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My First Day With an EV1 From EV Rental Cars

EV1 and me!

Back in June 1998, I first heard that there was a move afoot at Budget Car & Truck Rental near the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to begin renting electric vehicles (EVs) and specifically EV1s, and I've been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to get my mitts on one for more than a round-the-block test drive. (Of course, Saturn dealers will lend you an EV1 for a weekend as an "extended test drive," but only when you're seriously thinking of getting one, which I won't be until they start selling rather than just leasing them!) EV Rental Cars had their grand opening on Wednesday, 9 December 1998, which I missed because I was on a business trip; however, they actually began renting out vehicles on Friday, 18 December, and I grabbed the earliest opportunity I could to get an EV1 (a red one!) before I went away for Christmas, on Monday, 21 December.

EV1 at EV Rental Cars

You can see their toll-free phone number, 1-877-EV-RENTAL, on the license plate frame; if you ever should come into Los Angeles and need a car for your visit, you know whom to call! (They also plan to open locations at other area airports soon.) For business trips near the airport and downtown especially, airport to hotel to jobsite to hotel to airport, an electric car is ideal: the short-distance driving is easily handled by an EV, and it's also particularly bad for pollution from a gasoline car since the engine never has a chance to get fully warmed up. Thus the EV Rental Cars folks have been able to obtain some air-quality funding to hold the rental rates down to where they are affordable for business or personal use; the introductory rate of $39.95 a day is about what you'd pay for an ordinary compact car.

EV1s at EV Rental Cars chargersFord Rangers at EV Rental Cars chargers

The operation that they have set up at Budget-LAX is pretty impressive; there are more EV chargers there than I have ever seen in one place before! At present they have nine General Motors EV1s, and two Ford Ranger electric pickups (they also had a couple more onsite that were on loan from Ford). They are planning to get more Rangers, including some with nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for longer range and less temperature sensitivity, and in the next few weeks to months they will be adding the Honda EV Plus and Toyota RAV4-EV. Over a year or so they also plan to add the Nissan Altra and Dodge EPIC minivan to their electric lineup, and also to begin renting natural-gas vehicles, and to convert the Budget shuttle buses to natural gas as well.

So how did my first day with an EV1 go? Well, I lost count of to how many friends and colleagues at work I gave test-rides around the parking lot or around the block--a dozen or so, including one corporate officer (i.e., somebody for whom the company already leases a car, and who might just possibly be persuaded to trade in that ol' Pontiac Grand Am for something more interesting!). I had buttonholed the company president at the Security and Safety Fair this spring and pointed out to him the EV1 that Saturn of Torrance had as part of their auto safety display, and I had hoped to pull him in for a test-ride, but he was out of town.

Actually, about half of the driving (just 41 miles) I did was on those test rides; one day isn't enough time to do much here-and-there-ing, so I'll rent for a weekend sometime next year (and offer test rides after church, most likely!). I learned a few things even in this brief exposure, though; one is that when they say that lead-acid batteries don't like cold weather, they mean it! There's a reason that the EV1 is only being offered in relatively warm climates; the standard "real-world" range quoted is 60-90 miles on a full charge, but the temperatures were in the forties to low fifties at most on Monday, and the "smart" range-meter on the car gave me around 37 miles for the full-charge range. That's still plenty for most of the business trips I've ever taken, but warmer weather would sure be welcome, as will the increased availability of NiMH batteries that (1) about double the warm-weather range, to 120-160 miles, and (2) are much less affected by cold than lead-acid batteries. (NiMH batteries are available instead of the standard advanced lead-acid pack for less than 20% more on the monthly lease payment in the 1999 EV1.)

To ensure that you don't run out of "juice", the EV Rental folks go over your plans with you to make sure you know how far you can go on a single charge, and they also provide you with a 110-volt "opportunity charger" (part of the standard 1997 EV1 equipment, though it's being deleted on the 1999s, at least for the NiMH version) and a book of maps of the numerous public recharging facilities in the area. I parked at Saturn of Torrance for half an hour while I went across the street and had dinner, which was long enough to bring the battery pack from 20% to 53% capacity and leave me a comfortable margin for getting the car back to LAX the next morning.

The other thing I learned was that you drive a lot differently from a conventional car, if you're interested in maximizing your range. The EV1 (like all other modern electric vehicles) has regenerative braking, meaning that when you apply the brakes some or even most of the slowing down is done by the motor, which turns itself into a generator and converts your energy of motion back into electricity to recharge the battery pack. There are also friction brakes, of course, which come into play when you need to slow down faster than the motor/generator is able to absorb the energy. In addition, there's a "coastdown" button that gives you a choice of what happens when you lift off the accelerator but don't apply the brake: if it is off the vehicle just rolls, like a manual-transmission car with the clutch disengaged, and if it is on then the regenerative braking is put into play, so that you slow down much as an ordinary car will when you downshift and apply "engine braking".

Using the coastdown mode to slow down as you approach a stop means that you don't have to use the friction brakes much at all, so the energy of motion ends up back in the battery pack rather than wasted as heat in the brake discs and pads, which can extend your driving range by (so I've heard) about a third. However, it also means you start slowing down well before other cars do; since all of a conventional car's energy of motion is going to go into heating the brakes anyway, there's not much incentive for the driver behind you to brake as gently as you end up doing with an EV1 in coastdown mode, and so he will start crowding your rear bumper as you slow down. This situation often annoys me when I'm coming to a stop behind somebody on my motorcycle; even a big-engine bike like a Harley likes to rev higher than most cars, so you end up slipping the clutch to keep from stalling as the guy ahead of you creeps along. So I guess the "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" solution is for me to stay in the slow lane while driving an EV1, at least if I'm conserving range by using the coastdown mode, despite the fact that an EV1 can out-accelerate most other cars on the road! [I have subsequently learned that you still get most of the energy back into the battery if you apply the brake pedal moderately, since the power control system steps up the amount of regenerative braking before it starts using the friction brakes heavily. Thus you don't have to coast to a stop quite as gently as I did while writing this report, and you'll still get good recovery of energy.]

Terry O'Day of EV Rental Cars

Many thanks to Terry O'Day (in the photo above), the manager of EV Rental, who was my main contact, and also to Joseph Borges Jr. of EV Rental and Jim Reid, Andrew Rodriguez, and Sabrina Tibbs of Budget. The opening of EV Rental Cars has generated a significant amount of media attention; I saw articles in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (national edition), and a crew from CNN was there to interview Terry, Joseph, and their next customer about the time I showed up to return the car on 22 December; I don't know if there was a report on the TV, but they did post a brief article on the CNN website. The idea behind EV Rental Cars is not only to clean the air directly but also to expose people to electric vehicles in real-world use, rather than at an auto show; considering the amount of auto renting that goes on at an airport the size of LAX, they sure picked a good place to do it, and I wish them success!

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new 22 December 1998, revised 12 September 2002