Fast Charging Holds Promise for Electrics

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV Electric Car.

In the past year, I’ve been able to sample four modern electric vehicles, the likes of which will be a part of our future transportation culture. I tooled around in the electric Mini Cooper (which was only produced in limited batches for short term lease), and have spent a little bit of time in both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, each coming soon to an auto mall near you.

And just last week, I got to expend some kilowatts behind the wheel of a funky pod-like electric car called the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (pronounced “eye-meev”). The U.S. production model is still more than a year away, but Mitsubishi decided to let a few journalists sample the Japanese Domestic Market version as a preview of what we’ll be seeing on our roads about the time the 2011 holiday shopping season is upon us.

While I’m always thrilled to try out anything new on wheels, this EV had a few quirks. It’s smaller than the eventual North American version, especially in the width. And, the steering wheel is on the right, aka the “wrong” side for our roads, so I kept feeling like I was driving from the passenger seat. The instruments were also metric, so I had to do constant calculations about how fast I was traveling in mph, and also how many miles I was from the battery running out, as the display only showed me kilometers.

Nevertheless, the car was an absolute hoot to drive. Electric vehicles, by their very nature, are quite peppy. If you’ve ever felt that quick snap in a golf cart when taking off from rest, just multiply that by about three and you get the idea that EVs are pretty quick off the line. The i-MiEV is also very quiet, and everything about it was built for efficiency.

The big downside to electric cars is that they can’t compare with the “drive anywhere, anytime” aspect of internal combustion vehicles that we’ve all become accustomed to. Commuting to work? No problem, there’s plenty of range. Need to stop at the store? Piece of cake. The i-MiEV has a range of approximately 45-60 miles on a full charge. That’s way less than what the much larger Leaf will do (around 100), though Mitsubishi promises that the U.S. version will have significantly more range that these test fleet cars.

Pretty much anyone who buys or leases one of the new EVs will also have a charger installed at their home that will operate at 220-240 volts and replenish a fully depleted battery in about six hours or less. A cord to get power from a conventional 110 volt household-type outlet will also be included (and that’s what my test car had), but the charging times really lengthen at that voltage, to somewhere around 12-14 hours.

What if you need to do a lot of driving during the day? Sure, a regular commute is easy to plan for, but this is Southern California, where we live in our cars and do all sorts of ancillary miles in our busy lives. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could quickly recharge your EV’s battery while out and about? You’ll be able to.

I paid a visit to a company called AeroVironment in Monrovia. They’re one of the leading makers of what are known as rapid chargers. Part of their coming product line includes a 480 volt charger that can take an EV battery from nearly drained to 80% full in about a half hour. Yep, in about the time it takes to have lunch or do some shopping, your electric car can be charged up for miles and miles of driving.

By the time I got a quick tour of the company’s facility and did an on-camera interview with one of their executives (approximately 25 minutes), my i-MiEV got, thanks to their rapid charger, within two notches of the “full” mark on its charge indicator.

The plan is that these high-voltage units would be installed at commercial or municipal locations. Think parking garages, shopping malls, restaurants, coffee houses, movie theatres and so on. Any place people and their electric cars are going to be idle for a little while could be a candidate for a rapid charging station.

While some cities might provide the juice for free (think Santa Monica), other places could charge a flat or per-kilowatt fee for the juice. Or maybe businesses will use it to attract customers, much the way some restaurant and coffee chains are offering free wireless Internet. The possibilities are almost endless.

Certainly this won’t all happen overnight. First, the electric vehicles themselves have to get out into circulation. But if early orders for the Nissan Leaf are any indication (already at about 20,000), there’s going to be a demand for quick charges of the batteries.

If you’re excited about the idea of an electric car, the future looks pretty bright.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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