by Chelsea Sexton
Slanted, anti-EV reporting is hardly a new thing, and I suspect we're in for a lot more of it in 2011 as plug-in vehicles hit showrooms. But the recent BBC "Mini Adventure," a 484-mile journey from London to Edinburgh in a Mini E, has caught fire like nothing I've seen in a while.
Helen Keller could have predicted the outcome of the trip itself:. Cold weather affected both comfort and range, and combined with lack of abundant infrastructure, created a less than optimal experience for the BBC's Brian Milligan, who finally made it to the end of his journey after four days and at an average speed of 6 mph (factoring in charging time).
Calling the BBC's bluff
He whined about the electric car's shortcomings every step of the way, prompting EV proponents to cry foul over the fact that he chose a "prototype" Mini E, and not a true production car. On Day 3, David Peilow, a Tesla "superfan", called shenanigans and borrowed a new Roadster 2.5 from the London store. He drove it to Edinburgh in one day, beating Milligan handily even while stopping twice to recharge.
While a conversion, the Mini E has roughly the same 100-mile optimum range as other "mainstream" production EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus, so the "not representative of a production car" complaint is a little anemic.
Back and forth
A couple of the forthcoming EVs use a more robust thermal management system, which would have helped keep the range from dropping to the 70-80 miles the BBC experienced, but the extra 20 miles per charge would hardly have made a meaningful difference in the overall trip.
Neither, in this case, would four seats instead of the Mini E's two. For its part, the BBC countered that using the most expensive (if longest-range) production EV to make the trip is hardly playing fair either. As each side has hurled stones, the catfight has gotten more coverage than the cars, and an average reader could hardly be faulted for deciding that electric cars are more trouble than they're worth.
2011 Tesla Roadster Sport. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.
Electric-car fans: part of the problem
Frustratingly, EV proponents are part of the problem on this front. In general, I’m a cheerleader for most grassroots efforts to promote electric cars. They are often inspiring and entertaining, and re-affirm that there is indeed a very human movement behind this technology.
But some mash-up of rabid enthusiasm, scarce resources, and hereditary passion for the open road has started to take a misguided path to a seemingly inevitable conclusion that is the EV road trip.
I don’t mean the trips that people take for the personal novelty of it, or even the challenge of it, or because they’ve a fun story to tell. My issue is with the trips that attempt to prove something about the convenience and practicality of a pure electric car by driving it hundreds or thousands of miles.
Racing Green Endurance electric car, Imperial College, London, June 2010
Distance runs just keep coming
And yet, EV proponents- both consumers and those within automakers- have been doing that long before the BBC used the same mechanism to make the opposite point.
These trips are often a function of limited resources, financial and otherwise. Someone without much money or a large team can still strike out on his own in a car and hope to catch some attention along the way.
Unfortunately, this same lack of resources usually results in something of a kamikaze approach, without nearly enough planning, support, technical resources, or- should things really go south, a “Plan B”. Anything that does go wrong is magnified.
Triumph of hope over experience
Even if all goes well, they’ve unwittingly fed the monster, artificially emphasizing both limited range and more infrastructure than is truly needed for typical use of these vehicles. From that perspective, we’ve been fortunate that these adventures rarely draw the press the participants are hoping for.
But in a triumph of hope over example each new group thinks their trip will be different, and in the last few years the trips have become more frequent and more ambitious.
I'm not at all excusing bad reporting by the BBC- nor any of the other outlets that have used the same long-distance trip device to make the same point. I loved Peilow's impulsive effort to beat Milligan at his own absurd game, and that Tesla as a company supported him in it.
The public campaign that flogged the BBC’s unbalanced EV coverage should not only be extended to other outlets, but, spun more positively, could form the basis of a great "for-consumers-by-consumers" educational campaign about the real-world experience of using a plug-in car.
Electric cars are mostly urban cars
But I’ll be blunt: trying to convincingly prove (or disprove) the viability of a pure electric vehicle by driving it cross country is about as logical as proving the viability of a microwave oven by using it to cook your Thanksgiving turkey. You can force it, but it ain’t gonna be pretty--and it proves nothing about the everyday experience of using the technology.
2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010
Electric vehicles are primarily urban vehicles, and most households who acquire one will have at least one additional car that likely runs on gasoline. Given that the Roadster stopped to recharge for 9 hours, the gas car would still have made the trip in half the time. It’s true that fast charging will help, and could multiply the standard 100-mile EV range in terms of feasible trip length.
But in addition to concerns about battery degradation, even fast charging will not often compete with alternative options for truly long trips. People will continue to fly or take the other car in most cases- and that's OK. It takes nothing away from the fact that electric cars are brilliant for many of the day-to-day things that gas cars are not.
Pick cars for duties
That my husband’s (gas) smart car can’t hold the whole family doesn’t make him love commuting in it any less. We, as advocates, need to stay focused on the 90 percent and stop trying to apologize for the 10 percent. There's no car on the road today that's all things to all people; that's unlikely to change tomorrow.
2011 Chevrolet Volt test drive, Michigan, October 2010
Those who want to own one vehicle and for whom long, frequent road trips are the goal will be happier in a hybrid or plug-in hybrid. Suggesting otherwise with a PR stunt isn’t in anyone’s best interest, and we have no right to be either surprised or unhappy when someone like the BBC uses that very stunt against us.
As we fault the media, we must also recognize our role in it.
Don't feed the monster
Some people love traveling by RV; it’s not as quick as other methods, but it’s part of the overall experience. Others will find the same to be true about hitting the road in an electric car, and those folks should take that trip--for the experience of it.
But, please, quit trying to prove something to the world about electric cars along the way.
The author of this post, Chelsea Sexton, is well known in electric-car advocacy circles. As a member of the Chevrolet Volt Advisory Board, she received a 2011 Volt to assess before the cars went on sale last month. The views expressed in this piece are her own.