than most of us thought possible.

I recognize that some of these employees need to travel to development sites and other areas where 4-wheel drive is needed, and sometimes they need to carry a lot of people or material. But that doesn’t mean that every department head needs to tool around town in a big truck or full-size SUV 7 days a week. I figure that this is mainly a cultural thing — big egos demand big, powerful vehicles. Maybe this is one of those situations where the voice of the people can help bring cultural change.

Once again, Knox County is making the City of Oak Ridge look good by comparison, but I know that our city government also could learn to get by with a less muscular vehicle fleet.